Yes, it’s a pain but we all have to do it. When we sit down to write, we first have to choose our tense. It’s supposed to be the most basic of decisions we make as writers, but our choice not only affects the way we write and our choice of words, it can affect the whole cadence of our narrative.
Written tense, also grammatical tense, is used to indicate time. English has three main tenses used in writing: past (before now), present (now) and future (after now). All have their uses and their quirks.
As the name implies, this tense deals with events that have already occurred. It is the traditional tense used in fiction, especially longer narratives and because of its heritage, it tends to be the one writers are most comfortable with. As past tense can refer to events that happened moments ago or eons, it allows a mechanism to easily move around in time. Thousands of years can pass in a simple sentence or focus can shift from the recent to the distant past without interrupting the flow of the story.
Present tense deals with events as they unfold to your characters and, by proxy, readers. It offers a sense of immediacy to the narrative, often creating faster paced prose than the past and future tenses. It isn’t as common in adult fiction and, as a result, some writers can have difficultly sustaining it throughout, often slipping back into the familiar past tense. Present tense best serves a first-person perspective and provides a greater focus on voice (both the characters and the authors).
Last, but not least, we come to future tense. Future tense covers events that are yet to happen be it tomorrow or in the distant future. It is the rarest tense in fiction and incredibly difficult to master. The average reader, unfamiliar with the format, can find it hard to read. It’s a tense best used for short stories and flash fiction. Future tense is perfect where the narrative calls for an air of uncertainty.
Tips when using tenses
1. Let your story dictate its own tense
Most stories know which tense they best fit; it comes naturally. Listen to them and don’t be afraid to change if the story isn’t working. Sometimes the only thing keeping a good story from being great is the wrong tense.
When writing in a tense you don’t often use, it pays to read other works written in that tense. Not only will it give you a feel for it, it will also give you an insight into the way other authors have used it to their advantage.
3. Keep it consistent
There’s nothing harder to read than a story that switches tenses (gadget instruction books accepted), especially one that switches in the middle of a paragraph or even a sentence.
4. Keep tense changes to breaks
Where the story calls for changes in tense, keep them at logical break points e.g. chapters and page breaks.
5. Does it flow?
The right tense will give the story the right rhythm. It will practically sing to you from the page.
6. Check, check and check again
Unfamiliar tenses are riddled with minefields. When we are caught up in drafting, it is all too easy to slip back into the more comfortable tenses. Check your work. Weed out anywhere you may have slipped back into old habits. Rest it and then check it again. I guarantee you’ll find ones you missed the first time.
Next week: Differing Perspectives