Many authors understand the importance of the use of past, present and future tense, and they will use all the correct wording in their stories. Others, however, aren’t trained and don’t know how to apply the correct tense, and so they will write their story with a mixture of all three. They know what they mean but the reader can get lost and confused, and the only venue they have to follow is the author.
Before we begin to write anything, whether it’s a story or a book, we must determine what tense we’re going to write it in. Will we write about something that happened? Something that is happening now? Or that will happen in the future? Once we know this, then we know which tense to write the book in.
A story that has already happened will use past-tense verbs like did, was, knew, ran, cried or laughed. Present tense stories will use words like does, is, knows, runs, cries or laughs. Future tense stories might use wording like will do, will be, will know, will run, will cry or will laugh.
It’s a challenge to keep the story in the same tense all the way through and often success only comes after much editing. However, the greatest challenge is not just maintaining the overall tense of the book.
The more concentrated task at times is to write a complete sentence or paragraph and use all the same tense. Many writers do not catch this but it’s the clue that editors and publishers look for to determine the quality of your writing.
Within any given sentence the verbs must be of the same tense; not a mixture of past, present or future. AND in the context of any given paragraph the tense must follow the same rules. Every sentence within the paragraph must be written in the same tense.
Why is this important? The reader is always at the mercy of the writer and can only follow with what is written. If a paragraph has sentences that don’t all use the same tense, the reader must stop the flow of reading to determine if this happened or will happen or is happening now. The reader might not stop completely and ask the question out loud, but any break in the thought pattern that is stimulated by the flow of the reading will cause the reader to break their attention.
If the author’s purpose is to build suspense or thrill or adventure, then she doesn’t want the reader to lose one second of attention because even one second will break that inner hunger for more. Every time the reader has to mentally think of what tense is intended, the captivating interest of the story is broken. But if the reader can get through the entire book without questioning the author’s skills, then that reader will be left hungry for more from this author.
In our every day language many of use mixed tenses in our sentences, and as authors, if we aren’t careful we’ll carry that into our books. It’s acceptable for dialogue because it depicts the reality of the voices, but it’s not acceptable for the actual story.
Are there exceptions? There are always exceptions to every rule. A diary being told by the protagonist may use more common dialogue to tell their story, but still it’s crucial to the setting and to the content that the tense be the right one throughout the book.
Authors have an amazing ability to captivate readers, but the readers can only be absorbed into the story if their train of thought and direction isn’t broken from confusing words. Readers can only follow what the author writes so it’s important that we lead them through the book as easily and smoothly as possible.