Three Tips to DemystifyTense


Question: “Is it ever okay to switch tenses in a story?”

Answer: Since you included the word ever, the answer is yes. Sometimes switching up your tenses adds power and interest. But generally no. These tips should take the tension out of working with tense and help you decide.

#1 – In general, choose one and stick to either present or past.

Because we may switch back and forth naturally in conversation, tense changes can slip easily into writing. It may take a keen eye to notice it, but some people will. Pointless switches signal lax editing and may be confusing. Only switch when you have a clear reason.

Present tense can enhance the tension and make short stories with lots of drama even more compelling to read. It’s an especially good choice for stories written to stand on their own. Past tense may feel more natural and works well for anthologies, composite stories, and memoir.

#2 – You may need to mix tenses if you are writing in the present about someone who died.

For example:

My father loved to tell stories about the olden days, and every now and then he e-mailed stories about cowboys, hunting jack rabbits, raising chickens and other nostalgic topics to family and friends. He was a masterful storyteller, and his work is polished and entertaining. Although it barely scratches the surface of his life, it’s a cherished legacy. We looked forward to each story.

He DID love, and his (remaining) work (still) IS . . .  Mixing tenses is the only accurate way to state this and other cases where one thing is gone and a related one endures. This sort of shift is clear and easily understood.

#3 – Switching tense for flashbacks may be a powerful option and set them apart.

If your main story is written in the past tense and you reflect back to an especially dramatic scene, it can work well to write that scene in present tense, bringing the reader into the moment. Conversely, past tense makes sense for flashbacks inserted into stories written in present tense. Even if the reader does not specifically notice the shift in time, the change of tense signals it to the unconscious, preventing most confusion. Tips on writing successful flashbacks abound on line.

Think of tense as a two-lane highway with fast-moving traffic. In general it works best to stick with your lane. Look carefully for the right time and signal your intent when you have reason to change.


Karen Walker said...

Hi Sharon - so, back at work, I see. Thank Goodness!

Sharon Lippincott said...

Thanks Karen. Appearances can be deceiving. I loaded this post a week ago, scheduled to appear today. Ah, the marvels of technology.

Amber Starfire said...

Good advice, Sharon! I'm often asked about tense in the situation where buildings, monuments, and/or other geographic locations still exist. For example, when writing about traveling to see the pyramids, you might write your story in past tense, but describe the pyramids in present tense. That can get confusing though, so even though it's technically correct, I prefer to stay in past tense; you are writing about a past experience, after all.

Sharon Lippincott said...

Thanks Amber. I completely agree with your pyramid example. That's not quite the same as the departed person's writings that are currently being read -- or whatever I said.

BOTTOM LINE: Don't abandon logic and good sense!

Unknown said...

Great post, Sharon! Sometimes it's hard to keep tenses straight because, as you say, we switch around in conversation sometimes. And that's not a problem when we're talking. But we have to keep it straight and make sure it makes sense in our writing.

To add to the challenge: writing in past tense seems simple enough. (I write a lot in a close third POV, past tense). When the character reflects on an event that happened in *her* past, then it's past perfect: "she had done that," "if only he had done that differently," and so on. Trouble is, too much of that is wordy and hard to read. So then it's a choice of where to switch back to simple past tense with an implied past perfect (because now the reader knows the reflection or flashback has already take place before the current (past tense) time. I had to work on that carefully in one of my recent novels (and same thing with writing the sequel now...phew :)

Leah McClellan said...

PS It's Leah in comment above :) Haven't commented on Blogger in ages, so it says "Unknown," but my name should show now.

Sharon Lippincott said...

Thanks for the expansion of concept, Leah -- and I'm glad you got your name to show. I'd advise anyone aspiring to high sales and ratings for her memoir to bone up on the fine points of verb tenses And hire an editor with strong grammar skills. Subtle differences between past tense and past perfect can make a difference. I don't generally go into that for fear of igniting sometimes sparse hair or something like that.

Janet Givens said...

I love your metaphor of changing lanes of traffic. A great reminder to be careful. Thanks.