This month we’re starting a new feature in the “Ask An Editor” column at Romance University. We’ll continue to answer your questions as they come in. (The address for questions is email@example.com .)
Definition: Present tense verbs indicate that action is taking place right now.
Example: The baby sleeps through the night.
We’re not talking about last night or tomorrow night. We’re talking about this night right now.
Literary Present: Here’s where things get interesting. Literary convention says that the “now” of the story is related with past tense verbs. In other words,
In life: Present time = present tense
In books: Present time = past tense
So how do fiction writers use the present tense? When is it appropriate? (We’re not talking about fiction that experiments with tense or deconstructs the convention. We’re talking about typical books.) You can safely use present tense in dialogue. You can also use it in italicized interior monologue, but with a light touch, please. You can, with some clever phrasing and very careful writing, use it in non-italicized interior monologue, but it’s not an easy thing to pull off. Use extreme caution.
Common error: Using a present tense contraction. “That’s when she realized the baby was sleeping.” (That’s = That is)
Definition: Past tense verbs indicate that the action took place in the past.
Example: The baby slept through the night.
Literary Past: As we’ve already mentioned, in fiction, the past is the present. The vast bulk of your story should be written in the simple past tense. Any time you stray from the simple past tense, stop and ask why. Why are you shifting out of the scene moment? Staying in scene is a good thing. Try to do it. J
Common Error: Sticking to the simple past when the time sequencing doesn’t permit it. “The baby slept through tomorrow night.” The simple past should be your default, but it’s not foolproof.
Definition: Future tense verbs indicate something that will happen in the future.
Example: The baby will sleep through the night.
Literary future: If the past is the present, then when does the future arrive? That sounds like a philosophy riddle. Rather than meditating on this one, let’s just remember the general rule that the simple future tense is safe to use in dialogue when the characters are discussing things which might happen in future scenes. As with the present tense, infrequent uses of the future tense in italicized interior monologue will be okay, too. Most other uses will sound awkward.
As with all general rules, there are exceptions. But please do flag any outside-the-quotation-marks usages of future tense and scrutinize them carefully.
Common error: Using the future tense in action sentences to impart a casual or conversational feel. “Marie poured a large cup of coffee before heading into her morning meeting. She’ll feel a lot better if the baby will sleep through the night.” (Second sentence is future tense. See how awkward that is?)
Present Perfect Tense
Now comes the tricky part. Perfect tenses can give even the best writers a migraine.
Definition: The present perfect tense connects the present and the past, but sometimes those connections are indefinite or intangible.
Example: The baby has slept through the night for some time now. (It happened on past nights. It happens on the current night. We connect those past nights with the present night in a single verb, “has slept.”)
We’re not going to worry about defining the three specific usages of the present perfect tense, though, because–
Literary Present Perfect: Almost never occurs outside of dialogue. Even interior monologue, whether italicized or non-italicized, will almost always be less awkward in past perfect than in present perfect.
Why is this? Well, if you think the “future of the past” question sounded like an unsolveable zen koan, try this one. If the literary present is expressed in past tense, and if you want a verb tense to connect that literary past tense to the past of that literary past, how can you do that in present terms? Is it even possible to connect the past to the past in the present?
Confused? You should be. It’s awkward and non-intuitive to try to shoehorn this tense into a typical story. So if you can’t wrap your mind around all this riddle stuff, just remember the general rule: In fiction, the present progressive almost never occurs outside of dialogue. Forget about the present perfect and stick with progressive conjugations for ongoing actions (“has been sleeping”) or the past perfect for completed action (“had slept”).
Common error: Using this tense in a present participial phrase. “Mary often found herself wondering if her baby has slept through the night.” I think the -ing participle throws people off tense sometimes.
Past Perfect Tense
Definition: The past perfect tense indicates an action completed in the past before some other past action or event. (The past of the past is the past perfect.)
Example: The baby had slept through the night.
Literary Past Perfect: Indicates actions or events that precede the current scene. The “now” of the story is told in past tense. Anything that happens before that “now” story moment will generally need the past perfect tense — the dreaded had.
Have you been warned not tooveruse the word had? This might mean that you’re slipping out of the scene “now” and using too many past perfect moments. Try to stay in scene. It’s a good thing. J
Common error: Using past perfect to describe sequential events in the current scene. “Mary had heard the baby crying and she got out of bed.” Hearing comes before getting up, but you’re in linear scene time, so no past perfect usage is necessary.
Future Perfect Tense
Definition: The future perfect tense indicates a future action or event that will be completed before some other future action or event.
Example: By the time he’s in kindergarten, the baby will have slept through the night. (The baby has not yet slept through the night. In the future, the baby will be in kindergarten. Before that future scholastic event, another future event — sleeping through the night — will be a done deal.) (Yes, the adverbial clause contains a present tense verb that snuck in via a conjuction. Good on you for spotting it!)
Literary Future Perfect: Follows basically the same rules as defined above. Does this surprise you? Think of it this way. The future happens after the past and after the present. Doesn’t matter if we’re talking about the real past or the literary “now.”
Common error: Substituting the future tense for the future perfect. “By the time he was in kindergarten, the baby will sleep through the night.”
Congratulations to all of you who have managed to read this far. Ask your questions in the comments, and everyone who comments will be entered in a drawing to win a download of Nathalie Gray’s steampunk novel, “Full Steam Ahead,” where the past and the present mingle freely in that way familiar to fans of the subgenre.
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A huge thanks to Theresa for providing such an amazing resource on verb tense! This lecture is going in my keeper file.
Join us on Monday when Tracey chats with author Marjorie Liu about her new romance-themed video game.
After earning degrees in creative writing and law, Theresa Stevens worked as a literary attorney agent for a boutique firm based in Indianapolis where she represented a range of fiction and nonfiction authors. The lure of the courtroom led to a nine-year hiatus from the publishing industry, but now Theresa is back as Managing Editor for Red Sage Publishing, a highly acclaimed small press. Her articles on writing and editing have appeared in numerous publications for writers. Visit her blog at http://edittorrent.blogspot.com/ where she and her co-blogger share their knowledge and hardly ever argue about punctuation.
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