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Selecting the Tense for Your Story

The tense you use can add an extra element to your writing style. Writing the narrative in past tense with the character dialogue in present tense has been the most popular method for a long time. This is also the most comfortable and familiar to readers. But, increasingly, writers have been experimenting with tense, especially in shorter works and literary fiction.

Present tense has a faster pace than past tense. Combined with a first person narrative, a story written in present tense puts the reader directly into the action with the sense of immediacy and urgency that you create.

However present tense can tend to stick out like scaffolding, while past tense disappears into the background, much like the "said" dialogue tags.

Pluperfect Tense (Past Perfect Tense)

Lengthy flashbacks don't need to remain in pluperfect tense when you're writing your narrative in past tense. This is especially relevant if dialogue is quoted in the flashback scene, as it's jarring for the reader to see "had said" too often. The opening sentence or two indicate the reference to the past; once this is established the narrator can move into that "past" scene, making the action current, as long as the start and end points are clear to avoid confusion.

If you find yourself writing "had" often in scenes that are too short to easily move into current action, there are a few things you can do to avoid this problem. The simplest is to use contractions as much as possible. “She’d said”, “He’d walked” roll off the tongue much better than “She had said” and “He had walked”.

Another idea is to have your character tell the story to another character instead of using a flashback. This allows the use of past tense while making it clear that the event is a memory. Or rethink your use of an entire flashback scene. Is it really necessary?

Present Presentation

If you can’t figure out another way around the issue, you might want to consider using present tense instead for your narrative, so that references to the past take the easier past tense.

Or another option that is gaining popularity is writing your flashbacks in present tense to give them the immediacy and timelessness of memories, while your current story is written in past tense. With this style it is important to clarify in some way (for example, leaving a double paragraph space as a segue) that you're referring to a memory and not accidentally mixing tenses.

Next time we'll look more at mixing tenses.

Her Highness' First Murder by Peg HerringThe Find by James J ValcoThanks to Peg Herring, author of the Tudor mystery, Her Highness' First Murder and James Valco, author of The Find, who posed questions about tenses at our Ask the Editor session on Tuesday.

Elsa Neal Elsa Neal owns, an online magazine for writers. Download her free report on The Ten Most Frustrating Grammar Rules and How to Remember Them and read her writing insights at her Fictional Life Blog. Elle is based in Melbourne, Australia.

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  1. What an awesomely informative post! Thank you for the tips on tense. I've come across all these situations recently, I think.

  2. Verb tense selections can make a huge difference.

    The "had had" aspect of perfect tenses can be confusing to readers (they may re-read lines to make sur ethey haven't misread it).

    Strict present tense is annoying:

    "I walk into the bar. I sit down. I order a beer. The bartender serves me a cold one. I drink all in one long gulp..."

    I get that this brings the reader along with you and that it is immediate, but somehow it seems standoffish and a bit pretentious.


  3. Sometimes, the most natural way, as you said, is to let the reader know you've moved into a memory, then let them forget until you pull them out and take them to present day. Great post!

    Straight From Hel

  4. I'm actually loving first person present tense for my YA novels. As long as the pov character isn't just endlessly describing what they're doing minute by minute using I-centric sentences, I think the present tense can be lots of fun to write.

  5. Thanks Elsa this really gives me something to think about in my just about to begin WI(almost)P.

  6. I have to admit in books I've read that used past tense for present scenes and present tense for past scenes were confusing for me. But every reading experience is subjective.

  7. I'm not very good with the 'tenses,' but thank goodness my editor excels at them. Although I could never write in strict present tense.

  8. Adam:
    Thanks so much for your comment. I'm glad you found it helpful.

    I have to agree - both past perfect and present tense can be annoying and difficult to get into as a reader and can be really tricky to write effectively.

    Thanks. Yes, the most skilled writers make all of this stuff disappear into the bones of the work.

    First person present tense is very popular for YA. Glad you're having fun with it.

    It's good to play around with a few options at the start of a project. All the best.

    Indeed, there is a lot of potential for confusion, and it takes skill to achieve clarity without sacrificing subtlety.

    Editors are great, aren't they? ;-)

  9. I know I won't be able to remember all this. I'll have to come back and use it as a reference.

    Morgan Mandel

  10. Luna (Julie Ann Peters) was the first book I've read with present-tense flashbacks in a past-tense story. It was jarring at first, but after the first couple of paragraphs, I got used to it. I love when authors play with language, mix it up for readers. So long as it doesn't distract from the story, that is.

    Great article--thanks!

  11. Present tense does seem foreign to read at first, but it doesn't take long to get used to if the writer is a skilled storyteller.


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