Reading in Library

Tips for Tenses

Updated: Feb 23

Writing can be tough. It can be stressful. It can challenging. One might even say it can be . . . tense?

Tenses are, for better or worse, the tiny little parts that keep your engine running properly. They might not seem important, but switching from past tense to present tense mid-sentence can cause a spot of confusion from readers (and great disdain from grammar disciplinarians). Here are some tips on how to keep your tenses tight.

Know your genre

Are you penning a thriller? A whodunit? A space opera? The tense you choose to write your story in might make or break it. If you’re writing a detective novel, present tense might be more appropriate; we want to be by your character’s side as they unravel each clue. If you’re writing high fantasy, perhaps past tense is best. Past tense is best used in vivid descriptions, making it perfect for an adventure in alien (or fairy?) lands.

Keep an eye on your verbs.

Don’t let them run around! Should you choose to write in past or present tense, the verbs in your text should, by and large, match your selection. Making sure that each little ‘run’ is indeed ‘run’ and not ‘ran’, and each ‘is’ is verily ‘is’ and not ‘was’, is an exercise in tedium. But one which, when complete, will make your work look like a polished and clean well-oiled machine.

Understand your time frames

In novels, time can skip forward or backward – your character could be having a flashback or premonition of the future! In these cases, your tenses should appropriately shift to accommodate the scene. If your character is imparting wisdom from a time yet to come, they will likely report it in the future tense. If they are remembering something the scene would be set in the past tense. Keeping your time frame firmly in mind is integral to getting a firm grip on which verb should behave how and where.

Say what now?

Check your dialogue. All spoken words (or thoughtened thoughts) are written in present tense (usually). When real people speak, they speak in real time, and so should your characters. This rule is applicable regardless of which tense your book is written in.

Tenses can be very tricky, even to the most seasoned of writers. They can get away from us in a storm of thoughts and imagination. Keeping your tenses in order is the difference between good writing great writing. So just relax, and keep tense.