Let’s examine the different tenses. Next week’s post will show how important tense is especially when handling a flashback, but today, let’s familiarize ourselves with the basics.
Tense can be simple or very, very complex—depends on however you want to make it. Simply put, tense tells us when something was or will be done—past, present or future. There four categories of tenses, and each category has a past, present and future tense. This is where the confusion comes in, so let me just show you:
Past: John tried cooking yesterday
Present: Hannah knows better than to let him cook again.
Future: He will burn the house down next time.
Past: John was taking cooking lessons.
Present: Hannah is trying to convince him that pouring oil on a heated pan is not a good idea.
Future: John will be returning to class.
Past: Hannah had scrubbed the stains off the pan.
Present: John has asked for her not to throw away all the food.
Future: Hannah will have gotten new plates tomorrow.
Past: John had been trying to become a chef for a long time.
Present: He has been working very hard.
Future: Next week, he will have been taking cooking classes for exactly three years.
Confused or bored? Yeah, so am I. The good news is we’re not going to focus on every category, but let’s summarize:
Progressive uses helping verbs (am, is, are,was, were, will be) attached to a verb ending with ‘ing’.
Perfect uses forms of ‘have’ (have, has, had) attached to a verb ending with ‘ed’
Progressive Perfect uses ‘have’ and ‘been’ attached to a verb ending with ‘ing’.
In other words, all three of those forms are telling rather than showing because they make the verb passive rather than active. That is why we try to avoid those and work with the simple tense.
95% of stories are written in Simple Past Tense. More recently there has been a rise in Simple Present Tense, but it’s still not as popular as past tense. This is because the roots of storytelling go back to oral tradition, and such a tradition began by the boasting of adventures and accomplishments our ancestors did. No one sat around the fire listening to Homer tell what ‘is happening’ to Troy; he told the story as it had happened. Go to any storytelling competition, and see how many stories are told in present tense.
“Is writing in present tense wrong?” Not at all. Simply be aware that it is not the most popular or preferred tense in the reading world because it feels unnatural. When I see a book is written in present tense, I often put the book down because I don’t want to know what ‘will’ be happening. I want the story to be finished and completed before I even pick it up. The past tense gives me the reassurance that the events in the story are the past, and the consequences have already been realized.
Now, some people prefer present over past, and that’s all right.
The single pet peeve of any reader (be it your audience, fellow writer, or editor) is shifting tenses within a story. If the story begins in past tense, keep it in past tense. If it starts in present tense, don’t change it to past because you want to.
“What about flashbacks? If the story is written in present tense, can’t the flashbacks be written in past tense?” Ah, flashbacks—a complicated creature, but we will discuss that in next week’s post since there is a connection to flashbacks and tenses.