Which verb tense?

Present, past, future, present perfect, past perfect?

How often have you found yourself changing verb tenses partway through a scene? Do you have any idea why this happens?

When we tell a story, the tenses seem quite natural. When we write a story, it’s very easy to get lost in the timeline.

Understanding how verb tense shapes the timing of events is very important. Remember that it isn’t as simple as present and past and future. Events don’t happen within one timeframe of the past, nor will they happen within one timeframe in the future.

Past Perfect

Consider that you are telling a story with an action that happened in the past. Gary and Marla went to the football on Friday night. No problem. Past tense. We learned that in grammar school.

It also rained on Friday, but it was not raining during the game – it rained before the game. It rained on Friday. This sentence would lead the audience to believe that Gary and Marla sat in the rain. They didn’t. It rained, it stopped raining, and the game went on! Enter had rained. Past perfect is necessary for clarity.

Gary and Marla went to the football game on Friday. It had rained, but the evening was pleasant all the same.

Present Perfect

Now suppose that you are setting a scene where your characters started something in the past but are continuing that same action in the present. It seems a little confusing when described in this way, but think about an action that just isn’t finished yet.

Think about raking leaves in the fall. One day the yard is clear, and the next day it’s full of leaves again. Your main character struggles to keep up with the task of raking. He raked the leaves yesterday and again today. Okay. That works with a simple use of past tense.

Suppose this process happens two or three times over the course of the week. He rakes, the leaves fall again, he rakes again. Now the process is ongoing. Reader doesn’t want to read he raked every time it happens, especially since the job isn’t finished until the last leaf falls!

This scenario is a good reason to use present perfect tense: He had been raking leaves every few days for the past two weeks, and now it was just an annoying thing he had to finish. The task is ongoing.

A simple way to remember present perfect is to think about the status of an action. If it is continuing, precede the past participle of the verb with the word has or have. Select the perfect tense that agrees with the subject. Remember:

Robert has found his favorite flavor of ice cream! Robert has been looking for his favorite ice cream for quite a long time and today he found it! (Peppermint?)

The children had become sleepy during the evening campfire. In this case, the scene is still happening, and the children are likely on their way to bed!

Use Common Sense

While these little details seem simple, they become challenging when a writer has lost sight of the action and timeframe. Some writers set the story in present tense, adding a faster pace to the work. Others use past tense, creating a reflective tone.

When writing with natural speech patterns, authors usually use the correct verb tense with little thought. If shifts are happening while writing, it’s a good idea to revise early. Give your readers the right timeline!

Happy Writing!