Writing tenses: 5 tips to get past, present and future right

Understanding how to use writing tenses is challenging. How do you mix past, present and future tense without making the reader giddy? What is the difference between ‘simple’ and ‘perfect’ tense? Read this simple guide for answers to these questions and more:

First, definitions of writing tenses

In English, we have so-called ‘simple’ and ‘perfect’ tenses in the past, present and future. The simple tense merely conveys action in the time narrated. For example:

Past (simple) tense: Sarah ran to the store.
Present (simple) tense: Sarah runs to the store.
Future (simple) tense: Sarah will run to the store

Perfect tense uses the different forms of the auxiliary verb ‘has’ plus the main verb to show actions that have taken place already (or will/may still take place). Here’s the above example sentence in each tense, in perfect form:

Past perfect: Sarah had run to the store.
Present perfect: Sarah has run to the store.
Future perfect: Sarah will have run to the store.

In the past perfect, Sarah’s run is an earlier event in a narrative past:

Sarah had run to the store many times uneventfully so she wasn’t at all prepared for what she saw that morning.

You could use the future perfect tense to show that Sarah’s plans will not impact on another event even further in the future. For example:

Sarah will have run to the store by the time you get here so we won’t be late.

(You could also say ‘Sarah will be back from the store by the time you get here so we won’t be late.’ This is a simpler option using the future tense with the infinitive ‘to be’.) Here are some tips for using the tenses in a novel:

1. Decide which writing tenses would work best for your story

The majority of novels are written using simple past tense and the third person:

‘She ran her usual route to the store, but as she rounded the corner she came upon a disturbing sight.’

When you start drafting a novel or a scene, think about the merits of each tense. The present tense, for example, has the virtue of:

  • Immediacy: The action unfolds in the same narrative moment as the reader experiences it (there is no temporal distance: Each action happens now)
  • Simplicity: It’s undeniably easier to write ‘She runs her usual route to the store’ then to juggle all sorts of remote times using auxiliary verbs

Sometimes authors are especially creative in combining tense and POV. In Italo Calvino’s postmodern classic, If on a winter’s night a traveler (1979), the entire story is told in the present tense, in the second person. This has the effect of a ‘choose-your-own-adventure’ novel. To rewrite Sarah’s story in the same tense and POV:

You run your usual route to the store, but as you round the corner you come upon a disturbing sight.

This tense choice is smart for Calvino’s novel since it increases the puzzling nature of the story. In If on a winter’s night a traveler, you, the reader, are a character who buys Calvino’s novel If on a winter’s night a traveler, only to discover that there are pages missing. When you attempt to return it, you get sent on a wild goose chase after the book you want.

Tense itself can enliven an element of your story’s narration. In a thriller novel, for example, you can write tense scenes in first person for a sense of present danger:

A muffled shot. He sits up in bed, tensed and listening. Can’t hear much other than the wind scraping branches along the gutter.

2. Avoid losing clarity when mixing tenses

Because stories show us chains and sequences of events, often we need to jump back and forth between earlier and present scenes and times. This is especially true in novels where characters’ memories form a crucial part of the narrative.

It’s confusing when an author changes tense in the middle of a scene. The fragmented break in continuity makes it hard to place actions in relation to each other. For example:

Sarah runs her usual route to the store. As she turned the corner, she came upon a disturbing scene.

This is wrong because the verbs do not consistently use the same tense, even though it is clear (from context) that Sarah’s run is a continuous action in a single scene.

Ursula K. Le Guin offers excellent advice on mixing past and present in her writing manual, Steering the Craft:

‘It is highly probably that if you go back and forth between past and present tense, if you switch the tense of your narrative frequently and without some kind of signal (a line break, a dingbat,a new chapter) your reader will get all mixed up as to what happened before what and what’s happening after which and when we are, or were, at the moment.’

In short, make sure there are clear breaks between entire sections set in different narrative references.

3: Mix the tenses for colour and variety

Le Guin raises a good point about writing tenses. Le Guin describes the downside of telling a story almost exclusively in present tense:

‘It all rather sounds alike…it’s bland, predictable, risk-free. All too often, it’s McProse. The wealth and complexity of our verb forms is part of the color of the language. Using only one tense is like having a whole set of oil paints and using only pink.’

Instead mix different tenses where appropriate, but signal changes between time settings:

For example:

That morning, she had run her usual route to the store. As she turned the corner, she had came upon a disturbing scene. Apart from the glass and metal sprayed across the road like some outgoing tide’s deposit, there were what looked like two stretchers, mostly eclipsed from view by a swarm of emergency workers.

Now, safely home, she decided to lie down, all the while trying to get that scene out of her mind.

Mixing the tenses can help to show the cause and effect of interlocking events. The use of the past perfect to describe the scene of an accident in the example above is effective because the past perfect shows what is already complete. It gives it an irrevocable quality, the quality of a haunting, living-on-in-memory event. Finished, but not finished in the character’s mind’s eye.

4. Practice showing shadowy past or present actions using verb forms

In addition to simple and perfect tenses, there are different ‘moods’ that show verbs as hypothetical or possible actions. In addition to the indicative mood (‘she runs to the store’) there is also the subjunctive mood (‘If she runs to the store’) and the potential mood (‘she may run to the store’).

The different moods are useful because they can show possibilities and scenarios that might have happened, or might still happen, under different circumstances. Here are examples for correct uses for each of the tenses (in active voice):

Subjunctive mood:

Present tense: If she runs to the store…
Past tense: If she ran to the store…
Future tense: If she should run to the store…
Present perfect tense: If she has run to the store…
Past perfect tense: If she had run to the store…
Future perfect tense: If she should have run to the store….

Think of this mood as setting up a possibility. For example: ‘If she runs to the store, she better be quick because we’re leaving in 5.’

The potential mood helps us show shadowy, more hypothetical, uncertain scenarios:

Present tense: She may run to the store.
Present perfect tense: She may have run to the store.
Past perfect: She might have run to the store.

In each of these examples, the action is a possibility and the mood (using the various forms of ‘may’) shows this. These verb moods in conjunction with tense are useful. They help us describe situations in which a narrator or character does not have full knowledge of events, or is wondering how events might pan out.

5. Practice rewriting paragraphs in different tenses

It’s often easiest to get the hang of tense by doing. Pick a paragraph by an author and rewrite in each of the tenses. Here, for example, is a paragraph from David Sedaris’ essay, ‘Buddy, Can you Spare a Tie?’:

‘The only expensive thing I actually wear is a navy blue cashmere sweater. It cost four hundred dollars and looks like it was wrestled from the mouth of a tiger. “What a shame,” the dry cleaner said the first time I brought it in. The sweater had been folded into a loaf-sized bundle, and she stroked it, the way you might a freshly dead rabbit.’

Rewritten in past simple tense:

‘The only expensive thing I actually wore was a navy blue cashmere sweater. It cost four hundred dollars and looked like it was wrestled from the mouth of a tiger. “What a shame,” the dry cleaner said the first time I brought it in. The sweater was folded into a loaf-sized bundle, and she stroked it, the way you might a freshly dead rabbit.’

Here is the same passage in past perfect:

‘The only expensive thing I had actually worn was a navy blue cashmere sweater. It had cost four hundred dollars and had looked like it had been wrestled from the mouth of a tiger. “What a shame,” the dry cleaner had said, the first time I brought it in. The sweater had been folded into a loaf-sized bundle, and she had stroked it, the way you might a freshly dead rabbit.’

The effect is of a character describing the defining experiences before another event (before buying an even more expensive item of clothing, for example). For example, you could write ‘Before the lavish suit, the only expensive thing…’ before the paragraph.

To perfect writing tenses, make your own exercises and practice rewriting extracts from your story in each tense to see the changing effect this has on your narrative.

Do you need feedback on your use of tense in a story? Join Now Novel and get helpful critiques that will help you improve your use of tense.

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  • A fine explanation of tenses. A subject often ignored, having been overlooked except by students of language. In short, changes in tense are great aids to tension.

    • Thanks, Bob! It’s true that it’s not discussed as commonly as certain other topics such as characterization.

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