Thoughts On Choosing Verb Tense

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In addition to making decisions about point-of-view for a piece of writing, another issue new writers grapple with is deciding on which verb tense to use when writing a story. Obviously, you will write in past tense if something occurred in the past, and present tense if something is occurring in the present, but is there more to it?

Past Tense. Past tense can be used to tell a story that happened in the past, or to provide backstory before jumping into a present-tense narrative. Beyond this obviousness, however, using past-tense is important if you want a first person narrator to be able to have a larger realization that can only come from hindsight.

Which makes sense when we consider that we don’t always have the best insight to events that have are happening in the moment. As events unfold, we may not have full time to process or make sense of what has happened, which is especially true if we are telling a story from our somewhat unreliable first person narrative. The same is true for fiction. Characters are capable of a certain level of deeper understanding if things have happened in the past.

Present Tense. Present tense can have the effect of being edgy and fast-paced, and the urgency can work well in terms of speeding up pace.  Writing in present tense can give readers the sense that the world is unfolding right now, a sense of “what will happen next?” The drawback–or benefit, if exploited properly–is that the characters may not have the ability to process as much realization as with past tense. This can sometimes work very well, though, if you are using a first person narrator who is unrealible to begin with. If the reader can see the disconnect between the character’s realization and what maybe should be a potential realization, then this tense can work very well.

Future Tense. Flashing forward to what will happen can add an entirely new sense of gravitas to a story. If we know a character is ultimately going to die, then flashing forward into the future can add an entirely new dimension to a narrative.

It’s fun to play around with the tense of your tales (couldn’t help that, sorry)–and good practice for writers as well.

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