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Fiction Writing Fundamentals: Tense

In fiction, tense expresses time relative to the moment conveyed on the page. The writer’s choice of tense will affect the reader’s experience of events and other elements of the story. Clear, purposeful, and consistent use of tense throughout a story helps avoid confusion for readers.

Revision tip: Sometimes early drafts will unintentionally switch between past and present tense. Keep an eye out for this during the revision process!

Table of Contents:

a. Identifying tense

b. Present tense

c. Past tense

     a. Identifying tense

Readers can identify tense by observing verb conjugation.

In a present tense story, the narrative uses present tense verbs: “As she walks, she feels a few raindrops on her head and shoulders.”

In a past tense story, the narrative uses past tense verbs: “As she walked, she felt a few raindrops on her head and shoulders.”

     b. Present tense

Present tense storytelling offers immersion and immediacy, shortening the distance between the action of the story and the reader, which allows the reader to experience events simultaneously with the character and highlights characters’ immediate reactions as the story unfolds. Most often, present tense stories employ linear storytelling—also known as chronological storytelling, meaning the events of the story are told consecutively from beginning to end. Present tense stories often include memories and flashbacks, which are told in the past tense.

Revision tip: It’s easy to become bogged down in the task of moving through time in a present tense narrative. Sometimes the narrative might become entangled in descriptions of banal everyday activities such as what the character is eating, what the character sees as they walk through their home, or the order of operations as the character performs daily chores or commutes to work. While revising, keep an eye out for descriptions that move the story through time but offer little else to the overall tale.

     c. Past tense

Past tense storytelling may closely follow characters through the events of the story similar to present tense storytelling, highlighting characters’ immediate reactions. Other past tense stories are told with more distance, which allows for characters to share retrospective understanding and insights about events. Past tense stories may be told linearly or nonlinearly—also known as non-chronologically, meaning the story might jump between different time periods, all of which are told in past tense.

Revision tip: Early drafts of stories told in past tense may encounter difficulty clearly differentiating between various past tense time periods; oftentimes, simple sentence structure revision will help clarify time periods.

Grammar tip: Past tense stories may include instances of past perfect tense, which uses forms of “to be” verbs to indicate earlier events in the narrative past (e.g. “She had eaten dinner”). Also useful to know, habitual past in a past tense story refers to events that occur regularly but are not necessarily occurring in the moment portrayed on the page (e.g. in standard English, “They would bake muffins” indicates characters’ habitual participation in this activity).


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