When I worked in publishing, I was surprised by the number of unsolicited manuscripts that had wonky tense.
Not the occasional transgression. They crop up in most manuscripts.
I’m talking about tense that was a bit like time travel. Totes all over the place, girlfriend. Past, present, here, there, everywhere.
Now, when I teach IRL (in real life), I’m quick to tell my students that I’m no grammarian. Far from it. While I enjoy a bit of boffin work now and then, I’m first and foremost a writer.
But tense can be a bugger. It can mess up your writing and reduce your chances on the slush pile. And, if you don’t understand it, it can make editing your own work even more challenging.
So let’s look at tense.
I’ll be brief. I don’t want to bore you. Or myself.
Present tense: the action is happening in the here and now
I jump, you jump, he/she/it jumps (singular)
we jump, you jump, they jump (plural)
I am, you are, he/she/it is (singular)
we are, you are, they are (plural)
Past tense: the action occurred in the past
I jumped, you jumped, he/she/it jumped (singular)
we jumped, you jumped, they jumped (plural)
I was, you were, he/she/it was (singular)
we were, you were, they were (plural)
Remember yesterday, when we spoke about point of view?
When you combine POV with tense, things get interesting.
First person POV, can speak in the present tense:
I’m cleaning the blackboard when the teacher walks in. I smile brightly. I love being the teacher’s pet.
First person POV, can speak in the past tense:
I was cleaning the blackboard when the teacher walked in. I smiled brightly. I loved being the teacher’s pet.
Third person POV can speak in the present tense:
Judy sits at the desk. She puts her head in her hands. ‘I hate talking about tense,’ she says.
Third person POV can speak in the past tense:
Judy sat at the desk. She put her head in hands. ‘I hate talking about tense,’ she said.
A few more thoughts:
First person, present tense: This combination allows for idiosyncrasies—the character who is telling the story can speak in any old way. The text almost reads like dialogue. See the ‘Just’ books by Andy Griffiths. See Danny Best by yours truly.
The sun is sinking and it’s nearly dark. We have left Pugsley in the house. Nothing can get in our way tonight. Especially not a pug. Danny Best: Full On
First person, present or past tense is a great device for narrowing down perspective. For this reason it can be ideal for junior fiction. But of course, it’s not the only choice available. Every story is different and calls for its own approach.
See the Truly Tan series. The stories are mostly first person, present tense. But I do play with past tense occasionally. For example, when Tan is writing in her diary and reflecting on the day’s activities.
Dear Diary, I am writing to you with the aid of my Hokey Pokey Pelican pen. You know, the one with choking hazards. (present)
There was a lot of cleaning and packing up to do after the party. Dad came home from work early and he got the ladder out and we took down all the bunting and the Chinese lanterns… (past)
Truly Tan: Freaked!
Again, occasionally I vary the tense in these stories, but only in a measured way.
Third person, past tense. This is ideal for traditional storytelling and for upper middle grade novels. It allows you to range around, play with more characters and explore their motivations and psychology.
The old woman peered through the crack. Her blue-black hair was no longer curled and glossy but hung in a coarse, tangled mass around her fact and shoulders. She was wearing a heavy tartan dressing gown and enormous square sunglasses with thick white frames and rose-coloured lenses. The Fourteenth Summer of Angus Jack
Remember, the key with tense is to be consistent. Especially when writing for kids.
Choose a tense (past or present) and stick with it. Particularly when you’re first starting out. Don’t be cavalier with tense until you know what you’re doing.
Also, when you’re rewriting and editing, keep an eye on tense. Rein it in when it strays.
You can explore tense further if you like. It becomes more complex when you go deeper, with more terms and definitions to learn (simple, perfect, progressive etc).
But, enter at your peril. You’re wandering into the world of grammar and leaving the world of creative writing. This is useful if you’re an editor or learning a second language. Not so useful for our purposes.
Don’t get hung up on terms and definitions.
Once again, just be consistent.
Choose a tense that suits your story and stick with it.
I was waving goodbye.
I am waving goodbye.
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