Although many novels today are written in the present tense, most novels are written in the past tense. One common error that I find when critiquing manuscripts is the problem of verbs leaping from the past to the present. Tenses shouldn’t be mixed like alcohol in a punch bowl at a frat party. When writing a scene for a novel, pick a verb tense and stick with it. Maintain verb tense consistency unless the timing of an action demands a change.
Past Tense and Present Tense
Consider the following sentences:
She threw the book across the room and screamed at the top of her lungs. (past tense)
She throws the book across the room and screams at the top of her lungs. (present tense)
A common mistake new writers make is to shift tenses in the middle of a sentence.
She threw the book across the room and screams at the top of her lungs.
The incorrectly written sentence above switches from past tense (threw) to present tense (screams). Readers get confused when writers jump from past tense to present tense within the same sentence. If the action took place in the past, both verbs must reflect this.
She threw the book across the room and screamed at the top of her lungs.
When Timing of an Action Demands a Tense Change
There are instances when the timing of an action demands a change in tense.
When he plays his violin tonight, everyone is amazed.
The word “when” in the first part of the sentence indicates that an action will take place in the future; therefore, the second part of the sentence needs to account for this.
When he plays his violin tonight, everyone will be amazed.
On the other hand, if the actions in both parts of a sentence happen together and the word “when” is used, the tense does not change.
When Sandy drinks milk products, she gets indigestion.
The sentence above means that Sandy sometimes drinks milk products. The action is habitual present. Since the second action happens when the first one does, the second verb (gets) remains in the present tense.
Consider the following sentence:
The boy threw egg at her car, after she had washed and waxed it earlier in the week.
The word “after” indicates that washing and waxing the car took place before the egg incident. Since the egg incident happened in the past, the past perfect tense (had + verb) is used to indicate that an action took place further in the past.
Verb Tense Consistency Within Paragraphs
If a scene in a novel is written in one tense, that tense should be maintained from sentence to sentence within paragraphs unless there’s a time change.
Paragraph written in present tense:
Mary visits the zoo with her class. She gets lost and begins to cry. A clown carrying balloons walks by, but he pays no attention to her. Mary is scared. If she doesn’t find her class, the bus will leave without her. However, her teacher usually conducts a roll call on the bus.
All of the actions in the paragraph above take place in the present, except for this sentence:
If she doesn’t find her class, the bus will leave without her.
The sentence above shows what will happen in the future depending on whether Mary finds her class. The timing of the action demands a change in tense.
Paragraph rewritten in past tense:
Mary visited the zoo with her class. She got lost and began to cry. A clown carrying balloons walked by, but he paid no attention to her. Mary was scared. If she didn’t find her class, the bus would leave without her. However, her teacher usually conducted a roll call on the bus.
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.
In the conditional sentence above, the timing of the action demands that the tense be changed in the independent clause of the sentence.
It’s important to maintain verb tense consistency to avoid confusing readers. Good editors will find and correct errors in verb tense consistency. Mistakes can slip into the manuscripts of the very best writers. That’s why it makes sense to find a good editor.
Until next time,
Write something you love! — Joanne