Home > Editor's Corner Podcast > Editor’s Corner Podcast: That’s My Tense, and I’m Sticking To It

past present and future tense podcast

When speaking to others, we often switch tenses, especially when we’re excited. In writing, however, readers don’t have the benefit of hearing us speak or seeing our gestures and expressions, which means that a mix of past, present, and future tenses can leave readers incredibly confused. You can remedy the problem and avoid reader confusion with just a little planning and preparation, but maybe you’re unsure which you should choose in writing. if the topic of tenses makes you … well, tense … take heart! Stephanie and Angela are here to walk you through what you need to know, including an explanation of the six main types of tenses, how to choose the right tense for your book, and the best way to handle tricky situations like flashbacks and foreshadowing.

 


Transcript:

Stephanie:  In this podcast, we try to take some of the confusion out of writing and publishing your book. Today, in that pursuit, we’re going to discuss verb tenses. I know it’s incredibly exciting, but this is something that most people don’t really give a whole lot of thought to, but it is really important. It greatly affects the story and what you can do with your story and even the other decisions that you make in telling your story.

Angela: That’s exactly right. It is definitely an unglamorous topic, but funny enough, we run into problems with verb tenses all the time as editors.

Stephanie:  Oh, yes, yes, yes.

Angela: Oh, yes. Where do you think that we should start with this rocus, awesome topic today? You think we should start by explaining maybe the six main types of tenses?

Stephanie:  I definitely think so, because you have to know what the tenses are to really make an informed choice, right?

Angela: That’s true. That’s very true.

Stephanie:  Let’s see. You’ve got six main types, as Angela mentioned, and … Pardon me. I’ve just had some caffeine, so I’m a little jumpy today.

Angela: It’ll keep things interesting.

Stephanie:  Da, da, da, da, da. I’m actually bouncing around over here. It’s kind of good that nobody can see me.

Angela: That’s probably true. Thank god for podcasts.

Stephanie:  There are six main types of verb tenses, and the first is simple past. This is what we’re used to seeing. The kitten played. The dog ran. It’s simple, very basic.

Angela: That’s right.

Stephanie:  It’s also the most common in writing, actually.

Angela: In any kind of writing, too. I mean, newspapers, online, basically that’s … Well, we’ll just say that’s what you run into the most.

Stephanie:  Exactly.

Angela: After that, we’ve got past perfect, where it’s basically adding had. The kitten had played. The dog had chased the ball. We don’t see it very often with stories … How do I want to say that? … written entirely in past perfect.

Stephanie:  Right. That would just be wordy and awkward.

Angela: Yes. Yes.

Stephanie:  It is important, though, when you have a story that’s written in mostly simple past, you do have the occasion where you’re relating something that happened in the history of the story.

Angela: Right. The past past.

Stephanie:  It’s before the main story. Yeah.

Angela: Exactly.

Stephanie:  The past of the past. That is past perfect, and so sometimes you’re recounting … I’m trying to think of the most common … I think probably when somebody’s thinking back about something …

Angela: Right.

Stephanie:  … is probably where I see it most. A lot of people like to write that in simple past, but it can get really confusing.

Angela: Yes.

Stephanie:  That’s probably actually the most common thing that I do to fix verb tenses in books, I would say, is changing simple past to past perfect for those special incidents.

Angela: The past perfect … If you are sitting there in your novel and you’re talking to a friend, and then you start telling that friend a story about your family that happened 10 or 20 years ago, that’s when past perfect comes into play, but we don’t really … I think with past perfect, though, it can get a little tedious …

Stephanie:  Yeah.

Angela: … so we mix it with the simple past and past perfect, but it’s difficult to do. I’m trying to think of a way to easily explain it, but it can get kind of complicated.

Stephanie:  It really can. I think a lot of times what you do is try to limit it to just a couple of paragraphs, at most.

Angela: Yeah.

Stephanie:  You can use longer passages, but then a lot of times I suggest that instead … I’ve seen people start that way with a few sentences, and then they just leave the rest in simple past, because they assume-

Angela: Right.

Stephanie:  … that the brain has made that transition.

Angela: Exactly.

Stephanie:  That sometimes happens, or sometimes you’ll use the past perfect for, again, a paragraph or two, and then you have the line break to indicate that you’re switching into that flashback, and so then you can write-

Angela: Right.

Stephanie:  … the flashback in the simple past.

Angela: Well, and I’ve even seen it done in italics or-

Stephanie:  Yeah.

Angela: I’ve even actually seen flashbacks become their own almost mini-chapter.

Stephanie:  Right. Yeah.

Angela: If it’s a complicated narrative, then it’s a little bit easier for readers to understand, because switching between tenses, that’s the entire reason we’re doing this podcast and why we wrote the article on the Dog Ear Publishing website. It’s incredibly common to mix tenses …

Stephanie:  Right.

Angela: … and it’s incredibly difficult to do well, but if you don’t do it well, then readers become extremely confused.

Stephanie:  Exactly.

Angela: Nobody wants to mess with all of that.

Stephanie:  Right. Really, as with so much else that we do, the key is clarity.

Angela: Right.

Stephanie:  You need to pick one tense and stick with it through most of the book, but then you do that occasional slip off, but it has to be intentional.

Angela: Right. Exactly.

Stephanie:  Not the back and forth. Not the constant back and forth. Is it past? Is it present? Is this something that went on 20 years ago or yesterday?

Angela: Right.

Stephanie:  Always, the key is ease of reading for your reader, no matter what-

Angela: Exactly.

Stephanie:  … you choose to do. There are many creative ways you can choose to do it, and then definitely your more conventional ways. Yeah.

Angela: Yeah.

Stephanie:  I think that that’s probably all I have to say about past perfect for now, at least.

Angela: Yeah. I think the overall goal, like you said … I mean, I think a tense that’s done well, it’s not even noticeable.

Stephanie:  Exactly.

Angela: It’s not like you’re reading this book and you’re going, “Oh, well, look. The writer decided to use past perfect tense here.”

Stephanie:  Exactly.

Angela: It doesn’t work that way.

Stephanie:  Nobody ever thinks about it. Yeah.

Angela: Yeah. It’s like background music in a movie. If it’s sticking out and you’re noticing it, it’s probably not done extremely well.

Stephanie:  Exactly.

Angela: It’s just supposed to be kind of there, and it helps you along, but you don’t just see it hugely in your face, right?

Stephanie:  Right. Right. Nobody should ever really notice it unless they’re going in with the intent of studying it.

Angela: Right.

Stephanie:  Otherwise, it should just be there like the air you breathe. You take it for-

Angela: That’s exactly right.

Stephanie:  … granted. Your reader should take it for granted.

Angela: Exactly. Exactly. I like that you pointed out that people do go and study novels, because you’re absolutely right, but yes. Yes. You got it. You got it.

Stephanie:  All right. The third verb tense of the six is simple present. The kitten plays. The ball bounces. I don’t know. Could you say that the see Spot and see Spot run … Oh my gosh, that’s kind of in the second person point of view. Well, sort of. Anyway, sorry.

Angela: Well, I think it-

Stephanie:  I had a flashback to an earlier podcast.

Angela: That’s all right. We can handle this. I was thinking Hunger Games was written in present tense, right?

Stephanie:  Absolutely. That’s always the first one that comes to mind-

Angela: Right.

Stephanie:  … whenever I think of simple present. Yeah.

Angela: I think a lot of young adult stories are written in present tense, and I think Hunger Games is probably a reason that a lot of them are written in present tense. Whether or not it’s the right tense for that genre, who knows?

Stephanie:  Right.

Angela: But it does seem to be that young adult genre does have that.

Stephanie:  Well, I like that you pointed out … I think it was you who pointed it out in the Editor’s Corner article that we wrote that it conveys a sense of immediacy, and-

Angela: Yes.

Stephanie:  … that is absolutely one of those things I think that is good for young adults. Everything’s immediate.

Angela: That’s true.

Stephanie:  Everything is important.

Angela: That’s true.

Stephanie:  It is good in that respect, but like you point out … Again, I think it was you. We wrote this article together, but-

Angela: That’s true. Well, I’m going to take credit, so yeah. It was me, totally.

Stephanie:  Yes, absolutely.

Angela: Yeah.

Stephanie:  Angela totally did that. That was all Angela.

Angela: That’s exactly right. Completely on purpose.

Stephanie:  I totally got distracted there.

Angela: The action. Action.

Stephanie:  I really hope we have … sorry. Yes.

Angela: Yeah. The action of the present tense, it feels immediate.

Stephanie:  Yes.

Angela: It works great for action scenes, don’t you think?

Stephanie:  Yes, exactly.

Angela: Yes.

Stephanie:  I’m hoping that we have some people who are a little ADD today and who-

Angela: That’s right.

Stephanie:  … are enjoying the bouncing around. Yes. It feels immediate, but the thing that you point out, too, is that it doesn’t really allow for much reflection.

Angela: Right.

Stephanie:  That is one thing to take into consideration, and this is where we get into what I mentioned about the tense that you choose can also influence other things.

Angela: Right.

Stephanie:  I think you’re less likely to see present tense in a book that has multiple points of view as well.

Angela: That’s true.

Stephanie:  Really, I’m only used to seeing it where there’s really one character being followed, the one narrator.

Angela: Right.

Stephanie:  I think that’s just because it could get so incredibly confusing to have multiple people saying, “I,” and, “I did this,” because if you got sucked into a story, I think that would be really challenging to follow and keep everybody straight.

Angela: And trying to figure out when everyone’s talking about.

Stephanie:  Absolutely.

Angela: If one character’s saying, “I am typing,” are they saying it at the same time that the other character says, “I’m eating dinner”? I can see where that would get very confusing.

Stephanie:  Yeah, absolutely.

Angela: I always think simple past and past perfect both … I tend to see them in the more deep thinking type of books who have characters that are able to delve into their psyche and tell you about these deep things that happened to them and how they felt about them and what it smelled like and what it sounded like. I have trouble believing … and maybe I just haven’t read the right book yet, but I have trouble believing that that thoughtfulness would come across in simple present, just because present tense just seems … like you said, it’s so immediate. It’s great for action. It makes things kind of edge of your seats.

Stephanie:  Yeah, absolutely.

Angela: I will say … Maybe I haven’t read the book yet, but I think simple present does have its limitations.

Stephanie:  Right. I mentioned this … I think it was in our Point of View podcast … how, in The Hunger Games, I was driven crazy by Katniss because there were just some things about her that drove me crazy, and part of it was that apparent lack of reflection.

Angela: Yeah. Yeah.

Stephanie:  Again, I don’t know that that was Katniss necessarily or just the tool, the method, of using the present tense, honestly.

Angela: Right.

Stephanie:  Of course, she doesn’t really have that much chance to reflect, but that is something that did drive me crazy, because I like to see the reasoning behind people’s behavior-

Angela: Yeah.

Stephanie:  … even characters in books. It drives me crazy if I think somebody’s being stupid, and I don’t know why.

Angela: We’ll just say that about life in general, yeah. PP

Stephanie:  It’s like, why are they doing something that I think is so stupid?

Angela: Right, and if you’re writing in the present tense, you just don’t have any amount of time to consider what’s going on, you know?

Stephanie:  Right.

Angela: You’re dealing with what’s happening, and a lot of that reflection time can come days or months or years later.

Stephanie:  Right. Then it would be kind of weird to say, “I sit back and I think of days gone by.”

Angela: Right. Right.

Stephanie:  It’s possible, and then you can introduce a flashback in that way, but you don’t really reflect in present tense. That is kind of strange.

Angela: That’s true. That’s true. I guess all of that to say is each has its own limitations. When you’re starting your novel, just think it through. Think about what the kind of tone you want to set, and when you start writing, write in the tense that you’re going to use throughout, because going back and fixing tense problems … Say you write the book in past tense, and you decide after you’re done, “You know what? I’d rather this be in present,” that is an enormous amount of work and-

Stephanie:  Oh, really. Yes.

Angela: Yeah.

Stephanie:  Yeah.

Angela: Something will always slip through. It’s a lot harder to make the narrative seamless if you’re changing something that drastically in a book.

Stephanie:  Yeah. I’ve had to fix a couple of pages before, and my gosh, it’s crazy.

Angela: Right.

Stephanie:  I think if you’re trying to decide which tense to use … Say that you’re feeling really, really inspired, and you want to try something new. Think of a passage, a few sentences, maybe a paragraph, and try writing it in all the different verb tense types and see what happens. I think it’ll pretty quickly become apparent which one will suit you best, which one will suit your needs.

Angela: Yeah, what you’re trying to say and how you’re trying to say it and if it works in the way you’re trying to say it.

Stephanie:  Exactly. In the article that we wrote for Editor’s Corner, we have very short sentences …

Angela: Yes.

Stephanie:  … for these examples for a reason.

Angela: Yes. Yeah. The reason was because it was really hard for us to come up with long examples of writing-

Stephanie:  Really.

Angela: … in those specific tenses.

Stephanie:  Yes.

Angela: Yeah.

Stephanie:  Yeah. If you’re trying to-

Angela: Yeah.

Stephanie:  … write beyond the basic, “The kitten played,” it’s tough.

Angela: Yes. Yeah. That wasn’t my fault, though. That was yours. That was your part of that. Actually, that’s not true. Yeah. I had just gotten a kitten. I remember that, and that’s why there’s a kitten in the article, so that was all my fault. Yeah. I did the best I could. Okay?

Stephanie:  Mine tend to revolve around toddlers and preschoolers.

Angela: That’s right. That’s right. This is something a lot of people can relate to, right? So it’s okay.

Stephanie:  Yeah, exactly. Yeah, especially the crazy mom who’s writing articles.

Angela: That’s [crosstalk 00:15:07]

Stephanie:  We’ve now covered simple past, past perfect, and simple present. Then, of course, there’s present perfect. The kitten has played, which comes up not all that rarely. I think this one tends to come up more in your nonfiction, especially I think in things like articles, newspaper articles, because you’re talking about things that-

Angela: That’s true.

Stephanie:  … basically happen regularly, happen frequently, I think is the best way to describe that one.

Angela: Right. Yeah, I’m thinking of if you’re describing a baseball team. The team has played many games this season. I do see that a lot, actually, in articles. That’s a very good point.

Stephanie:  Yeah. This is going to come up a little bit, probably if you’re writing your shorter pieces like that. Again, it’s something that is always true or mostly true or, like you said, the team has played so many games this season. You’re looking at a recent time set, I guess.

Angela: Right. Right.

Stephanie:  But otherwise, it’s not really used that much. Can you think of any other examples?

Angela: I’m really trying, and I can’t think of a single one. I think the newspaper article is probably the best one. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an entire book written that way. Yeah. The amount of words it takes to say a simple sentence in that tense, it would drive me nuts as a reader to-

Stephanie:  Oh, yeah.

Angela: … read a whole book like that.

Stephanie:  Yeah. Yeah. I think that’s why my brain is there, because I’ve been working on journal articles for the past two weeks, and so my brain is definitely there, where you’re talking about research findings and things like that.

Angela: Right.

Stephanie:  Moving on, simple future is the fifth verb tense. You say, “The kitten will play.” Typically, here you’re looking at possibilities, right?

Angela: Right. Right. Exactly. Then there’s the future perfect. The kitten will have played, and I’m guessing that the best … Well, I guess I’m not guessing if I’m an editor. I am saying I think the best use of these would be probably in foreshadowing. Would you agree with that?

Stephanie:  Probably. Yeah. Although, it’s kind of clunky foreshadowing, but-

Angela: Right.

Stephanie:  … I think it tends to be used really for people talking in dialogue, that-

Angela: Yeah. Yeah.

Stephanie:  … foreshadowing or characters conjecturing. Is that a word?

Angela: Yeah, like maybe less formal speech, right?

Stephanie:  Yeah.

Angela: Yeah. Obviously, you can tell we don’t run into this very much in novels and things either. I’m trying to think of an example of simple … Well, there isn’t a novel that’s been written in simple future, is there?

Stephanie:  I don’t think so.

Angela: That we know of? Yeah.

Stephanie:  The main thing I’m thinking of are for instructions. For your future, you will have had … my gosh. I don’t even know. You’ll have your simple future. If you do this right, you will have this happen.

Angela: Oh, okay. Okay.

Stephanie:  Again, it’s nonfiction-

Angela: Yeah.

Stephanie:  … where you’re looking at possibilities, obviously-

Angela: Right. Right.

Stephanie:  … [crosstalk 00:18:42] future, but I don’t-

Angela: Things that could happen.

Stephanie:  Yeah. I really think it’s only if you’re reflecting on … Really, you have to be predicting or foreshadowing.

Angela: Right.

Stephanie:  Although, foreshadowing … yeah. Then you mention-

Angela: Yeah.

Stephanie:  … flash-forwards in the article that we wrote, and I know this was you.

Angela: Yes. Yes.

Stephanie:  But I don’t even know. How many flash-forwards do you see? I don’t typically see them.

Angela: They aren’t very common at all, and they’re so uncommon, actually, that once a novel is written in them, they become known for the usage of the tense. Do you know what I mean?

Stephanie:  Yeah.

Angela: In the article, we were talking about Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol or Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, but those are used almost like interjections. I don’t think the entire novels are written that way.

Stephanie:  No. I would think it would get really clunky and awkward.

Angela: Yeah. I guess we’ve said that a lot, clunky and awkward, and I think that’s the biggest thing. If you’re reading your novel, even pieces of it, and it’s coming across as clunky, that’s probably telling you that the tense may not be the right tense for your book.

Stephanie:  Absolutely. Yeah. Again, I think what ends up coming up most often, what I see, is authors who tend to shift back and forth, I think, from present to past tense.

Angela: Yes. Yes.

Stephanie:  Again, I don’t see it a whole lot. I certainly don’t see it as much as I used to, and I have no idea why. I think that I tend to see it more in nonfiction, I want to say, than in fiction, because it can be a little more challenging, because there are more options available to you in nonfiction, as we’ve discussed.

Angela: Right. Right.

Stephanie:  I think that’s probably where confusion pops in, but really, sit back, like we’ve said, and try a sample of the different tenses that you’re considering and see, before you ever get started, which is probably-

Angela: Yes.

Stephanie:  … going to work for your storytelling method and what you’re trying to accomplishing with your story.

Angela: Yeah. Definitely try reading some of the passages out loud, even if you have to record them and listen back to them, because when we listen to it, it sticks out a lot more than when we read it.

Stephanie:  Really, absolutely.

Angela: If you’re listening to a-

Stephanie:  Yes.

Angela: Yeah. If you’re listening to a person speak, I guess the errors are very obvious, whereas you may almost glide over them, especially if you’re rereading your own novel for the thousandth time. Yeah. I definitely recommend at least reading it out loud or, like I said, record it and play it back to yourself and see-

Stephanie:  Right.

Angela: … what you’re hearing.

Stephanie:  Right. I think we lightly touched upon this, but dialogue. Again, dialogue-

Angela: Yes.

Stephanie:  Tense shifting is perfectly acceptable in dialogue, because-

Angela: Right.

Stephanie:  … that’s normal. We do that all the time. If you have longer passages of dialogue of somebody telling a story, that may be a choice you make. Again, this … I bring this up because you made me that. It’s always good to read dialogue out loud to see if it sounds-

Angela: Yes.

Stephanie:  … normal and natural.

Angela: Yes. Yes.

Stephanie:  If you’re doing that tense switch, that’s also a really good way to check to see if you’ve done it well, is to read it out loud.

Angela: Yeah. You’re exactly right. I have nothing to add to that. You’re exactly right.

Stephanie:  All right. Do you have anything else to add to this subject of verb tenses for the day?

Angela: Well, I would like to thank our listeners, if they’re still with us at this point, for going through this topic with us. We know it’s not super interesting, but it’s one of those things we felt like we wanted to talk about, just because we-

Stephanie:  Yeah.

Angela: … see issues with it so often.

Stephanie:  Again, it always comes up for me when I think of point of view. Point of view and verb tense for me-

Angela: Yes. Yes.

Stephanie:  … are really interconnected.

Angela: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. Also, thank you to the listeners for bouncing around with us today.

Stephanie:  Yes.

Angela: I think we’re both in strange moods today, and since these are broadcast, they will be available on the internet probably for the rest of our lives, so that’s awesome.

Stephanie:  Yay!

Angela: Yay! But that is all I have, actually. I think we’ve covered everything. If you’re interested in more, there’s an Editor’s Corner article that we’ve referred to on the website. It’s called That’s My Tense, and I’m sticking to It. That might help a little bit more, too.

Stephanie:  If you have anymore questions, as always, feel free to contact me at StephanieS@DogEarPublishing.net, and please join us next time when we are going to be discussing … well, we’re going to be providing basically an overview of approaching your book like a business venture. We’re going to be looking at essentially how to take the long view, planning for your writing, your editing, the reviewing, beta reviewers, marketing, building an author presence, all of these wonderful things that you may not consider when you just get the creative inspiration and go, “Hey. I’m going to write a book.”

Angela: Yeah.

Stephanie:  There’s a lot more to it if you want to make money writing your book. We’re going to start to touch upon those in the next podcast. Until then, keep writing.

Stephanie Stringham
Stephanie Stringham

As a child, I read everything I could get my hands on, and I dreamed of getting paid to read books and of helping people. With this dream, I propelled myself through college to earn bachelor’s degrees in English (minor in Writing and Publishing) and Business Administration while working as a peer tutor in the university writing lab and interning with a publishing company in college. After graduation, I stayed on with the publishing company, where I fell in love with book publishing. Editing is my avocation. I began freelancing right after college, while earning a master’s degree in Health Communication and then working as an editor for Eli Lilly and Company and for the Defense Finance and Accounting Service. I have edited everything from class materials and newsletters to master’s theses, scholastic imprints, professional journals, and books in all genres. I feel my calling as an editor is not only to improve text but also to teach those with whom I work so they can constantly improve their writing. When I’m not editing books, I’m planting and growing things on a small homestead in Indiana with my husband and two children.

Angela Wade
Angela Wade

I have one goal: to create and shape cohesive, fluid, accessible copy that shifts perspective and makes a connection. With more than twelve years of experience in the writing and editing industry, I accomplish that goal through a passion for brainstorming, researching, planning, writing, and editing everything from grants to novels to marketing materials to websites. My articles, interviews, poems, essays, and reviews have appeared in various print and online publications, including Calyx Journal, Inkwell Magazine, Mindful Homeschooler, and Home Education Magazine.