shhhlittletoiletpaperroll asked: Hello! I’ve only been following you for a day, but already, I’ve learned so much! I have a small question though. What are the rules on verb tenses for literature? If I’m writing a story in the past tense, but I’m describing how a character looks, shouldn’t that part be in the present tense? Since he isn’t dead and still looks that way? John Green said something about the present tense being an ongoing thing. Any help is much appreciated! :)

A general rule of thumb: If you are writing in the past tense, keep your character descriptions in the past tense. Nearly everything should stay in the past tense (exceptions are noted below). The same goes for writing in the present tense: keep your descriptions in the present tense.

Yes, it’s true. Your character hasn’t died or anything. He’s still out there, living and doing things and looking the way he does, but his physical description should still agree with the tense of your overall narrative.

For example:

He rounded the corner and we saw each other for the first time. He was good-looking, but not that Hollywood handsome I’d come to associate with that sudden pounding of my heart. He had those long, thick eyelashes women coveted, a thin mouth, and dimples. He wasn’t perfect. It didn’t matter. I was in love.

If we were to put only the verbs associated withthe male character in conjunction with his physical description in present tense, that example would look like this:

He rounded the corner and we saw each other for the first time. He is good-looking, but not that Hollywood handsome I’d come to associate with that sudden pounding of my heart. He has those long, thick eyelashes women coveted, a thin mouth, and dimples. He isn’t perfect. It didn’t matter. I was in love.

Most writers would call this change from past tense to present tense then back to past tense clunky. The danger is that such tense changes may draw the reader away from the story being told to decipher the words on the page, and that is certainly undesirable. For this reason, there is a silent agreement that mixing tenses is preferable only in specific circumstances.

Here are the times when it’s generally agreed that changing tenses is okay:

Flashbacks

Flashback (n): A scene in a movie, novel, etc., set in a time earlier than the main story.

A flashback can, for example, change the narrative’s tense from present to past (the flashback is in italics).

He leans in to me and whispers, “Remember that day on the dock?” Do I ever.

It was dawn, and the katydids were buzzing, filling up the morning with their relentless symphony. I heard Pete’s footsteps echo on the wooden planks of the dock as he approached, but I didn’t turn around. I didn’t think I could bear the look of disappointment in his eyes when he realized that his secret admirer was me. Just me.

"Thank God it’s you," he said.

I glance at Pete now, and he kisses my nose. “I’m still glad it’s you.”

Flashbacks can also change from past tense to past tense. Here’s the same scene, all in past tense. Again, the flashback is in italics.

He leaned in to me and whispered, “Remember that day on the dock?” Did I ever.

It was dawn, and the katydids were buzzing, filling up the morning with their relentless symphony. I heard Pete’s footsteps echo on the wooden planks of the dock as he approached, but I didn’t turn around. I didn’t think I could bear the look of disappointment in his eyes when he realized that his secret admirer was me. Just me.

"Thank God it’s you," he said.

I glanced at Pete now, and he kissed my nose. “I’m still glad it’s you.”

A flashback is a block, a chunk of the narrative, and all of it is in the same tense, just as the block of narrative before it was all in the same tense and the block after it was as well.

Flash-forwards

Flash-forward (n): Interruption of chronological sequence (as in a film or novel) by interjection of events of future occurrence; also: an instance of flash-forward.

Flash-fowards glimpse at the future, so they are nearly always in future tense. Notice how the entire block of the flash-foward is in future tense while the sentences above and below the flash-foward stay in present tense.

Here’s the plan:

We’ll go to the bank at noon when most of the important people will be at lunch. That’ll be good, because we’ll want to be dealing with only the low-levels and they won’t know what to do. Then, at the stroke of twelve, we’ll whip out our guns and start shooting the ceiling. That ought to get their attention. Then we’ll empty the vault and get the hell out of there.

I’m not sure how great the plan is, but it’s the only one we’ve got, and I’m not going to be the one to argue with Fin.

This is that same scene (almost), only the main narrative (that is to say, everything but the flash-foward) is in past tense:

This was the plan:

We’ll go to the bank at noon when most of the important people will be at lunch. That’ll be good, because we’ll want to be dealing with only the low-levels and they won’t know what to do. Then, at the stroke of twelve, we’ll whip out our guns and start shooting the ceiling. That ought to get their attention. Then we’ll empty the vault and get the hell out of there.

I wasn’t sure how great the plan was, but it was the only one we had, and I wasn’t going to be the one to argue with Fin.

Like a flashback, a flash-foward is a block of narrative that changes tense, but flash-fowards project into the future while flashbacks reveal a scene in the past.

Dialogue

Dialogue (n): conversation between two or more persons

In dialogue, the characters should refer to what they have done in the past tense, what they are doing in the present tense, and what they will do in the future tense, regardless of the tense of the overall narrative.

We went home shortly after.

"Well, that was embarrassing," Fred said.

I frowned. “I think we should talk about it in the morning.”

Fred had other ideas. “We are going to talk about it now!”

Here’s the breakdown:

All of that dialogue happens in a framework of past tense description.

Stream of Consciousness from a First Person Point of View

A few definitions:

Stream of Consciousness (n):

  1. A person’s thoughts and conscious reactions to events, perceived as a continuous flow.
  2. A literary style in which one’s thoughts and feelings are depicted in a continuous and uninterrupted flow.

If a character is writing in her diary or you are writing a string of thought, you are likely writing in stream of consciousness.

First Person Point of View: Narration from the perspective of “I” or “We.”  Narrators may be involved with the action or may simply observe it; they may also be reliable or unreliable.

So, here’s an example of mixing past and present tense in first person stream of consciousness:

14 December

Granny says I wasn’t polite to Mr Andes this evening at dinner, but I’m pretty sure he was just as rude to me. Honestly, that man is a menace. If he wants to stare down my chest all night, I get to shout him down. That’s just how it worked. He is a gross old man, and I won’t put up with that nonsense.

The tenses in the example above are extremely garbled, but it’s alright because we understand that it is stream of consciousness.

Okay, almost done!

Extreme Style Choices

You may choose to interject a change of tense into your narrative as a stylistic choice. As long as it is a clear convention that carries through the narrative, your readers will understand that you’re doing it purposefully.

For instance:

Faith was never the kind to speak up. She leaned her elbows on the counter and watched the conversation idle past her. No one asked for her opinion. No one so much as glanced her way. Except the boy.

He has brown eyes and a spray of freckles across his cheeks. He is the kind of boy who could be a girl’s muse if he let her — if he wanted.

She stared at her half-eaten hamburger and told herself not to blush. He was watching. He saw her.

"Hey," said the boy, cutting across Jared’s rant on Radiohead, "what do you think?”

It is a style choice to break up a past tense narrative with present tense exposition. The difference between sneaking present tense into a past tense narrative and purposefully placing present tense in a past tense narrative is vast.

Other Exceptions and Further Reading

Other notable exceptions and examples for mixing past and present tenses, especially within the same sentence, may be found in these articles:

Thank you for your question!

If anyone has anything to add to this article, or you see any errors, please message us with your thoughts. This is a complicated subject, and we’d love to have your input!


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