Does it drive you crazy when you go back and reread your prose only to find you have been switching tenses from past to present and back again? This is a constant annoyance for me because, for some reason, when I get going with my writing I never notice that the switch has taken place until I do a little editing. I can’t stand it—I wish I would get it right the first time around. Nonetheless, it seems that I write the way I talk—jumping from past to present and back-and-forth all day long. However, there seem to be times when it is acceptable to switch tenses and by doing so you can actually heighten the impact of your words. The following are some articles I found helpful on this, to me, confusing aspect of creative writing. I hope they help you out as well. Additionally, if you have any advice or know of a good resource for this subject, please let me know.
Past vs. Present Tense When Writing
Posted by Nicole Thomas on Jan 22, 2011
When writing, authors get to choose between writing in past or present tense. No matter what they choose, the tense used changes the style of the novel.
The tense writers choose for their novel helps in setting the mood. If a writer wants their readers to feel closer to their character, it may be written in the present tense. If the author wants a little more wiggle room in being able to explain more about the characters outside their protagonist, they’ll write in the past tense. The tense you decide to use will come down to the emotions you want to portray through your characters.
Past tense is the most commonly used when comparing past to present. The reason for this is because it comes naturally to most, if not all writers, it’s easier to write properly and if you’re writing a book in third person, it sounds more authentic. Granted, if done well, any novel can be written in any style the author likes.
The beauty of past tense is that even if your novel is written in first person, the character telling the story can dip into the minds of your other characters. Since it’s a form of reflection, your protagonist may know what was going through another character’s mind now, when compared to the little she knew back then.
For example, if your characters are faced with a sudden tragedy and it’s written in first person present, the character telling the story is only able to explain her own reaction. However, if it’s written as first person past, she can explain how those feelings might have been mirrored by other friends and family members.
Present tense works best when a novel is written in the first person point of view. This style of writing is most common in recent works for young adults, as well as a few memoirs. When written correctly, these novels are preferred among young readers. The reason for this is because they can relate better. A more accurate reason, however, is because the reader is allowed to stand side-by-side with the main characters. It gives your reader the chance to relate to your protagonist, as events occur.
The present tense throws the reader right into the mix of things. The reader will learn things as the protagonist learns them—sharing their surprise, thrill, grief and fear. However, writing in the present tense is a skill most writers do not possess. It takes practice to switch gears and write in the present tense without slipping into past tense now and again.
This is because present tense isn’t a natural writing form. When recording thoughts in a diary or taking notes, we’ve been programmed to write in the past tense. So, if you’re looking to write your novel in the present tense, you’ll need a bit of reprogramming. The best way to do this is to read novels that share the same style as what you’re working on.
Hone your skills and then work on the first draft. A book written in first person present tense is among the most powerful forms of writing, so long as it’s written correctly.
One thing every writer should keep in mind is that nothing is set in stone. If you start working on a novel in the past tense and are not happy with it, try writing in the present tense. Sometimes these subtle changes in style can give you exactly what is needed to move to plot line forward. Play around with a few ideas, write a scene or two in both present and past tense, and then see which you like more.
Many students believe that tense changes should always be avoided. However, sometimes a shift in tense is necessary to indicate a change in the timeframe of the action. It is the unnecessary shifts in tense that sometimes cause awkwardness and should be avoided.
What is tense?
Tense is the grammatical word to describe the ending of a verb (usually –ed for past and –s for present). English usually marks the sense of time with an adverb (for example: it is happening today or it happened yesterday.) When proofreading for unnecessary tense shifts, there are several questions to keep in mind: “When do I want to set this action?” and “Has the time period changed?” For example, I may be writing an essay about my experiences on a recent trip to Virginia and want to say that I saw the Mason-Dixon line for the first time. I have several options. I can write my paper in the past tense, which is the style most people are used to reading in novels or short stories, as follows:
- Then the driver pointed to a white line painted on the road and said, “There’s the Mason-Dixon line.”
However, I may choose to make my essay more immediate by placing the action in the present. This is also an acceptable writing style, especially for an essay:
- Then the driver points to a white line painted on the road and says, “There’s the Mason-Dixon line.”
In this case, the tense is merely a matter of style; it is your choice.
Should I ever change tense?
Sometimes it is necessary to change tense. For example, if the time frame of the action changes from past to present, the tense should change to indicate this:
- Although it was only a four-hour ride from my home in Pennsylvania to my boyfriend’s home in Virginia, I was terrified. Looking back, I think my feelings may have been influenced by stereotypes of the Old South.
Although this paragraph starts in the past tense, the phrase “Looking back” clearly shows the time frame of the action “think.” The tense change is perfectly acceptable without this phrase also:
- Although it was only a four-hour ride from my home in Pennsylvania to my boyfriend’s home in Virginia, I was terrified. I think my feelings may have been influenced by stereotypes of the Old South.
The reason for this tense change is that I am thinking now—in the present time. Notice how putting that sentence in the past tense changes the time frame and meaning of the action.
- I thought my feelings may have been influenced by stereotypes of the Old South.
Now it sounds as though I was reflecting during the car ride, but I wanted to imply that it was only later that I had this thought.
When is it wrong to shift tense?
There are other times, though, when a tense shift is not correct. For example, if the action all happened in the same time—past, present, or future—then the verbs should be consistent in tense. This “mistake” is often heard in speech, and it is even used in very informal writing. However, from a grammatical viewpoint, this type of unnecessary shift in tense should be avoided in more formal (such as academic) writing.
- I climbed out of the car, walked through the door, and prepared to meet “the parents,” but instead a large, honey-colored dog runs to meet me at the door.
Here is a better way of writing this sentence:
- I climbed out of the car, walked through the door, and prepared to meet “the parents,” but instead a large, honey-colored dog ran to meet me at the door.
General guidelines for use of perfect tenses
In general the use of perfect tenses is determined by their relationship to the tense of the primary narration. If the primary narration is in simple past, then action initiated before the time frame of the primary narration is described in past perfect. If the primary narration is in simple present, then action initiated before the time frame of the primary narration is described in present perfect. If the primary narration is in simple future, then action initiated before the time frame of the primary narration is described in future perfect.
Past primary narration corresponds to Past Perfect (had + past participle) for earlier time frames
Present primary narration corresponds to Present Perfect (has or have + past participle) for earlier time frames
Future primary narration corresponds to Future Perfect (will have + past participle) for earlier time frames
The present perfect is also used to narrate action that began in real life in the past but is not completed, that is, may continue or may be repeated in the present or future. For example: “I have run in four marathons” (implication: “so far… I may run in others”). This usage is distinct from the simple past, which is used for action that was completed in the past without possible continuation or repetition in the present or future. For example: “Before injuring my leg, I ran in four marathons” (implication: “My injury prevents me from running in any more marathons”).
Time-orienting words and phrases like before, after, by the time, and others—when used to relate two or more actions in time—can be good indicators of the need for a perfect-tense verb in a sentence.
- By the time the Senator finished (past) his speech, the audience had lost (past perfect) interest.
- By the time the Senator finishes (present: habitual action) his speech, the audience has lost (present perfect) interest.
- By the time the Senator finishes (present: suggesting future time) his speech, the audience will have lost (future perfect) interest.
- After everyone had finished (past perfect) the main course, we offered (past) our guests dessert.
- After everyone has finished (present perfect) the main course, we offer (present: habitual action) our guests dessert.
- After everyone has finished (present perfect) the main course, we will offer (future: specific one-time action) our guests dessert.
- Long before the sun rose (past), the birds had arrived (past perfect) at the feeder.
- Long before the sun rises (present: habitual action), the birds have arrived (present perfect) at the feeder.
- Long before the sun rises (present: suggesting future time), the birds will have arrived (future perfect) at the feeder.
Writers should keep the elements in a sentence consistent, avoiding any unnecessary changes in tense, voice, mood, person, number, and discourse. Such unnecessary changes, or “shifts,” may make reading difficult and obscure the sentence’s meaning for the reader.
This a great article. However, it is a little too long to add it into this post. I highly suggest you look it over because it covers some interesting points and gives great examples.
Using first person or third person point of view in the past tense is “invisible” to readers, because it is what they expect. Readers won’t even notice it, meaning they will be able to concentrate instead on what really matters: the story you are telling.