Author Tip Tuesday – Tip # 22 I Say, I Said – Choosing Tense

November 29, 2016

When you decide you're going to write a novel, soon after you have imagined your characters and mapped out an outline, you'll have to decide on tense and point of view. We covered point of view in the last tip, which in a nutshell, is your decision on whether you'll tell your story from first person perspective or third.

Once you've decided on that, you also need to decide on what tense you want to write it in. There are two tenses to choose from: Present Tense and Past Tense.

Missy is trying to decide what tense she should use in her next cat story.

Present tense gives the reader the sense that the action is happening just as the reader reads it. This can give the prose a feeling of immediacy, which can be very effective for thrillers and suspense stories. On the other hand, some readers find it distracting to be told that something is happening “right now.” Present tense can also be difficult to write.

Past tense tells us about something that has happened already.

Let’s look at the examples we used in the Point of View tip:

THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN is told in First Person PAST TENSE:

~~My mother used to tell me that I had an over active imagination.~


~~ When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold.~~

HARRY POTTER is told in Third Person PAST TENSE.

~~Mr. Dursley hummed as he picked out the most boring tie for work, and Mrs. Dursley gossiped away happily as she wrestled a screaming Dudley into his high chair.~~

The reason Present Tense is difficult is because when you are referring to things that happened in the past, you have to use past tense, even while writing in present tense.

“As I sit here writing this post, I drink my coffee. I type. Yesterday I did the same thing. I drank my coffee and typed. The cat comes in to disturb me again. I love routine.”

See how, even though that paragraph is in present tense, when I referred to what happened the day before, I had to switch to past tense, but it's still present tense prose.

This is it again in past tense.

“As I sat there writing my post, I drank my coffee. I typed. Yesterday I did the same thing. I drank my coffee and typed. The cat came in to disturb me again today. I loved routine.”

Be careful that you don't mix your tenses back and forth. If you're writing in past tense, don't suddenly switch to present and then back to past. This is very easy to do, and is something to look for during your revision process.

Keep your tenses straight. Say and said might be obvious, but it's easy to miss could/can, would/won't, and did/does.

Present tense: I say, he says, she says. I do or don't, she does or doesn't. I will or won't, he will or won't. I am writing, He is writing. I can or can't.

Past tense: I said, he said, she said. I did or didn't, she did or didn't. I would or wouldn't, he would or wouldn't. I was writing. He was writing. I could or couldn't.

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