Problems to Avoid 3: Voice – Part C

by Al Kalar

Last week we learned about keeping your viewpoint consistent (1st person, 3rd person, omniscient).

Now we’ll delve into “tense”. There are a number of different tenses: present, future, past, and past perfect to name the four most encountered.

Past tense:

Most fiction is written in past tense. “Jim did this and Sally did that.” News stories also make extensive use of past tense.

Future tense:

Future tense is in the form: “Jim will do this.”

Present tense:

Present tense: “Jim is doing this.”

Past perfect tense:

The least understood is “perfect”, as in “past perfect”. When you’re writing in past tense and you want to indicate something that happened before the period your characters are experiencing, you use “past perfect”: “Jim had done this.”

Now, if your past perfect segment goes beyond a sentence or two, don’t continue to use past perfect modifiers (was, had, had been). After you’ve established past perfect, it’s safe to return to normal past tense with just an occasional past perfect modifier. Example:

Jim had gone to see his old partner. He’d approached Henry’s house and getting no answer to the doorbell, he worked his way around to the back yard where he found Henry lying on blood-stained grass.

Now, he was the main suspect in Henry’s murder and on the run from the cops.

Consistency:

Once you start using a tense for a story, stick with it unless you have to switch. For instance, don’t start a paragraph in past tense and then switch to present when describing the same action (yes, I’ve seen that in manuscripts).

Jim went to the dinner and is ordering his lunch from sexy Suzie.

When you make simple errors like that, you’re telling your potential publisher that you either can’t write or you’re too lazy to clean up your work.

Literacy Education Online has a great page on verb tenses that lays this out in a more complete form.

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