How to Use Past Tense, Present Tense, and Future Tense in Novel Writing
Past, Present, Future Tense Are Important!
One of the easiest ways to recognize beginner writing is when the story bounces from past tense to present tense and future tense at random. Unskilled writers who don't keep a consistent tense can confuse readers about what happened when. More than that, 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 long after the fact when you edit. The trick is to edit it. So don't worry 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, 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 kind 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. Put quotes around the sample present tense paragraph, and 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 thinks 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.
Here's the kicker:
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, 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 for your keeping track of what happened when.
Charts can help too.
Enjoy! See you in November for NaNoWriMo!