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Monday, March 25, 2013

Choosing Tense

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In this blog, I'm going to first discuss choosing an appropriate tense in your writing, then below I will cover the different types of English tenses.

Choosing an Appropriate Tense

Even though there are 17 tenses in the English language, they break down into 3 distinct groups: past, present, and future. In writing, it is just as important to consider the tense you will use for your story as it is to consider the point of view.

First, let's just get future tense out of the pool of options. I don't want to say it would be impossible, but I really can't imagine a whole book of saying what will happen next.

The debate of past versus present seems to be a hot one. Personally, I believe your choice should depend on your story and what you want to accomplish. There are probably times when past tense isn't as good as present, and other times when present tense isn't as good as past. With that disclaimer out of the way, let's look at the give-and-take of past and present.


While present tense is getting to be more common every year, it is still newer and less common than past tense. Think of the good-old phrase Once Upon a Time. Even in the course of daily conversation, we tend to use more past tense (or future) than present. This familiarity may lessen the adjustment period a reader has in getting into the novel. It will also draw attention away from the words used and into the story.


The novelty of present tense may entice readers by bringing the story from a distant past to right here, right now. This in turn can create a more exciting environment and deeper involvement.


Both sides of the argument seem to think they have the corner on this one. In present tense, the verbs announce the action to be happening at the same time as the book is being read. In the present tense, there is argument that the familiarity with the verbs makes the action go smoother--which in turn makes it seem more immediate.

Active Writing

It is much more difficult to slip into passive writing when using the present tense. Is it possible to still use passive sentences? Absolutely. But it is easier to express active verbs and actions when using the present tense. This may create a more engaging book.


Technically speaking, if the present tense is on every page, then the book shouldn't have already been finished. By the time there is a story to tell, everything is in past tense. Do readers get hung up on this issue? No. Or if they do, it has to be a small percentage. But proponents for past tense would argue that theirs is the more believable tense.

Reader Prefereance

Some readers hate present tense. Some love it. The same could be said with past tense. These readers could be editors, agents, or the general public. Most people fall somewhere in the middle, with a preference for one or the other, but acceptance of both. The bottom line is, no matter what tense you choose, there will be someone who disagrees with your choice. Just make sure that you look at your options so you can tell your story in the most effective way possible--and whatever you decide will be the "right" answer.

Don't Switch

Whether you choose past or present tense, pick one and keep it. Of course, you can always go back and re-write your story to change from one tense to the other, but you should not be jumping from one tense to the other during your writing. But like every rule, there are exceptions:
  • In past tense, all speech will still be in present tense, but it needs to be in quotations.
  • In present tense, you may use past tense if the character has a flashback.

Let me know what you think. Tell me if I failed to hit on a point that you feel is important in the discussion over choosing your tense.

As always, thanks for reading.

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