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Present or Past Verb Tense: What to Choose For Your Fiction Writing

The English language has a nice, neat system of verb tenses to choose from. But how do you know which is the best (or correct) verb tense to choose? What’s the difference between past, present, future,  present perfect, past perfect, and future perfect? And how do the simple and progressive verb forms play into it? Here’s a chart that breaks down the differences between verb forms into a simple and easy-to-read format.

Simple Form Progressive Form
Present I run I am running
Past I ran I was running
Future I will run I will be running
Present Perfect I have run I have been running
Past Perfect I had run I had been running
Future Perfect I will have run I will have been running

 

Nearly every piece of fiction will require a variety of verb tenses to show the reader the sequence of events throughout the story. A letter to the editor will most likely be written in the present tense, and a nostalgic essay about your childhood will be primarily written in the past tense. We’ll give a quick overview of the proper usage of all the verb tenses, but first, here’s a question from one reader:

“Is there a preferred tense choice for fiction writers, or does one’s choice of verb tense brand one as a hack or an amateur?”

Even though tenses fit neatly into a table, making the proper choices isn’t so cut-and-dried. There are various shades of difference between, say, the future and the future perfect, and authors must determine what accurately describes the sequence of events they are trying to convey. Verb tense puts the reader in the proper time frame, and messing around with it can be incredibly distracting, especially if you’re inconsistent. Is this happening now? Is this a flashback? Editors do not care what tenses are used as long as they are used correctly.

For instance, a big, red amateur flag pops up if verb tense is flat-out wrong.

I wanted to find an open drugstore, and I walk into the first one I see.

Obviously, there are two tenses (past and present) where there should be one, and this is jarring to the reader. Pick one tense and stick to it.

A second problem involves using the passive voice. Both of the following sentences are technically correct, but sentence #2 uses an active voice to drive the action…

The car was driven quickly down the street. (Who drove the car?)

Melissa drove the car quickly down the street. (Ah, much better.)

Editors are turned off by the excessive use of the passive voice, and passive writing is often wordy writing—this can quickly brand you as an amateur. As far as proper usage of verb tenses in general, here’s a quick grammatical overview: Use the present for discussing general knowledge or truth, arguments or ideas, or works of literature.

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Dogs prefer an owner with a calm, steady nature.

Use the past for events that have already happened in the past and are now finished.

In 1966 her parents moved to the Northeast.

Use the present perfect for events that happened in the indefinite past.

He has argued that carbohydrates are not the enemy they are portrayed to be.

Use the past perfect with the simple past to describe an event that happened before another event.

The storefront had already been destroyed when the police arrived.

Use the progressive form to emphasize action that is happening at that moment.

I am working as fast as I can.

Use the future perfect for actions that will be completed at some time in the future, with one event occurring before another.

When the bell rings I will have been writing for over half an hour.

As with so many aspects of writing, there is no rule that says if you want to get published, use this (fill in the blank) tense. Some writers are able to write fiction entirely in the present tense (something that requires a great deal of skill and practice), but there is nothing amateur about choosing to write in the past tense—the most common and widely accepted tense for fiction. Again, every piece of fiction is likely to contain multiple forms of verb tenses, and the trick is to use them properly and consistently.

At Writer’s Relief, we love to read fiction in any tense (as long as it’s good writing!). If you’d like to be considered for our client list (we help writers submit to literary agents and editors), please read our submission guidelines.

2 Responses to Present or Past Verb Tense: What to Choose For Your Fiction Writing

  1. I was always accused of writing in a passive voice in school and college, but I never could figure out what they meant until I started editing my novel for publication. Replacing words, and finding new ways of expressing what I was trying to say, to make it easier reading.

    thanks!

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