Why Do Authors Need to Know About Verb Tense?
Updated: Mar 25
Convoluted verb tenses can bog down the reader so it’s important to wrap your head around it as a writer. Think of it as another tool in your writers’ tool box. Knowing this will tighten up your writing and build trust with your readers.
In this post I am going to focus on present, past, past perfect and habitual past tenses. These are the most prevalent in fiction today.
Before I do that, I am going to explain the difference between simple tense, perfect tense and progressive tense.
Simple tense does not actually mean “simple” because they are easy. They refer to actions that happen at a single point in time.
Present tense – a present moment in time.
Past tense – a past moment in time.
Future tense – a future moment in time.
The perfect tenses deal with actions that span a period of time, which make it perfect for commercial fiction.
Present perfect – deals with an action that began in the past and continues up to the present time.
Past perfect – deals with an action that began at a more distant point in the past and ended at a more recent point in the past.
Future perfect – deals with an action that begins in the present or in the near future and ends by some more distant point of time in the future.
Then you have progressive tenses. These tenses stand apart from the main six (above) to emphasize that the action of the verb is in progress.
Present progressive – I am working on it even as we speak.
Past progressive – I was working on it when you called.
Future progressive – I will be working on it all next week.
There’s also a group of perfect progressive tenses. Everything above is in the active voice. Perfect progressive is the passive voice of writing.
Present perfect progressive – The car has been washed by Mike.
Past perfect progressive – The car had been washed by Mike.
Future perfect progressive – The car will have been washed by Mike.
See the image below for a visual representation of tense. I’m a visual learner and seeing it like this helps to cement the concepts.
Now that you have a basic refresher in verb tenses, let’s move on to using present tense in your writing.
You’ll most likely see the present tense used for scientific theories, how-to books, and all dramatic literature. When you’re writing about something that happens repeatedly, the present tense is required.
As with anything, there are exceptions. In short stories, the present tense narrative makes sense because space is limited.
There are four types of present tense you should know if you decide to use the present.
Simple present: I go to the library
Present perfect progressive: I have been going to the library
Present perfect: I have been to the library
Present progressive: I am going to the library
Pros of present tense:
It’s great if you want to close the distance between the reader and viewpoint character.
Works well for short fiction.
Cons of present tense:
It’s mainly used to make statements of fact and to make generalizations.
It’s difficult to manage if there’s more than one viewpoint character all operating in the present tense.
Can be exhausting for readers because it’s emotionally immersive.
I recommend saving present tense for how-to books and for short fiction. Let’s move on to the past tense, which is the most popular among fiction writers today.
Orson Scott Card, author of Ender’s Game and Pathfinder, said, “Almost every story you’ll ever read or hear is in the past tense. Newspapers, broadcast news, history, science, gossip, and fiction—the overwhelming majority of these storytelling forms use the past tense. It’s what most audiences expect when they pick up a work of fiction.”
Readers are so used to the past tense that they have no trouble immersing themselves in the story as if it’s happening now. Using past tense is almost invisible to the reader, and that's why I highly encourage my clients to use this tense.
“The past tense is the choice of most contemporary commercial fiction writers. What’s interesting is that readers are so used to this style that they can still immerse themselves in a past tense narrative as though the story is unfolding now.” - Louise Harnby
Here’s the five types of past tense.
Simple Past: I went to the library / He went to the library
Past perfect progressive: I had been going to the library / He had been going to the library
Past Perfect: I had gone to the library / He had gone to the library
Past progressive: I was going to the library / He was going to the library
Habitual past: I would go to the library every week / I used to go to the library every week
*Used for when you want to reference an event from your novel’s past that happened habitually. You use would and used to.
What you want to watch out for when writing in the past tense, especially for new writers, is when you reference events that happened in the story’s past. You will most likely need to use past perfect.
If you want your reader to experience the now of your novel, then you would write in the simple past, or past progressive.
But, if you want to write about something that happened in the novel’s past, then you would use past perfect.
Pros of past tense:
It’s much easier to shift the distance between the reader and the narrator.
Readers don’t get tired of past tense as long as the writing is strong.
Cons of past tense:
Past tense writing can be flat if the author doesn’t take care.
Fight scenes, escapes, and arguments can be arduous if the writing isn’t lean and rich.
You may be wondering if it’s okay to mix past and present tenses within a sentence or paragraph. There are three situations where you can do that.
If you’re using an omniscient point of view and the narrator deliberately interrupts the action.
When a first-person point of view talks directly to the reader.
When a sentence, or part of it, refers to information that is factual and current.
I suggest writing in the tense you feel most comfortable with that will accomplish what the story requires.
I did not go into too much detail about future tense because the main two you want to focus on are present and past tense. See above for future tense examples or click on one of the sources below to learn more.
If you would like to learn more about verb tenses, these are the resources I’ve referenced.
This is the second post in my narrative viewpoint series.
I talked about Voice in week one. Click here to read.