The tense of the story means when it is happening, either in the past or the present. This gets into grammar a bit more than other topics, but I am going to try to keep it very simple.
How Many Tenses are There?
When we think of verb tenses, usually we think of three: past, present, and future. However, if you do an online search you will see places saying that English has 12 or even 16 tenses. These are all important but when you write fiction, you only need to be concerned with two main types: past and present: either the story happened before or it is happening now.
How to Choose a Tense
Past tense is the default tense for storytelling. After all, in real life, you cannot tell a story until after it’s happened.
Yesterday was insane. First, I missed the bus and then a dog stole my backpack. After that, a talking crocodile came to our school to talk to us about the dangers of using drugs you find on the ground.
In the past, almost all stories were written in the past tense. The present tense has become more popular these days, but past tense is still the normal one. Go to your library or bookstore and open a book and it will probably be in past tense.
It is very rare that in real life you would tell a story in the present tense, especially if the person you are talking to is with you. It might happen if you are talking on the phone to someone as the story is happening.
Hey Mom, I’m at the store and a woman that looks like Grandma Hodges is waving at me. Didn’t she die like ten years ago? Now she’s pulling out a baseball bat and attacking the bread aisle.
The present tense is becoming more popular in stories because it makes the reader feel closer to the story since it is happening now. Combined with the first person point of view (see the post on Point of View) and this can make a very personal, intense story.
The room is dark and I feel the cold seeping into my knees from the bare concrete floor. My muscles are aching, but I don’t dare move. The strange woman told me not to stand up and if I disobey her again, I know I will be in real trouble.
We are right there with the character as they are going through the story which makes it tenser and so more engaging for the reader. This doesn’t mean that present tense is better, although it might be better for some types of stories. In the end, it is up to you which you use. In the next section, let’s look at how to use each tense.
Using Each Tense
For this one, I will start with present tense since it’s a bit clearer.
The two main constructions you use when writing in the present are:
I eat. (simple present)
I am eating. (continuous present)
You have probably learned the difference between these in English class and when you should use each. However, for writing stories, you will almost always use the first one: simple present. For one thing it’s shorter, which is important in a story. Imagine reading a story like this:
I’m sitting at the table and drinking coffee. My friend is walking towards me. He’s looking upset. He is talking now, saying how his family is moving to Antarctica tomorrow.
Besides being slightly ungrammatical in parts, this is also exhausting to read since it sounds like a sports commentator yelling out a play-by-play of what’s happening in a game. You notice that the example I gave before of Grandma Hodges in the grocery store was mostly -ing verbs. That is because the person on the phone is narrating what is happening. But for fiction stories we don’t write like that.
The only time you should normally use the -ing form is for long actions that interrupted by shorter actions.
I am watching TV when I see a commercial for pink bananas (long action: watching, short action: see)
The sun is rising when I wake. (long action: rising, short action: wake)
Writing in the past tense is the same as present except it’s all past.
He ate. (simple past)
He was eating. (continuous past)
Again, you use the simple form except for long actions that get interrupted by a shorter action.
Summary Table Here is a summary of the tenses to use in different situations.
When it comes to tense, think of dialogue as a bubble. Whatever is inside the quotation marks (“”) don’t have to follow the tense of the story. We see this especially when we are writing in past tense.
“Your homework for tomorrow is to collect one dinosaur egg,” the teacher said. He sounded tired. “And no dragon eggs, this time, Billy like you gave me last time. I will be watching.” The class nodded and looked at Billy.
Everything outside the quotation marks is past tense but inside them, it can be anything (past, present and future, in this case.) This is also the case for other kinds of dialogue, like thinking or texting (see the post on Dialogue).
He’s really strong, I thought as I fell down. Maybe he can help me take over the world.
This might seem confusing at first since there are no quotation marks (he is thinking, not speaking out loud). However, we can tell that everything in present tense is what he is thinking and the rest is what is happening in the story.
Besides in dialogue, you should not switch tenses in a story. There are times when writers do this, like if they are showing a flashback and want to write it in past tense. However, unless you have a very good reason, don’t do this.
Whatever you do, don’t switch tenses in the middle of a scene. This causes confusion for the reader and as I always say, confusion is bad.
This is a confusing part of writing in the past tense, so I wanted to quickly mention it here. For example, the word “today” means “this day”, or the one right now. In other words, it is present tense. So, can we use it when we write in the past tense? Here is a summary of some time expressions and how they are different in present and past tense
Note: simple time expressions that use in, at, or on are the same in all tenses.
In 5 minutes
Now it’s your turn
- Look at the book you are reading or ones you’ve recently read. Are they in past or present tense? Would the story be different if it was in a different tense?
- Write two short stories, one in past tense and one in present tense. Does the tense change the feeling of the story at all? If so, how? Which tense do you prefer and why?
If you have any questions about writing or other topics you want me to talk about in Writing Corner, just send me an email at email@example.com.
3 Comments Add yours
David, this really impressed me since, I vary in the then and now. I learned it had to be one or the other, a great lesson since, I had no idea I vacillated between the two. This reminded me of the chapter in Elements of Style called, Omit Needless Words. I’m really awed. Am going to read it again. Your Impressed Friend 🙂
Thank you. I learned a lot by teaching grammar for so many years. I had no idea about any of that stuff before.
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