Monday, March 4, 2013

Grammar ABCs: T is for Tense

No, I don’t mean that tight feeling in your shoulders when you’ve been sitting at the computer too long!

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.


  1. I'm glad you revisited this for me. I always get them confused, it's one of the things I have to work hard at finding when editing.

  2. Hi Heidi,

    Thanks for the refresher. I'm a mostly past tense writer. I have, however, employed the past perfect to bring readers up to speed in entering a battle scene, which they were first privy to by characters in a previous section hearing the battle begin in the distance. (Wow, that's a sentence that could use some editing. :-)

  3. I write in past tense and am used to reading past tense. However, I read a book by Tana French written in present tense. It was so flawless, I didn't recognize this fact until the end. Present tense seems to be a new trend. However, if not done well it makes the reader's ride through your story a bit bumpy.

  4. I think most of us easily understand the difference between writing in past or present tense. It is when we get into the "perfects" that it can get confusing, and often clumsy. It is a joy to read a book that has present tense written so flawlessly you are not aware of the craft choice.

    I write primarily in past tense with third person POV. But I have played with present/first person in short fiction and that is fun. I like the immediacy of that.

  5. This is an excellent post, Heidi. In my experience as an editor, I found that many writers have huge problems with the past and past perfect tenses. While the frequent use of "had" to denote the past, past is not recommended, it is definitely needed to differentiate between the two. As you note. Using the past perfect tense at the beginning and the end of a past, past scene (and simple past tense elsewhere) is the "perfect" solution in this situation.

  6. Actually, I do get 'that tight feeling' when I think about this topic ... I flunked English ... well, that had a lot more to do with skipping school than capability ... at least, that's my story and I'm sticking to it (say, what tense am in now?) ... anyway, I appreciate the refresher in this post ... I'm going to peek at my latest WIP ... very gingerly ... with one eye only ... in case I discover that the whole thing is in the past plu-perfect!

  7. I write my novels in present tense. My games get written in both present and past - mainly because they're also written in first person (present) and third person (past).

  8. IndyWriterGirl and Maryann, I agree. I've read books in present tense that are so well done I didn't realize what tense it was until near the end. Takes a lot of practice.

    Elspeth, if you've been writing in present tense for a long time, you are probably used to it by now.

  9. I've ready more books in which the tense changes periodically in the story, and not by intent. This happens often with manuscript submissions. I recently read a story that was second person present tense. Very interesting read, although now I can't remember the title or the author. Not one slip either. "You go to the store and pick up a head of lettuce." Hank Phillippi Ryan and Lisa Brackmann both are quite adept at first/present POV, if anyone is interested in exploring. I agree, Maryann, very immediate and modern. Even edgy sometimes.

  10. Simple past except for one short-short. Present tense yanks me right out of a story. I feel like I'm watching from afar, like someone's dream. I think I've found one author who does it well enough so I forget I'm reading present tense, but it takes at least 5 or 6 chapters to get comfortable. And it doesn't seem to matter whether it's 1st or 3rd person. Do. Not. Like. It.

    As for all those perfects ... I'm reasonably competent with grammar, but I no longer have a clue what label goes with what.

    Terry's Place

  11. This is a very helpful post except that the example you give for present perfect is not present perfect. Present perfect would be "I have walked."

    The tenses you've not mentioned are the progressives. The example you give is present progressive, "I am walking." And it would be used for actions happening right now.

    Past progressive, "I was walking," is used for when you have two actions in the past. For example, "I was walking and this giant dog ran in front of me."

    Future progressive, "I will be walking" is for when you have two actions in the future. For example, "I will be walking a 5K for Cancer research next week so I won't be able to attend your party."

  12. Terry, you and me both. With me, it's an aging thing. I had them hammered into me in school (elementary through college!), but just did not care. So now the terminology is moldering somewhere in my ancient mental closets right next to all the sentence-diagramming buzzwords I didn't give a rat about either. Hahaha.

  13. Thanks so much for your tips. It's very easy to get mixed up about tense.

    Morgan Mandel

  14. I just discovered that yesterday (the 4th) was National Grammar Day. Enjoyed and wanted to share this article concerning it:

  15. Martha, thanks for pointing out my error!

    I know, I've forgotten many of the terms I learned in school, but instinctively "know" them. So writing this column is helpful to me in reviewing too.

    Allison, thanks for the grammar link and for letting us know it was National Grammar Day!

  16. Heidi, Sorry I missed this yesterday. A useful refresher. I enjoy reading any story well-written, no matter what tense. My debut novel is written in first person past tense, because I liked the implied promise: that my character survived, and is looking back on all this.

    Interesting, though, that when first drafting a novel I tend to "hear" the character's voice more if writing in present tense! Once I get the sound and cadence of her voice I switch. A quirk?


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