Basics of writingVerb tenses

Mastering verb tenses–Part 5

From Rick:

In Part 4 of this series (link below), I ended with an example that started with a past perfect tense and I said I would explain that in the next post. Well, this is the next post.


Here’s the passage from last time–


Jake hadn’t expected the phone call from Bryce Duncan.

“Hiya, Jake.”

He recognized the slight Australian accent. “Bryce?”

“Your one and only grad school roommate.”

“It’s good to hear from you. What’ve you been up to?”

“Still digging up the past, except I have a small problem that requires your kind of genius. Can you hop a flight tomorrow morning to scenic Upstate New York?”

Granted, Jake hadn’t seen him in over two years because they had both been busy, but this was a bit too impulsive, even for capricious Bryce. Still, a short vacation from this hot, humid Illinois summer sounded good. But…

“Can’t do it. I’m in the middle of a project. How about next weekend?”

“That’ll be too late.”

Jake heard a nervous edge in Bryce’s voice. “Bryce, what’s this about?”

“I can’t discuss it over the phone. Bring old clothes. Your ticket’s waiting for you at the airport.”

“Are you in some kind of trouble?”

“No, not yet. I’m relying on you to keep me out of it. I know you’re never out of bed before ten, but a 6:30 a.m. flight was the best I could arrange. You’ll have to switch planes a couple of times, and there’re no in-flight meals. Best I could do. Sorry. I’ll meet you at the Plattsburgh airport late tomorrow afternoon.”


That first line (Jake hadn’t expected the phone call from Bryce Duncan) could actually be rendered in a variety of ways to give different meanings. Further, the main narrative is in past tense, but what if we had rendered it in present tense? How would that opening line read then?

Let’s explore the possibilities and different meanings conveyed by using various verb tenses.

–Jake didn’t expect the phone call from Bryce Duncan.

Written this way, in simple past tense, it’s fairly neutral and could have several interpretations. It could suggest he wasn’t expecting any phone call, from Bryce or anyone else, or that the call from Bryce caught him off guard. Simply changing “the” to “a” would give it yet another meaning—that he didn’t expect Bryce in particular would be calling him at all.

–Jake wasn’t expecting the phone call from Bryce Duncan.

In this one (past progressive tense), possibly Jake was expecting a call, but not one from Bryce. This keeps the line more in current story time by indicating an ongoing sense of not expecting the call as opposed to a call that interrupted his routine. It’s a subtle difference, and generally I advise writers to avoid the past progressive unless you do need to show something ongoing when something else happened: I was watching TV when a baseball crashed through my living room window. (ongoing action “was watching” when the event “crashed” occurred)

An unnecessary past progressive will add an extra “was” use (which we like to eliminate when possible), and the past progressive is a less strong verb form than simple past.

–Jake hadn’t been expecting the phone call from Bryce Duncan.

Using the past perfect progressive tense gives the same air of uncertainty as past perfect but adds the ongoing sense of past progressive. It’s essentially past progressive pushed one step farther back in time. And it probably is unnecessary.

–Jake hadn’t expected the phone call from Bryce Duncan.

Past perfect is how it was worded originally. This suggests a simple surprise that Bryce called and brings us back to the question of why past perfect instead of simple past tense. The story is being narrated in past tense. By using past perfect and pushing the event back one stage, this gives the call more a feeling of the event that started it all. Of all the things Jake might have expected, this one event was the least probable, and it turns out to be the initiating event of the novel. This is where it all begins, at one point in time—not “Jake DID NOT expect the phone call” but “Jake HAD NOT expected the phone call.

So, with that explained, let’s consider some other variations.


What if the main narrative had been written in present tense?

–Jake didn’t expect the phone call from Bryce Duncan.
–“Hiya, Jake.”
–He recognizes the slight Australian accent. “Bryce?”

In this case, since the action takes place in the present, you use simple past tense to indicate the surprise (the initiating event) of Bryce calling.

–Jake isn’t expecting the phone call from Bryce Duncan.

This is the present-tense variation of “wasn’t expecting” and although it seems a little awkward, it’s correct in the context of showing he’s expecting a call, just not one from Bryce.

–Jake doesn’t expect the phone call from Bryce Duncan.

I could see where this might be used in a present-tense narrative, and it’s technically correct (the analogous form of “didn’t expect” in the original past-tense version), but this wording seems incredibly awkward to me. The only way I could see this working is if someone other than Jake is the narrator.

–Jake wouldn’t have expected the phone call from Bryce Duncan.

Here we’ve used the conditional tense (would) to show that Bryce is one of the last people he expected to hear from. Again, writing it this way could be a little awkward. If I wanted to convey this meaning, I’d probably write it as “Jake never expected the phone call from Bryce Duncan.”

One final variation:

–Jake wouldn’t expect the phone call from Bryce Duncan.

This version suggests a total surprise to Jake: Having Bryce call is not something he would expect at all. This wording might be used if someone else is having Bryce call to surprise Jake: “I’m going to have Bryce call because Jake would never in a million years expect him to call.”


To finish up this series, I’d like to talk briefly about using past tense versus present tense to tell a story. I see present tense being used more than it used to be, and I’m not sure if writers think it’s more trendy or that they think it’s a better tense to write in. New writers see it used and perhaps think that’s how they’re supposed to write now.

Let me set the record straight: Past tense is STILL the most common and generally preferred way to write a story.

Consider this: Storytelling goes way back before writing, when information was passed along orally. Stories were told in the past tense because they were generally about things that HAPPENED (tales and myths, for example) in the past, not news events happening now:

“Moses and the Israelites have arrived at the Red Sea, with the Egyptians not far behind. Just when we fear all will be lost, Moses stretches out his arm and the waters of the Red Sea part! The Israelites press forward and arrive safely on the other side. The Egyptian army makes it halfway when the waters of the Red Sea collapse in upon them.”

Past tense is a legacy way to tell stories. And it still works. Certainly present tense has its place. However, because not all readers like or be comfortable with present tense, you risk alienating part of your intended audience.

Here are links to several articles that explore the choice of tense in more detail. The choice of tense to tell your story should be determined in large part by what feels best for the story, not upon the author’s likes and dislikes.










I’ll end with four bits of advice.

(1) Even though you have some options regarding verb tenses, be sure you’re selecting the most appropriate one.

(2) Be consistent in your tense use. Yes, there are times when you CAN mix past and present tense, but unless you know when and how to do it properly, don’t do it.

(3) Learn the correct past and past participle forms of the verbs you use. Don’t write “I should have went” unless it’s in dialogue and your character speaks that way. I’ve lately seen a couple of story submissions to magazines using “lied” and “laid” incorrectly: “He lied on the bed” or “He laid on bed.”

(4) Be aware that some verb forms are changing. “Sunk” and “shrunk” are now acceptable past tense forms of “sink” and “shrink” (in addition to “sank” and “shrank”). And look up whether you should use “dove” or “dived” and “shone” or “shined.” But as of right now “should have went” is still incorrect.

I hope that this series has brought some clarity about the use of the various verb tenses, and I hope I’ve given you some guidance and made you more aware of the subtleties of their use. As careful writers, we must always be conscious of what tenses we’re using and whether they’re the correct and best ones and that we’re using them properly.


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