How to Use Past Tense, Present Tense, and Future Tense in Novel Writing
How to Write a Story in Past, Present, or Future Tense
One of the easiest ways to recognize beginner writing is when the story bounces from past tense to present tense to future tense at random. Unskilled writers who don't keep a consistent tense can confuse readers about the timeline of events. Moreover, it's easy to drift into the passive voice and bore readers in the middle of the most exciting scenes.
The best way to generate the rough draft of a novel is to free-write. Just get it down any old way and worry about whether its prose is good enough afterward during the editing process. The trick is to edit your writing. So don't worry too much about tense until you reach the editing stage. Either that or settle on past tense and stick to it.
Past tense is the storytelling tense. This stuff happened, the narrator knows how it turned out, and you read along until you find out how it turned out too. This is great. Past tense—normal past tense, not deep past tense—is invisible.
First, let's take a look at the different tenses.
Michael opened the basement door. Two glowing red eyes looked up at him out of the darkness. He jumped. He fell down the stairs. Becka, his Siamese cat, meowed plaintively and washed his face. Her pale blue eyes still glowed red in the reflected light from upstairs.
That's all in the past tense. It's invisible. No one thinks about that. Past tense is the most effective tense for any form of storytelling because it's taken for granted.
In this article, I sometimes lapse into present tense when I'm talking about something that's the same in the past, will still be true in the future, and is definitely true now.
"Past tense is invisible" is present tense. It has its place in declarations of fact because they'll always be true, so they're true now. The statement carries a little more impact in the present tense. This entire paragraph is in the present tense.
You are with me in the moment as I write it. So, present tense can be used in dialogue effectively, and in some types of statements, you can use it in the same sentence with past tense—implying something that's continuously true and still true.
It doesn't work nearly as well in that sample, though.
Michael opens the basement door. Two glowing red eyes look up at him out of the darkness. He jumps. He falls down the stairs. Becka, his Siamese cat, meows plaintively and washes his face. Her pale blue eyes still glow red in the reflected light from upstairs.
It's awkward unless you're writing this as a plot synopsis for submitting a novel. A presentation synopsis should be written in the third person, present tense. That's just what the industry considers standard. It can sound informal, like someone telling a story. If you put quotes around the sample present tense paragraph, it just sounds like someone's voice. It doesn't work in descriptive prose because it's too informal and distracting.
There are exceptions. You can set general past tense and refer to some element in the sentence as being present (including timeless) or future tense. Let's look at that third tense now, before we get into the really tricky stuff—tenses for time travelers.
Michael will open the basement door. Two glowing red eyes are going to look up at him out of the darkness. He'll jump. He'll fall down the stairs. Becka, his Siamese cat, is going to meow plaintively and wash his face. Her pale blue eyes will still glow red in the reflected light from upstairs.
It's awkward, to say the least—until you do this to it.
"I locked his cat in the basement! Michael will open the basement door. Two glowing red eyes are going to look up at him out of the darkness. He'll jump. He'll fall down the stairs. Becka, his Siamese cat, is going to meow and wash his face. Her pale blue eyes'll still glow red in the light from upstairs. I'm going to laugh so hard when he screams at that goofy cat of his. They'll both be scared out of their wits." Greg laughed, rubbing his hands. "I bet he'll think it's the Devil kissing him."
I just went back to past tense in the dialogue tag. It doesn't matter what tense you use in dialogue. Let that be dictated by the character's voice. Now, I trimmed the descriptions in the dialogue version because Greg couldn't care less that it's reflected light, and his voice was a lot more casual.
Future tense is effective when you're describing plans. If you want the planner to sound more decisive, use "I-statements" like Greg did at the start. People who claim responsibility for their plans aren't afraid to carry them out or see what happens.
Where passive voice can drift in, weakening prose, is when past tense leans toward the deep past with a lot of qualifiers.
Michael had opened the basement door. Two glowing red eyes then looked up at him out of the darkness. He had to jump. He had fallen down the stairs. Becka, his Siamese cat, had meowed plaintively and then washed his face. Her pale blue eyes had still glowed red in the reflected light from upstairs.
It's clunky, slow, and irrelevant with all those extra words thrown in—"had," "has," "has been," and so forth. Try to chop out any words that do not add to the meaning of the sentence. Use contractions sometimes. Even in descriptive prose, contractions can work better than always spelling out "it is."
For the best copy editing pass, try reading your novel out loud. Every time you stumble for breath, think about breaking that sentence. Every time you say it simpler than you wrote it, jot down the simpler version. Despite the beauty of some poetic descriptions, the key to real poetry is economy.
If you cram a lot of description into a very few words, that concentrated meaning is genuine poetry. If you just put in extra words, then it sounds pompous and slow. That may fit certain characters. All of these rules go out the window when you're doing dialogue. Write dialogue the way the character would say it, but try not to use dialect spelling if you can avoid it. Word choice is a much better way to get dialogue to have an accent. So is word order.
Tenses for Time Travelers
Absolutely, without fail, use past tense for the actual narration. Jumbled tenses can confuse a reader when characters are going back in time to affect the action in Chapter 2 and become the mysterious stranger who shoved the envelope in the mailbox or sent the Patronus across the lake to chase off the Dementors.
In writing time travel, point of view really matters. Try to keep events chronological according to the point of view of the character who's traveling. If more than one person is traveling, follow the point-of-view character's timeline within the scene. If you have to refer to time relative to someone else's travels, be very clear about it.
You don't have to become cumbersome with the "had been" stuff, but it helps to use "then" and establish the relative time between events on the narrator's timeline.
James traveled into the past. Visiting Chapter 2 for the second time, he put the envelope into the mailbox so that when his earlier self looked, the envelope would be there.
Now, this does close a loop. It works very well for time travel. "Earlier self" is a construction that most readers have no trouble with, or "younger self." They've seen way too many movies and TV shows and heard too many concise versions of how time travel works to be surprised or confused that time travel exists in your story. So you can chop it down to something tight and still get the idea across. Just be sure to mention it, and when necessary, give relative chronology by a personal timeline—narrator or speaker.
It helps to have a narrator who knows everything that happened along the various timelines so that the reader doesn't get too confused. It's vital that you, the author, don't get confused. Try writing synopsis sentences and create a timeline for each of the characters to check continuity. Try to keep the number of travels relatively few so that things don't get too snarled up.
And stick to past tense except in dialogue. These are people who did time travel. They know what they did first and what they did later. James found the envelope in the mailbox. He acted on it, found out how to time travel, and went back in time to put the envelope in the mailbox. Now he can do time travel whenever he wants, as long as he listens to the advice of his older self so that he doesn't do something really stupid.
It's important to pay attention to tense in time travel stories more than any others because it's way too easy to get confused about what happened when. If you keep the plot of the story feeling linear, the reader's happy and can follow the changes. Using a single close third-person or first-person point of view throughout the novel will make time travel work a lot easier for readers—and it'll help you keep track of what happened when. Charts can help too.
A Special Case: Writing Animal Perspectives
I finished this article confident that I'd covered how to use each of these tenses and certain that present tense wasn't used in novel-writing often enough to matter.
It can work; it can work extremely well. A few days later, I picked up one of my all-time favorite novels, Raptor Red by paleontologist Robert Bakker.
This nature novel is fantastic. It's tightly plotted, full of action, intense, and powerful. Every one of the animal characters is complex and interesting. Bakker faced the unique challenge of a nature writer who's not using human characters. You have no dialogue.
Not in human terms, anyway. Dialogue consists of head bobs, vocalizations, gestures, attempts to express meaning in ways that aren't human. I've always been fond of the sub-genre of nature novels written from the animal's point of view, often without any human characters involved. Books that describe the life of a peregrine falcon, a wolf, or even a goldfish from its own perspective are fascinating to me. I like animals, love nature, and groove on natural history; this is a natural personal interest of mine.
So, Bakker's book grabbed me on several areas of interest. I laughed out loud because it is also my favorite-ever romance novel. Romance is not my genre, but there I was reading about a plucky heroine navigating her way through complex family relationships, widowed, then after meeting a couple of decidedly unpleasant possibilities connecting with an interesting young male for a stormy relationship that ultimately culminated in mating head-bobs after a dramatic climax involving bad guys—Raptor Red juxtaposes genres.
The ten-year-old in me who still doesn't like books with more kissing than swordfights and gets creeped out by romantic conflict loved every minute of it. The secret to reaching outside a book's natural audience is to mix genres. My ten-year-old inner child grooved on dinosaurs far more than he hated kissing or domestic arguments. Not to mention the things the pack argued about all made sense in terms of their immediate survival.
Third-Person Omniscient: The Big Picture
About halfway through, I realized the entire book was in the third-person omniscient present tense. I thought a lot about how and why Robert Bakker got away with it so invisibly. Normally, I might notice tense in a novel, especially on a reread, and even see why an author chose the tense he or she did. "Ah. Michener uses third-person omniscient because he needs to write about events spanning centuries; individual characters don't hang on through the book, families do, and consequences of what characters a century ago did affect people they'd never have known or cared about."
Third-person omniscient fits the big picture. The godlike point of view that shows every creature's thoughts and reactions is right if you want an intimate view of Alaska or Hawaii. It's a panoramic style. Robert Bakker was looking back from our time and writing in English about creatures we know only from millions of years old bones. He very neatly tied their lives to some specific fossils found by fossil hunters in the very pleasant prologue and epilogue about paleontology, museum curating, and movie-making.
Human interest was there all along. We were invited along on the dig and shared the imagination of a paleontologist who handles real dinosaur finds and sometimes gets to name them. It's one level of thrill and one way to stage the reader into a world so different from ours yet so true and genuinely ancestral that we need the door opened. The flavor didn't change once he left the human characters for the Cretaceous animal characters.
But the tense did. In relating his own experiences, Bakker used first-person, past-tense anecdotes. A man simply telling a true story about something cool that he was involved in. He mentioned people he knew and their achievements with honest praise, didn't blow his role in it out of proportion, and set himself up as narrator. It's a normal past-tense variation, first person, so we know this part isn't the fiction. But the author's voice is very close to the fiction, and he's established his credentials for writing this.
The whole prologue about how Utahraptor was discovered is set in italics. It's only a few pages of introduction that serves to hook the reader. Any reader grabbing a dinosaur book is probably fascinated by paleontologists too, so it's a good hook—one that offers the tantalizing, real hope that amateur fossil hunters and rock hounds do make important discoveries sometimes. So it validates the core reader's hobby in a big way, thanking every volunteer who helps make these discoveries happen and brings the bones to the public in museums.
Tense Shifts: How to Transition
He switches to third-person omniscient present tense right before the opening chapter, in the last paragraph of the italicized section. So, as we read his anecdotes, we can hear Bakker's voice start to tell the story right before he's absent from it. This is a beautiful transition:
"We can learn from Utahraptor's story. Hers was a beautifully alert and sentient species. By looking through her eyes, we can see the evolutionary forces that were changing the natural world during the Early Cretaceous. Our own human ancestors were being created by the invisible hand of natural selection, as were the beginnings of the other animals and plants that enjoy supremacy in today's world. Utahraptor's story is part of our story.
"The story begins with an invasion, an ambush, and a death."
Then Bakker breaks with a bar but stays on the same page.
"The time is a hundred and twenty million years ago. On the flat, featureless floodplains that were central Utah, an evolutionary event is about to occur that will shock the ecological community of dinosaurs. The event is the arrival of a new superpredator."
The narrator has started to tell the story. What-when-where. The next page starts the chapter describing the animal. Notice the shift of tense and how smooth it is. I quoted from the point he shifted tense. The words in italics are his. They're part of the transition. We are still, on this page, imagining sitting in a Wyoming museum curator's office full of fossils and interesting bits and bobs listening to the bearded scientific rock-hound talk about his passion.
On the next page, italics disappear, and everything is third-person omniscient present tense. He shifted before he focused attention on the title character to make it easier. This also made it harder for me to figure out why he used that crazy tense in the first place.
Animals don't think the way humans do; animals live in the moment. They don't get as lost in abstractions as human beings do; our species apparently holds an extreme among all the social predators in the world. We're the ones that can get more upset over something that happened in a story than what's going on right in front of our noses while reading it—we might let dinner burn while reading about Raptor Red being so hungry she has to scavenge rotting, dead fish from creeks.
To connect the story to the present day, Bakker does mention onstage that the bug-bopper is the ancestor of "whales, giraffes, Democratic senators." That connection weaves throughout as it does in Michener's historical novels. Very often, while describing the geological history of Hawaii or Poland, Michener will shift back to the present and mention what the feature looks like in the present day. He'll talk about an old building at the time of its construction and casually mention where it is in the present.
That's the power of third-person omniscient—you can do that. Narrator commentary is allowed, easy, it doesn't disrupt the flow of the story. It's not God's point of view exactly, it's history's point of view; the narrator is educated enough to articulate everything that went on.
I've often been tempted to use third-person omniscient in a fat fantasy novel with a generational sweep, applying Michener's technique to my own favorite genre. I can see now that present tense has one powerful specific use too—an animal's point of view. I've got a few planned novels using animals as protagonists. Writing this article and rereading Raptor Red, I might study these examples more closely for how to keep a human audience engaged with a nonverbal, nonhuman protagonist.
A good author will use the tenses that fit the part of the story being told. The story comes before anything else. If it breaks the rules and works better, chances are, sometime much later on, you'll understand why it worked better and that it's a legitimate exception. Rules are proven by their exceptions. So try this for a fun exercise—use the first person to write a scene from an animal's point of view in the third-person omniscient. You might even get a novel seed.