The Definition of Verb Tenses
When speaking to other people, we often switch tenses, especially when we’re excited: “I was walking in the woods by myself one day when I saw a bear. I froze solid, not even breathing, and I’m praying he won’t look at me. But then he looks over and sees me. I’m so scared, I don’t know what to do, so I scream and scream!” Here, you can almost hear the speaker’s sigh of relief as he continues, “And then that bear looked at me like I was crazy and just walked away.”
In speech, our listeners can hear pitch, intonation, tone, and volume. They can even see visual cues, if we’re talking face-to-face. They then use that information to follow a story, usually without ever realizing that we employed multiple tenses to describe a single event.
When we write, however, the reader doesn’t have the benefit of hearing us speak or seeing our gestures and expressions, so mixing past, present, and future tenses can make for confused readers. (Maybe you even got confused reading that opening passage?) How, then, does an author navigate tenses with professional finesse, not only choosing the best tense but also sticking to it through flashbacks and/or foreshadowing? To come to that decision, the author first needs to consider the most commonly used verb tenses.
Verb tenses have six main types:
- Simple Past: The kitten played.
- Past Perfect: The kitten had played.
- Simple Present: The kitten plays.
- Present Perfect: The kitten has played.
- Simple Future: The kitten will play.
- Future Perfect: The kitten will have played.
Choosing the tense of your book is ultimately a matter of personal preference, but each has its own advantages and disadvantages. For example, writing in the present tense can convey a sense of immediacy, but it can also be limiting. Why? Because when we are in the middle of an experience, we haven’t yet had the time or distance to form a deep understanding of why it happened. Also, although while the present tense is a popular choice for genres like YA, not all readers enjoy it, and some even claim it can be distracting.(2)
Past tense is more traditional and works well in most situations, including when you need to add flashbacks and/or flash-forwards. The trouble is that if the story is told in first-person point of view, writing in the past tense immediately informs the reader that the narrator survived his or her story. After all, if he hadn’t, there would be no one to tell the tale! Past tense also makes it easy to slip into telling, rather than showing.(3)
Of course, as we saw in the list above, there are more tenses than just present and past, and the best way to choose the right tense for your manuscript is to research the genre in which you’re writing, paying special attention to the reviews. Learn what sells best, what readers avoid, and the reasons for both. Use the information to help determine what will work best for your own book.
No matter which tense you ultimately choose, remember that the entire book should be consistent. That means if you begin a sentence, a paragraph, or a chapter in the past tense, you should continue with that tense throughout the entire book.
There are four exceptions to this rule:
- Dialogue: Because conversation is meant to be written in a natural, everyday style, it can also change back and forth between tenses, as in our opening example.
Flashbacks: The main tense of your book determines the tense of any flashbacks.
For books written in the present tense, flashbacks stay strictly in simple past tense (typically, a verb + “ed”).
- Jack remembers himself as a young boy, growing up on his great-grandfather’s farm. The rhythm of life for him and his family was distinct and, if not easy, at least dependable. They got up early in the morning to begin the daily grind. There wasn’t a moment’s rest until late afternoon.
For books written in the past tense, flashbacks begin in the past perfect tense, then change to simple past tense. Why the change? Because reading past perfect can become tedious. Consider the following selection, written solely in the past perfect tense:
- Jack remembered himself as a young boy, growing up on his great-grandfather’s farm. The rhythm of life for him and his family had been distinct and, if not easy, at least dependable. They had gotten up early in the morning to begin the daily grind. There had never been a moment’s rest until late afternoon.
Now let’s rewrite the selection to be more reader friendly, in a mix of both past perfect and simple past:
- Jack remembered himself as a young boy, growing up on his great-grandfather’s farm. The rhythm of life for him and his family had been distinct and, if not easy, at least dependable. They got up early in the morning to begin the daily grind. There was never a moment’s rest until late afternoon.
- For books written in the present tense, flashbacks stay strictly in simple past tense (typically, a verb + “ed”).
Foreshadowing (a hint of things to come) can be handled in a number of ways:
- As thought: Catherine looked at the young child sleeping before her. One day, she thought, this child will come to know me.
- As narrative: Catherine looked at the young child sleeping before her. One day, she was sure, this child would come to know her.
- As dialogue: Catherine looked at the young child sleeping before her. “One day,” she said, “you will come to know me.”
- Flash-forwards are “interruption of chronological sequence by interjection of events of future occurrence.”(4) (Think Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol or Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.) Flash-forwards can be differentiated by using simple future tense. For example, “When she finds love, she will grasp it. Will cling to it. Will be watchful and mindful and always aware how fast it can leave. It will make her complete, make her happy. Make her that most elusive of all things—fulfilled.”
If the subject of tenses seems daunting, take heart. It certainly takes practice to become adept at using tenses properly and consistently, but this part of the writing process, at least, can be (re)learned. Until you have these rules down, keep this article around for reference. And if you ever get so frustrated with then, now, and later that you want to throw your computer out the window, take a moment to reflect on the more humorous side of grammar:
The past, present, and future walked into a bar.
It was tense.
- Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary
- Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary