Most people have a good intuitive feel for the use verb tenses, but many have trouble explaining them. For writers, verb tenses are extremely important, and their proper use can make the difference between a good piece and a great piece of writing, while their improper use can lead to a botched piece.
What exactly is a verb tense? The noun derives from the Latin noun tempus, meaning “time.” Don’t confuse it with the verb “tense” meaning “stretched tight” or “nervous.” That word comes from the Latin tensus, meaning “taut” and is part of the Latin verb tendere, meaning “to stretch.”
The Merriam-Webster definition of “tense” is “a distinction of form in a verb to express distinctions of time or duration of the action or state it denotes.” In simpler terms, it expresses the relative time and duration of the action.
Here are some references to help you understand the various tenses in English and when they’re used. You might be surprised to learn that there are more than you thought. You may want to print these out for future reference.
For those of you with masochistic tendencies, try the article below:
It’s not necessary for a writer to understand the names for all the verb tenses, but it is important that you understand the concepts behind them so that you’ll be conscious of why you’re using them and to validate that you’re using them correctly.
Most fiction is written in the past tense, which means you’ll be using simple past for the current action and past perfect to denote action happening prior to that time. Below is a passage from More Than Magick (my first novel) as originally written. Pay close attention to the PAST and PAST PERFECT tenses.
The honking jeep outside my window at eight-thirty a.m. quashed my planned sleep-in. I had not intended to attend my father’s make-Scott-miserable party. I didn’t bother shaving. What should I wear though? I considered scrungy jeans, but they all looked pretty sad, and deciding which pair was the scrungiest was just too tough this early in the morning. Inspiration struck. Cammies! I’d bought them as a personal protest this past year in San Diego so he didn’t know about them. Sneakers completed the look.
At ten to nine, I got in the jeep. The driver, a corporal I knew, nodded his approval. I think he envied me.
Five minutes later, I entered Dad’s office, identical to all the other offices. Remove the nameplates and family pictures, and you couldn’t tell whose office was whose. Dad stood up behind the gray metal desk that had taken root there in World War II. His narrowed eyes affirmed my sartorial decision.
Off to the left I noticed a man with his back to me. His khaki uniform had camouflaged him among the dull and drab surroundings.
In contrast, if you’re writing in present tense, you use present tense for the current action and simple past tense for prior events. Study the differences in the same passage rendered in PRESENT tense below.
The honking jeep outside my window at eight-thirty a.m. quashes my planned sleep-in. I do not intend to attend my father’s make-Scott-miserable party. I don’t bother shaving. What shall I wear though? I consider scrungy jeans, but they all look pretty sad, and deciding which pair is the scrungiest is just too tough this early in the morning. Inspiration strikes. Cammies! I bought them as a personal protest this past year in San Diego so he doesn’t know about them. Sneakers complete the look.
At ten to nine, I get in the jeep. The driver, a corporal I know, nods his approval. I think he envies me.
Five minutes later, I enter Dad’s office, identical to all the other offices. Remove the nameplates and family pictures, and you can’t tell whose office is whose. Dad stands up behind the gray metal desk that took root there in World War II. His narrowed eyes affirm my sartorial decision.
Off to the left I notice a man with his back to me. His khaki uniform camouflaged him among the dull and drab surroundings.
A SPECIAL CASE FOR FLASHBACKS–
When you need to slip a flashback into your past-tense narrative, since the action happened prior to the present events of the story, you would normally cast it into the past perfect. But the past perfect tense can get tiresome after a while, particularly if the flashback lasts more than a few sentences. In such cases, a better way to write the flashback is to open it in past perfect, slip into simple past tense, then return to past perfect just before ending the flashback. This technique makes the prose smoother while also signaling the reader where the flashback begins and ends.
Below is another passage from More Than Magick that contains a brief flashback in the second paragraph. I’ve inserted [had] in several spots that were not in the original so you can see where the past perfect verbs would have been had I not used the technique described above. Read the second paragraph as if they were not there.
Because it is a short flashback, it would not be necessary to slip out of past perfect, but in a longer flashback, you’d quickly become annoyed with the extra uses of “had” in it otherwise. Notice also the other uses of past perfect in the first paragraph to refer to past actions.
The thirteen-year-old boy he’d been sent after was not the first to journey to the ancient site to prove his manhood. The legends claimed that the spirits who supposedly dwelt in it granted wisdom. Surely those who built this place, and their spirits, were long extinct. But the boy’s caretaker had requested help. Legally, the Protectors had to provide it. This time the duty fell to Jen-Varth. Once, he had taken pride in his duties. Now, duty was a curse word to him.
On his homeworld of Xenna, when Jen-Varth was sixteen, his father had introduced him to a Protector who had come there to learn Xennan herbal medicine. Jen-Varth [had] walked with him through the rich Xennan forests and [had] taught him what he knew. The Protector [had] offered to sponsor him when he came of age, in three years. Jen-Varth had looked forward to Protector service.
His breath came forth in puffs of frost and dissipated into the frigid air like the past ten, wasted years of his life. He had wanted to be an explorer and to use his skills to improve the lives of those he encountered. Perhaps those were someone else’s dreams.
Some modal/auxiliary verbs–
The Wikipedia article talks about these in the section on “Copular, auxiliary, and modal verbs.” It’s worth noting the following verbs in their respective present and past tenses: can/could, may/might, shall/should, will/would.
MAY & MIGHT–some tips on using these–
One of the references listed in the first part of this blog talks about consistent use of verb tenses. However, like every writing rule or piece of advice, this one has exceptions as well, and I’m going to close with one of those exceptions.
Below is the opening from “Angel Baby” by Allie Marini Batts, published in issue #2 (January 2013) of Fabula Argentea. The story is written in normal past tense. But notice how the author in deftly slips into present tense–especially in the second-to-last paragraph of this excerpt–then back to past tense. This gives the reader a more immediate and closer perspective and pulls you right into the narrator’s head. The author does it seamlessly.
This is how you break the rules and craft a superior story by doing so. It’s also a great example of how to use first-person narrative properly to put the reader into the main character’s head and the scene, instead of having the character simply talk at the reader. You can read the entire piece at:
After you read the passage below, as an exercise you might try casting the passage all into past tense. After doing that, you’ll probably be convinced that breaking the rule was the right thing to do for this story.
I met Angel Baby in a coffeehouse, in that part of town where there are always shadows stuck to the streetlights. It was a cold night; she and I were both still huddled and shivering, waiting at the end of the bar for our drinks. Never Too Latte was always dim, smoky, and full of the smells of percolating coffee and steaming milk. We both ordered Americanos—hers had a shot of caramel syrup, mine didn’t—and we mistakenly grabbed each other’s cups.
I winced. “Too sweet.”
“Bitter,” she replied. “This shit tastes like coffee!”
And that’s how we stopped being strangers. I could tell you how pretty she is. But that’s been done before. Saying she has blonde hair or blue eyes or bowed lips doesn’t actually tell you what she looks like; there’s a hundred thousand girls with blonde hair and blue eyes and bowed lips. But only one of them is Angel Baby. I could say that her eyes have a playground in them, and that’s what made me decide to love her as I handed her cup back to her, assuring her I didn’t have cooties.
I don’t know why I asked if I could sit with her, and I don’t know why she said yes. I suppose it doesn’t matter, the whys of all of it. I have always liked Never Too Latte in spite of its name, which, in my opinion, is trying too hard. I like it because it has that arty feel of the coffeehouses of the 90s, the way coffee places don’t feel too much anymore. Now, they’re all kind of slicked over; you can’t smoke inside most of them anymore; there’s nothing that makes you feel like you’re hanging out in someone’s gigantic living room that just happens to have an espresso bar at the front of it.
The tables are a mash-up of strange paintjobs and decoupage. Some tables have tarot cards on them; on the community bookshelf there’s even a book on how to read the tarot. There’s a few checkers boards, a corner with two tables and chess boards, and somewhere else there’s a game of Clue, with no pieces, that’s missing half the cards (you have to use sugar packets if you want to play, and know that Col. Mustard can never be the one that did it, since all cards referencing him seem to be gone). On Thursdays there’s open mic night, and you can hear all the acoustic hippie songs, angry spoken word or mumbled poetry you want. It’s a clientele of people that you just never seem to see during the daylight.
So I sat with her, and she lit the tea light at the table, and she’s talking, and I’m only sort of half-listening. I’m more just watching her mouth and how she talks. I’m watching the way the corners turn up when she laughs, or when I remember to talk back to her, I’m watching how she talks with her hands a lot and wondering if she’s Italian or from California. I’m noticing the way she blows smoke out her nostrils like a dragon and wondering if it hurts her sinuses to do that, if she does it to look cool, or if that’s just how she smokes.
She grabbed a tarot deck and did a three card reading on me, and I don’t even know what a three card reading is, or what any of the cards mean, but I cut the deck like she said to, and when she told me to ask a question, all I could think in my head was, Do you like me? But I didn’t ask that. I asked if I could keep my question private, and she said, “Yeah, that’s okay.”