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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.
AutoCrit highlights indicators of the the use of past (red), present (green), and future (blue) tense within your text.
You also have the ability to toggle on or off “past tense” verbs and “-ing” verbs to help identify the tense of your sentences.
The following table is a good reference for how to use this information when editing:
|Simple||It snowed yesterday. |
Simple past verb
|It snows every winter. |
Simple present verb
|It is going to snow tonight. |
It will snow this winter.
Will / be going to + simple present
|Progressive||It was snowing when I drove to work. |
Was/were + -ing verb
|It is snowing. |
|It will be snowing by the time I get home. |
Will be + -ing verb
|Perfect||It had already snowed before I left. |
Had + past participle verb
|I have driven in snow many times. |
Have/has + past participle verb
|It will have snowed 6 inches by the end of the day. |
Will have + past participle verb
|Perfect progressive||It had been snowing for two days before it stopped. |
Had been + -ing verb + for/since
|It has been snowing all month long. |
Has/have + -ing verb + for/since
|It will have been snowing for three days by the time it stops. |
Will have been + -ing verb + for/since
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:
Sometimes, the author will choose to use the simple present tense to tell his or her story:
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:
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:
were to spill
Here, you can see the shift from present tense to future tense, and back again—shifts that help the reader clearly follow the events.
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:
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:
The second verb here should be “begin,” in order to remain consistent with the present-tense usage of “wait.”
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:
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:
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.
Another way we can accidentally misuse verbs is with the initial –ING verb. For example:
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.
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.