We don’t pay a lot of attention to tense when we talk. It feels natural and easy to slot our words into past, present or future. In writing it can be more complicated. If we are writing in past tense, the past is our ‘present’ in the story. To write something in the past we may need something different than simple past.
To start out, there are four kinds of verb tense, each in past, present and future.
|The clowns chased me.||The clowns chase me.||The clowns will chase me.|
|The clowns were chasing me when I ran into you.||The clowns are chasing me.||The clowns will be chasing me before you get here.|
|The clowns had chased me out of town before you came.||The clowns have chased me all over town.||The clowns will have chased me away by the time you get here.|
|The clowns had been chasing me all day before you saved me.||The clowns have been chasing me all day.||The clowns will have been chasing me all day by the time you arrive.|
When we read through the chart it is easy to see the subtle differences in meaning.
Simple indicates an action in past, present or future. There are more nuances than that, but for the moment that will do.
Continuous, as its name suggests indicates ongoing action. In the Past, it shows an action which is interrupted by another action, or an ongoing action. Many writers have a habit of using Continuous more than Simple which has two effects. The first is the writing feels static as Continuous suggests something which doesn’t change. The other is the confusion when they want to show interrupted action, and it looks the same as everything else.
Perfect, is for completed action. In Past Perfect the action has started and stopped before another action. In some cases, the second action can be unwritten. Flashbacks are Past Perfect, though one doesn’t need to write the entire scene Past Perfect. Introducing the flashback in Past Perfect, then using Simple Past for the rest makes it easier to read.
Perfect Continuous is for an action which started in the past and continues to a specific time. The important difference between Continuous and Perfect Continuous is the emphasis on that specific time in Continuous.
There are many charts on the internet with more examples and greater detail about the nuances of the verb tenses. It is important to keep the basics of tense clear so in our writing the reader is clear about the nature and time of the action.
There are a couple of other things which can confuse us in our use of tense. One is Passive versus Active Voice. In some ways it may look like a tense issue:
Bob tied the donkey to the fence. Active Voice.
The donkey was tied to the fence. Passive Voice.
Note both sentences are in simple past. The verb is ‘tied’. ‘Was’ here acts to indicate an action performed on the subject of the sentence. The uses and abuse of voice is the subject for another article.
The other confusion is the Conditional. As the name suggests, the Conditional tells us about actions which may occur if the conditions are right. Bob could have tied the donkey if he’d had some rope.
Or actions which didn’t happen but ought to have. Bob should have tied the donkey to the fence. The important information being that Bob didn’t in fact tie the donkey.
The last is about intent. Bob would have tied the donkey if he’d had rope. The difference between this and the first example, is this sentence shows Bob wanted to tie the donkey, but something prevented him. The first example makes no indication of Bob’s intent.
Like Voice, the Conditional is not about tense. One can use both Voice and Conditional in any of the tenses, but it is easy to mistake it for tense. It is important to use Conditional properly and not to overdo it. Again, a subject for another article.
This will get you started thinking about tense in your writing, but a few final notes to consider. Whether you write in Past or Present, you need to stay consistent in your use of tense. Moving from Past to Present and back is confusing for the reader. There are a couple of exceptions. If you are writing in Past tense, dialog and direct thought are written in present tense. The reason is the characters are moving through their present, so they talk and think in the present tense. We need to be careful with our policing of tense we don’t unintentionally muddy the water.
The other exception is esoteric and I’ve only seen it done well a couple of times. This is where the narrator has been describing past action, then the story arrives at the point in time at which the narrator dwells in the story. So, say a narrator is tell us about a murder mystery, and most of the story is about how the narrator arrived at a specific time. Maybe stuck under the ice in a river. When we get to the point where we’re stuck under the ice, the story become present tense because we are now in the same time frame as the narrator. What has happened is most of the book is a flashback bringing the reader to this moment in time.
So, there we are, you can relax and work more comfortably with tenses. If you have questions, or things to add etc. please comment.