Writers have a lot to consider when they choose the narrative tense of their novel. Deciding on the right tense for your story has a direct impact on world-building, character development, and creating an immersive story. A well-written story pulls the reader in, avoiding clunky writing or language that keeps readers at just the right level of closeness and intimacy with the characters.
Tenses: past, present, and future
Nowadays, writers can write in just about any tense they’d like. Present tense is increasingly popular in YA, romance, and other popular genres, but you don’t have to look too far into the past to find classic literature that uses present tense (alongside past) to great effect (Bleak House, anyone?). Future tense may be sprinkled throughout a narrative, especially in dialogue, but you’ll be hard pressed to find novels entirely written in future tense. For that reason, I’ll stick with discussion of past tense (the most commonly used tense) for now.
If you think back to your high school English classes, you may remember discussing the four narrative tenses, usually applied to the past tense. These include: simple, perfect, progressive (or continuous), and perfect progressive (continuous).
Simple past tense is, indeed, the simplest and likely most familiar verb structure. It is used to talk about events that happened in the past and that were completed in the past. Example: The dog sniffed the grass, then stood at attention as a squirrel scurried by.
Past perfect tense is used primarily to refer to completed events that happened prior to the events of the story. It can easily be used to provide background information relevant to the current moment in the plot. An easy way to spot past perfect is to look for the word “had,” such as in the example: She had stocked the pantry last week only to find, now, that it was completely empty.
Past progressive tense describes an event or action that is happening during or at the same time as the narrative. It’s important to distinguish between continuous actions and completed actions that may also be happening at the same time as the narrative. In this case, it helps to look for the “-ing” verb ending. Example: He took in the view of the valley and the silver snake-like river winding through the trees far below.
Perfect progressive tense encompasses exactly what the name sounds like, a combination of past perfect and past progressive. As such, you’ll see a combination of the verb structures “had been” and “-ing.” The action will be one that continues for some time but has a clear ending. Example: They had been planning the next day’s events until the phone rang and interrupted their discussion.
Changing narrative tense within a story
Of course, it will be necessary in the course of writing, especially if writing in past tense, to switch between the four narrative tenses. In fact, it would be impossible to tell a complete story without the ability to describe current actions, completed past actions that may affect the story, and actions currently happening and ending within the story. This is just good storytelling, and knowing when and how to use each tense results in a smooth read for everyone.
What a writer doesn’t want to happen is a sudden change between past tense (whichever narrative tense) and present or future tense. As an editor, I see this happen most often in the exchange of “was” with “is,” but it can happen to any verb. However, present tense will likely appear within dialogue even if the story is written in past tense. The same may happen with simple future tense. (“She always responds that way. Just ignore her.” Henry rolled his eyes. Or, “I will visit Henry tomorrow, if I have time,” Jane said.)
Stick to it
Choosing the tense of a story may provide some challenge. A writer may even rewrite a story to change the tense throughout after receiving feedback prior to publication. No matter what tense (past, present, or future) you use, stick to it, and ask for feedback on its effectiveness and edit for consistency.