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Verb Tension

I've written about this before, but it requires reinforcement.

I hate it when a writer doesn't know the difference between writing in present and past tense (I like both if done correctly). Lately I've picked up several books that have both tenses in the same paragraph, sometimes the same sentence. Those books quickly end up on my discard pile even if I genuinely enjoyed the premise. I can forgive one or two lapses, but not an entire book.

Verb tense cues the reader in to when an action took place. Verb tenses should change only when there is a change in time.

In terms of story structure, there are only two specific tenses to worry about: present and past.

It most commercial fiction, the stories are written in what is considered past tense. That doesn’t mean a sentence cannot use a different tense if required. Rather, the story is related as if it had already happened and the reader is only now learning about it from the point of view character.

Stories written in present tense are less common and relate the story as if it is happening right at that very moment to the point of view character. Writing an entire novel in present tense is tricky.

The rest of the complex verb forms are marked by words called auxiliaries. Grasping the six basic tenses allows a writer to control the timeframe of the scenes through the sentence structure.

Problems in sequencing tenses tend to occur with the perfect tenses, all of which are formed by adding words to the past participles: had, have, will, and will have. The most common add-ons are: be, can, do,  has, have, had, may, must, ought, shall, will, and would.

Verb tense alerts you to narrator intrusions.
          Sally didn’t understand yet that her life would never be the same.

Aside from poor foreshadowing, if you’ve been using past tense, you just launched the reader into a future timeframe.

Let’s review verb tenses in detail.

·Present tense: When using present tense, the verb choice reflects an unchanging, repeated, or reoccurring action or situation that exists in the present. Few stories are written in present tense.
          I stroke his hair.
        His hand slides down my arm, his thumb searching for a pulse.

· Present progressive tense describes an ongoing action that is happening at the same time the statement is written. This tense is formed by using am, is, are with the verb form ending in ing.
          I am stroking his hair.
        We are walking the dog.
        The sun is shining.

· Present perfect tense refers to something that happened at an indefinite time in the past or that began in the past and continues into the present. It uses have or had in combination with the past participle of the verb, usually ending in ed. Irregular verbs have special past participles.
          We have searched high and low and cannot find it.
        We have been using this process for five years.

· Present perfect progressive tense describes an action that began in the past, continues in the present, and may continue into the future. This tense is formed by using has and have been and the present participle of the verb ending in ing.
          We have been considering the possibility of retiring to Florida.

· Past Tense
When using past tense, the verb choice expresses an action or situation that started and finished in the past and usually ends in ed. Irregular verbs have special past tense forms. Most commercial fiction is written in past tense.
          Sally reached for the knife.
            Dick raced down the stairs.
        I led the charge into the building.

· Past progressive tense is used to describe a past action which was happening when another action occurred and uses was and were with a verb ending in ing.
          I was reaching for his knife.
        Dick was racing down the stairs when the alarm sounded.

This tense is considered passive and writers are encouraged to do a search and kill for sentences using was plus ing. Try searching for the word was in your draft. It will take hours, but do it. Get rid of as many as you can.

· Past perfect tense is used for an action that took place in the past before another past action. This tense is formed by using had with the past participle of the verb.
          By the time we arrived, the fight had ended.

· Past perfect progressive tense references a past but ongoing action that was completed before some other past action. This tense is formed by using had been and the present perfect form of the verb ending in ing.
          Before the alarm rang, the firemen had been cooking dinner and playing poker.


· Future Tense
Future tense expresses a situation that has not yet occurred. It uses will or shall.
          Dick will go the store on Monday.
        Jane shall meet the deadline.

· Progressive future tense describes an ongoing or continuous action that will take place in the future. This tense is formed by using will be or shall be with a verb ending in ing.
          Jane will be singing with the choir on July fourth.

· Future perfect tense refers to an action that will occur in the future before some other action. This tense is formed by using will have with the past participle of the verb.
          By the time we arrive in London, the tour bus will have been waiting there for several days.

· Future perfect progressive tense refers to a future, ongoing action that will occur before some specified future time, using will have been and the present participle of verbs ending in ing.
          By this time next year, we will have been publishing and selling more books than we ever imagined.

Shifting viewpoint does not mean shifting tense. If you are attributing thoughts to a character, you do not shift into the present tense to express them unless you are writing the piece in present tense.
          Incorrect: “I really hate them,” she thinks.
          Correct: “I really hate them,” she thought.


Shifting tense and misuse of tense are plot holes. They are hard to ignore and interrupt the flow. It forces the reader to re-read a sentence or paragraph. Subtle, unintended time shifts create confusion. A reader might have to stop and ask, “Did he or will he?”

Perfecting verb tense is a rudinmentary skill every writer needs in their writing toolkit.

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