In writing, TENSE shows the time of a verb’s action. The following are the simple tenses we commonly use:
• Action occurring now is PRESENT TENSE. She understands the problem.
• Action that occurred before now is PAST TENSE. She understood the problem.
• Action likely to occur in after now is FUTURE TENSE. She will understand the problem.
Then, we get into somewhat more complicated versions. By adding a “to be” verb, we create a PERFECT TENSE. (That doesn’t mean it’s perfect to use all the time though.)
• PRESENT PERFECT refers to completed actions whose effects are still relevant. I am walking that trail today.
• PAST PERFECT: I had walked that trail last week.
• FUTURE PERFECT: I will have walked that trail many times before I grow old.
The tricky part is knowing which tense to use when, and when to limit the “perfects.” As authors, when we begin a story, we have to decide whether to use present or past tense. Most books and short stories are written in simple past tense. We are accustomed to that and it flows naturally. However, some authors like to write in present tense. We most often see that in private eye kinds of novels or in short stories.
You have to ask yourself: Does my story feel more comfortable in present or in past? I’ve found that it is difficult to stay in present tense when writing, just because the past is so natural, we seem to automatically write that way. You may find that you will have to go back and carefully correct most of your verb tenses or have someone read it for you to find the difference. Using present tense gives you a more urgent, in-the-moment feeling and can be a good technique to use, depending on your genre. The important thing is to be consistent throughout the story.
Using past perfect is a good way to bring in a transition to a flashback or backstory. That day she had gone to town as usual. But then, after the first reference, go back to simple past tense while you’re in that backstory, simply to avoid using a lot of those “to be” verbs. Then, when you are finishing this section, you can throw in another “had” to remind the reader they’re in the past just before you bring them back to the present (or simple past again, but written as in present time). Confused yet?
I always recommend to my editing clients to avoid using a lot of verbs accompanied by another “to be” verb: was walking, was watching, etc. This is a more passive form of writing, and you can often strengthen your sentences by either using the simple past: walked, watched, etc. or by using a stronger verb to “show” the character’s mood or demeanor: He strode, She stomped, etc.
What tense do you write in and why?
A native Montanan, Heidi M. Thomas now lives in North-central Arizona. Her first novel, Cowgirl Dreams, is based on her grandmother, and the sequel, Follow the Dream, recently won the national WILLA Award. Heidi has a degree in journalism, a certificate in fiction writing, and is a member of Northwest Independent Editors Guild. She teaches writing, and edits, blogs, and is working on the next books in her “Dare to Dream” series.