How to Make Sense of Verb Tense

by Gabriela Pereira
published in Writing

Last week we talked about Point of View and one reader raised a fascinating point in the comments about the narrative distance between first and third person.  As I thought about this point, I realized that verb tense also affects the narrative distance, hence this post about verb tense and how that affects the viewpoint choices we make.

The choices are pretty simple because essentially there are only two options for you to choose from: past and present.  (Yes, there’s also future tense, but, really, have you ever seen an entire short story or novel written only in future tense?  If you have, please post the title and author in the comments.  You will make my day.)

When it comes to tense in fiction writing, there’s only one “rule” you need to remember: be consistent.  If you decide you want to write in present tense, stay in the present.  If you choose the past tense, stay in the past.

But how do you choose the verb tense to begin with?

The best way is to understand the benefits and limitations of both, then decide which one serves your story best.  Here’s a little cheat sheet to help you choose.

Present Tense

  • Immediacy – You feel like you’re right there with the main character.
  • Suspense –  This is especially important if your story is one where the POV character is in peril.  If the story is in present tense, the reader won’t know until the end if the POV character survives.
  • It Can Sound a Little Unnatural Let’s face it, present tense is relatively new in the world of fiction writing.  Our ears are more used to hearing stories told in past tense (e.g. “Once upon a time there was a…”)  This is not to say that all present tense sounds weird, but for some writers, it may not come as naturally as past tense.  This could lead to writing that sounds a bit hokey or gimmicky.  The trick here is practice, practice, practice.

 Past Tense

  • Distance – The narrator has more distance from the events in the story it because they happened in the past.  This gives the narrator some perspective about those events and allows the narrator to have some hindsight.  This is true both for first person and third person narrators.
  • Location in Time Using the past tense, you also need to consider where the narrator is telling the story from.  (This is especially important if you’re using 1st person.)  Is the narrator an old man looking back on his early life?  Is she telling the story just after having lived through it?  Depending on where the narrator is NOW, it can effect how he or she tells the story.  Third person gives you more leeway with this but in first person you need to consider this detail, even if you don’t explicitly state it in the story.
  • Less Suspense If you’re writing in 1st person or 3rd person limited and it’s past tense, the implication is that the POV character has lived to tell the tale (again, this is especially true in 1st person but you get more wiggle room in 3rd).  In most stories, this is probably not a problem and won’t kill much of your suspense, but if your novel is all about whether or not the POV character survives, then past tense could lessen the suspense.

In the end, it all comes down to this: Choose wisely.  Be consistent.  And don’t tear the fabric of the space-time continuum.

Now I’d like to know… which tense do you prefer to write in, present or past?

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