One common error that I find when critiquing manuscripts is the problem of verbs leaping from the past to the present. Maintain verb tense consistency unless the timing of an action demands a change. Past Tense and Present Tense Consider the following sentences:
Change verbs that reveal nothing to those that reveal something specific, some little touch. Replace not only verbs you use too frequently, but verbs that dull your sentences. Sometimes a character strides or flounces or struts.
Sometimes he hurries or races or stomps across a room. This would be the same character if the viewpoint character is describing his own movement. Much can be revealed by a word. I often find words with negative connotations used when the negative is not what the writer had intended to convey.
Look up uses of unfamiliar words to see how those words fit into sentences and paragraphs. Make sure you understand the shadings of verbs and their nuances. Not every synonym is the perfect fit. I do, however, want to talk about the progressive sometimes called the continuousa verb aspect.
Aspect, as it relates to verbs, has to do with time. The action of a verb in the present progressive is happening at the same moment the action is described.
For fiction, that typically means at the moment the sentence is read by the reader. Gerty is jumping on her trampoline. Billy Bob and Enid are hoping for a baby. Each time I read these sentences, Gerty is currently jumping on that trampoline and Billy Bob and Enid are hoping for that baby.
The action of a verb in the past progressive happened in the past, but it was ongoing for a limited period of time. The past progressive can also be used and often is to show action that happened at the same time some other action took place.
Gerty was eating dinner when someone knocked at the door.
Enid and Billy Bob were playing pinochle as the snow rose around them. Milton was washing his car. Both past and present progressive are formed using the verb to be and the present participle.
Most of the time our stories use verbs in the simple present or simple past. I hammer away at the marble night after night, hoping to create a masterpiece.The past tense is by far the most common tense used in novel writing today, at least if you exclude the kind of literary fiction that doesn’t sell in meaningful numbers.
Come to think of it, you see past tense everywhere – in non-fiction, newspapers, magazines, the broadcast media, you name it. When the literary historians of the year write about the fiction of our time, I believe they will consider our use of the present tense to be its most distinctive—and, perhaps, problematic—feature.
Writing: Past or Present Tense? By Debbie Young on November 6, in Writing A Book Most fiction writers will at some point ask themselves in which tense they should be framing their stories. Past tense is by far the most common tense, whether you’re writing a fictional novel or a nonfiction newspaper article.
If you can’t decide which tense you should use in your novel, you should probably write it in past tense. On Writing / Verb Tense Consistency in Fiction; Verb Tense Consistency in Fiction. March 13, — Leave a comment.
Notice that all the verbs switched to the past tense except in this sentence: If she didn’t find her class, the bus would leave without her. This is wrong because the verbs do not consistently use the same tense, even though it is clear (from context) that Sarah’s run is a continuous action in a single scene.
Ursula K. Le Guin offers excellent advice on mixing past and present in her writing manual, Steering the Craft.