The Present, the Past, and the Future Walk into a Bar …
It was tense.
Tense is important for writers. Unfortunately, a lot of us get it wrong. That’s because tenses are a bit tricky to use.
For the purposes of writing, English has around twelve tenses (present, past, future; present perfect, past perfect, future perfect; continuous present, past, and future; and perfect continuous present, past, and future). Each tense indicates when something happened; that’s why using the correct tense is important.
(Noted here: In a morphological sense, English only has two tenses: past and present. This is the stance of most linguists, as English creates its other “tenses” by adding auxiliary, or “helping,” verbs. Verbs only have four forms, one of which is the infinitive, two address the present, and one addresses the past.)
We’ll start with the easy ones: present, past, and future. Present tense refers to something happening now: “I say to him, ‘Sir, your wig is on fire.’”
Past tense is something that has happened: “I said to him, ‘Sir, your wig is on fire.’”
Future tense is something that will happen in the future: “I will say, ‘Sir, your wig is on fire.’”
What about those perfect tenses? They also give us temporal clues. Present perfect indicates something that happened very recently: “I have said to him, ‘Sir, your wig is on fire.’”
Past perfect indicates something happened an even longer time ago: “I had said to him, ‘Sir, your wig is on fire.’”
Future perfect is a little funky; it combines the past tense with the future tense and looks something like this: “When all is said and done, I will have said to him, ‘Sir, your wig is on fire.’”
The continuous forms are created by conjugating the verb as a gerund (most often recognized by their -ing endings) and adding the appropriate helping verb:
Present: “I am saying to him, ‘Sir, your wig is on fire.’” Past: “I was saying to him, ‘Sir, your wig is on fire.’” Future: “I will be saying to him, ‘Sir, your wig is on fire.’”
These forms indicate the action is ongoing. The perfect continuous combines the perfect tenses and their temporal indications, and the indication of ongoing action:
“I have been saying to him, ‘Sir, your wig is on fire.’” (This indicates we’re presently repeating ourselves.) “I had been saying to him, ‘Sir, your wig is on fire.’” (This indicates we were repeating ourselves, but stopped.) “I will have been saying to him, ‘Sir, your wig is on fire.’” (This anticipates that we might be repeating ourselves a lot.)
Picking a Tense
Writers will use all of these tenses in the course of writing a book, in all likelihood: It’s likely that our characters will speak about themselves in both present and past tense, or they might wax poetic about their hopes and dreams for the future.
For the most part, however, writers tend to tell their stories in the past tense. Why?
The simple answer is it’s conventional. In everyday life, we tell each other stories in the past tense (“Oh, my God, you’ll never guess what happened to me the other day! So, I met this guy …”). Since we’re already telling stories this way, it seems most natural to continue telling them in the past tense, as though they have already happened. It helps the reader feel less like someone is narrating a play-by-play to them and more like they’re catching up with an old friend.
Many stories couch themselves in the temporal—think about fairy tales that start “once upon a time.” This helps the reader remove themselves from the everyday. Not all stories need to do this—especially not stories set contemporaneously—but if we’re writing about Victorian England, using the present tense might seem a bit strange. There’s also the issue that while you may be writing about the present currently, it will very soon be the past. The present tense, in a way, dates itself.
The past tense gives a sense of closure. Since the story happened in the past, it must conclude. It may end with the implication that it’s ongoing, but usually, the past tense indicates to us that there’s an endpoint. A present-tense text feels like it could continue. As the present rolls into the future incessantly, a story using present tense could theoretically be unending.
There’s been a trend toward using the present tense, however. There’s one thing the present tense does very well, and that’s capture the reader “in the moment.” Past tense does a good job of pushing us out of this time and space, but the present tense seeks to hold us here—and it holds us in the moment of the story, perhaps better than the past tense can.
Of course, when past tense is used correctly, the reader doesn’t have much difficulty being pulled into the “moment” of the story. Read The Lord of the Rings, which is told in past tense. Few readers have difficulty getting sucked into the story.
Similarly, when present tense is used poorly—and it often is—it can destroy a story. The problem is that most writers aren’t very practiced at writing the present tense. Since most stories are told in past tense, we practice the present tense much less frequently. We also have a tendency to slip into past perfect when we need the past tense; when working with the present tense, we should slip into simple past, not past perfect. This is understandable, however, as stories told in past tense require past perfect when they “go back in time.”
Which is better then? The past tense is generally preferable, but many writers are experimenting with the present tense. Many readers, editors, and publishers dislike the present tense; some find it an insurmountable barrier. But there is a growing trend toward it, and no reason that it cannot be employed.
Ultimately, you need to use the tense the story dictates. Some writers use present tense as an experiment or challenge to themselves. Some simply prefer it. Others will use the tried-and-true of the past tense.