Consistency in tense is critical to making your prose flow smoothly.
In fiction, writers generally maintain one tense for the main storyline throughout the story or novel. Changes in verb tense can help the reader understand when something is happening at a different time than the main timeline—that they happened in the past, for instance, or will happen in the future.
But unexpected or inconsistent shifts in tense can be confusing for readers and disrupt the flow of your story.
Consistency with tense
In conversation, we slip back and forth between past and present tense all the time, often incorrectly. But stories and novels need to be more consistent.
Most often, writers use the simple past tense:
- I went to the store and bought ice cream, then visited my grandmother.
Sometimes, the author will choose to use the simple present tense to tell his or her story:
- I go to the store and buy ice cream, then visit my grandmother.
The tense of the main events are established in chapter one, and need to be consistent throughout the rest of the story. Shifts should only happen when you want to indicate that an event happened at a different time than the events in the main timeline of the novel.
For example, a novel that is told in present tense might need to slip into past tense when you’re recounting an event that took place in the past. Here’s how that might look:
- I sit on my grandmother’s white couch, listening to her talk about her wedding day. I suddenly remember a memory from childhood: a winter afternoon when I spilled a cup of hot cocoa on this very couch. I had been so ashamed of staining the beautiful white couch, but my grandmother never scolded me, just showed me how to blot out the stain with club soda and a clean rag. Now, as I sit here so many years later, I feel a wave of gratitude for her unconditional love.
In this example, the main timeline of events is written in present tense. But as the character slips into a memory, the author uses past tense. That use of past tense helps indicate that the events she’s describing took place at a different time than the main events of the story.
Likewise, the same goes for future tense. If the character imagines something that could or will happen in the future, that would also require a tense shift. It would look like this:
- I sit on my grandmother’s white couch, listening to her talk about her wedding day. My mind drifts off, and I imagine what would happen if I were to spill my cup of tea on the perfect white couch. Probably, she would be as calm and patient as always. I feel a wave of gratitude for her unconditional love.
Here, you can see the shift from present tense to future tense, and back again—shifts that help the reader clearly follow the events.
Avoid the unintentional tense shift
So far, we’ve looked at examples of correct, intentional tense shifts. However, we want to be careful of the unintentional tense shift.
For example, let’s look at these two sentences:
- I sit on my grandmother’s soft white couch, listening to her talk about her wedding day. I suddenly remembered a memory from childhood.
The tense of the verb “remembered” here is inconsistent – the first sentence was written in present tense, and there’s no indication of a shift in time, so the verb in the second sentence should also be present tense – remember instead of remembered.
Likewise, watch out for tense shifts in the same sentence:
- I wait for a response, but the students began packing up their books.
The second verb here should be “begin,” in order to remain consistent with the present-tense usage of “wait.”
Watch out for these two red flags
Two of the most common places where writers make tense shift errors are in dialogue tags and when using the verbs go versus went.
In dialogue tags, writers often shift back and forth between said and says. For example:
- “I’m going to swing by my mom’s house to pick up my mail. But I should be back in an hour,” said John.
“Okay,” Ella says. “Have a fun.”
This is an easy error to make, and a hard one to catch, since we’re trained to read right over dialogue tags. Keep an eye out for it.
Meanwhile, another common problem area is when we use the verbs went and go.
In conversation, we often say “go” when we mean “went.” Imagine, for instance, that you were telling this story to a friend:
- “I was at the doctor’s office, and I’d been waiting for at least an hour. So I go up to the receptionist and ...”
That’s grammatically incorrect—the correct verb tense there is “went.” But this conversational habit can slip into our writing, so it’s a red flag to watch for.
Related areas to look for in your manuscript
Another way we can accidentally misuse verbs is with the initial –ING verb. For example:
- Glancing toward Kate, I realized her eyes were filled with tears.
But this construction only works if the action you describe in the first half of the sentence can be performed at the same time as the action in the second half of the sentence.
In our example above, that works because you can both glance and realize at the same time. Those actions can be done simultaneously, so that construction works.
But if I wrote this—Crossing the room for my phone, I pressed two on my speed dial—it is incorrect, because you can’t cross the room for a phone AND press two on that phone at the same time. The construction makes it seem like they’re happening at the same time, though logically, they can’t be.
The rule here is straightforward: when starting with an –ING verb, if the actions can be performed at the same time, then it’s correct. Otherwise, try revising.
The bottom line
Tense inconsistency can slip into even the most accomplished writer’s work. These small errors can cause big problems in your manuscript, so it’s worth taking the time to diligently check over your tenses. Use this report to catch problem areas that might trip up readers and interrupt the flow of the story.