Grammar for Fiction Writers: Busy Writer's Guides Book (2014)

Part III. Grammar Rules Every Writer Needs to Know and Follow

Chapter 15. Don’t Get Tense

Did you know that there are no fewer than 15 tenses?

For most fiction writers, the important decision about tenses will be choosing whether to write in present tense or past tense. Both are now acceptable, and many popular books—like The Hunger Games and The Help—have been written in present tense.

But on a smaller, sentence-by-sentence level, there’s more to tenses than just present and past tense.

In this chapter, we’re going to walk you through the different types of tenses and explain when to use them in your novel, as well as when to avoid them.

SIMPLE

The simple tenses are the simple past, simple present, and simple future. The simple tenses are the backbone of good fiction.

She ate the moldy bread. (Past)

She eats the moldy bread. (Present)

She will eat the moldy bread. (Future)

She is going to eat the moldy bread. (Future)

(And we’re betting she felt pretty sick afterward.)

As we mentioned in the introduction to this chapter, your foundational choices for writing your novel are to write in the past tense or the present tense. Unless you’re writing experimental fiction, the action of your novel, the meat of what’s happening in your plot, won’t be taking place in the future tense.

That doesn’t mean the future tense is useless. For example, you might have one character say to another “We will walk to the park tomorrow whether you like it or not.”

PROGRESSIVE

Progressive tenses give us a sense of a continuing action. They’re ongoing. Something was happening in the past, is currently happening, or will be happening in the future.

She was walking. (Past progressive)

She is walking. (Present progressive)

She will be walking. (Future progressive)

The problem with progressive tense in fiction is that you normally don’t need it. Fiction readers have been conditioned to understand that when you write something like “She walked down the street,” the implication is that she’s walking until you say she isn’t anymore. You don’t need to write “She was walking.” In fact, you shouldn’t write “She was walking.” It’s considered wordy.

The exception is the future progressive. Let’s say your characters are planning a bank heist. You might have a situation where one says to the other…

“The guard will be walking to the elevator at 8:30 sharp. That’s your only chance to catch him alone.”

CONDITIONAL

Conditional tenses deal with things that may or may not have happened. You can tell a conditional tense by the word would. You’ll also find them in “if-then” type statements.

As fiction writers, we’re most likely to use the conditional tense in internal dialogue or when a character is planning for the future.

Alan would be meeting with clients from one o’clock until three. It would be her only opportunity to hack the safe, steal her passport, and escape from him for good.

Bruce pulled out of the driveway, glancing in the rearview mirror to make sure no one was following him. He wouldn’t put it past Elaine to hire a PI to trail him. If she caught him with Rebecca, he’d have no choice but to admit the truth.

The trick with the conditional tense is to make sure we don’t use it for too many sentences in a row. Our characters need to stay firmly grounded in acting in the present. We can’t allow them to ponder what could be or to be locked up in their own heads for too long.

PERFECT AND PERFECT PROGRESSIVE

You won’t use the perfect tense (or the related perfect progressive) as often as the other tenses, but that doesn’t mean they’re not important.

The perfect tense focuses on the result of a completed action or on the fact that an action has taken place.

You know you have the perfect tense if the sentence includes the words had or have paired with a past-tense verb (e.g., walkedtalkedeatenshown).

I had eaten frog legs. (Past perfect)

I have eaten frog legs. (Present perfect)

I will have eaten frog legs. (Future perfect)

(And it tasted just like chicken. Isn’t that what they say about everything?)

Perfect progressive is very similar. You’ll know a perfect progressive because it combines had been or have been with the ongoing form of the verb (usually an –ing). The idea behind the perfect progressive is of an action with duration or a length to it.

I had been eating frog legs. (Past perfect progressive)

I have been eating frog legs. (Present perfect progressive)

I will have been eating frog legs. (Future perfect progressive)

Perfect and past perfect are so closely related that it’s easiest to discuss them together.

The problem with the perfect tense is that many writers will use it when they don’t need to.

The right way to use the perfect tense is if we want to quickly telescope time rather than slowing the story down to show it happening blow by blow.

By the time they reached the haunted cemetery, the rain had begun falling.

I’ll give you another example so you can see this more clearly. You have two dating characters who were delayed by a flat tire and had a fight over it. You could describe them reaching the movie theater and trying to get in, only to find out that they’d missed the movie entirely. But it’s likely that the actual details of finding out the movie is already over aren’t important. What was important was the flat tire and the fight and the fallout that will happen after finding out the movie is over and they missed it. In this case, instead of wasting a page or more on them finding out the movie is over, you could write…

By the time they reached the theater, the movie had ended.

You could also safely use the perfect tense when you have one character telling another about something they did in the past. (You’re using past perfect tense.)

Lenny stared at her, his eyes reminding her of a shark’s. “I’ve killed before. I’ll do it again.”

The part in bold is present perfect.

Another appropriate way to use the perfect tense is to signal a flashback or memory.

He’d never forget the day he met her. He had been shopping for flowers to send his mother on the first anniversary of his father’s death, and Emily’s flower shop was across the street from the courthouse where he worked.

In this example, the perfect progressive signals to the reader that a flashback is coming. In a longer flashback, you’ll use the perfect progressive to transition into it and then go back into the simple past tense. When you want to come out of the flashback, you’ll need to signal the reader again, either by a line break or by using the trigger of mentioning something you mentioned right before going into the flashback.

I’ll give you an example.

Rick pulled up to the wrought-iron gate at the address he’d tricked the school secretary into giving him. He rang the buzzer. A lot must have changed for Emily in the ten years since they’d said goodbye.

He’d never forget the day he met her. He had been shopping for flowers to send his mother on the first anniversary of his father’s death, and Emily’s flower shop was across the street from the courthouse where he worked.

He wandered around the shop for fifteen minutes, his lunch hour slipping away.

Emily craned her head around a shelf of ribbons. “Are you sure there’s nothing I can help you with?”

(And then you continue with your flashback.)

The intercom next to the gate crackled to life. “Yes?”

The perfect tense has many viable, important uses in fiction.

But here’s where perfect tense can weigh you down—if it destroys the sense of immediacy in your story. Creating a sense of watching things happen in real time, giving a sense of immediacy, can be difficult enough in past-tense writing. It gets worse when you write something like this…

She had double-checked that all the windows were locked, and had set the alarm before leaving the house.

We’re being told something happened. We’re not seeing it play out on the page in front of us. The simple solution to make this showing rather than telling, and to allow the reader to feel like it’s happening, is to change it to a simple past tense.

She double-checked that all the windows were locked, and set the alarm, before leaving the house.

It says the same thing, but it feels more immediate and the writing is tighter. Never use the past perfect when the simple past tense will do.

When it comes to tenses, you don’t need to try to remember what each tense is called. The important thing to understand and remember is what each tense is used for and the potential pitfalls you need to be aware of.