Tag Archive | past tense

Getting Tense

samfootpaintIt seems a lot of folks are jumping on the Present Tense bandwagon. Now, don’t get me wrong, present tense can be cool–it can also come across as pretentious. The good news is that at least it keeps you from the mistake of slipping up on using past perfect tense when in past tense. But let’s go over these basics for those who may have skipped this class in school.

Present Tense – This is where you write as if things are happening now. I paint a picture. The sun is setting. It’s all going on in the present. The tricky part of present tense is what do you do with things that have happened–you have to not slip back into past tense.

Past Tense – Things have happened. I have painted a picture. Notice the verb change–we’re now in the ‘ed’ world. This is the most widely used verb tense for story telling. It’s comfortable for a reason. The trick here is when you are in past tense and you’re talking about the more distant past you have to switch to past perfect.

Past Perfect Tense – Things had happened a long time ago that need to be mentioned. Back when I was five, I had painted a picture of my world. The key word is “had.” If I had a nickel for every time a writer needed that had and left it out, well, I’d probably be doing other things with those nickles. Anyway, leaving out the ‘had’ can make for reader confusion. The ones that throw me is when a character is thinking about something that happened in childhood, but due to only using past tense it sounds as if this just happened in the story–and I then have to reread the paragraph and pick apart the meaning. I hate that.


Now there are other verb tenses, and a nice easy list can be found here at English Grammar Revolution. It’s worth the link to nail this down in your own writing, particularly if you plan to get fancy with your writing.


Easy Stuff to Fix – Past Perfect and Dialogue Punctuation

It’s contest judging season again — seems to come along every year with baseball and summer and picnics. And I’m seeing some of the same mistakes I always see. Now some stuff is tough to fix — as in you have a plot that’s not plausible, or wooden characters, or an idea that’s just too tired and cliche. That’s throw out the baby and the bathwater time. But some of this is easy to fix, and folks, you do need to fix the basics. What I’m seeing….

Tense issues. As in past tense, present tense, and past perfect tense (there are others, but these are the three you really need to nail).

Past tense works for most fiction. This is where you write: “He went to the store.” (Went being the past tense verb.)

Present tense is needed for a synopsis (it’s more dynamic), and you can also use it in a story. This is action happening now, as in: “He goes to the store.” (The verb become goes, or is going for present tense.)

Past perfect is where folks seem to really trip up. If you’re in the past tense and you want to write about the past (further in the past that is), you have to switch to past perfect.  As in: “He went to the store, and since he had been given a shopping list by his mother, he knew what to buy.”  Notice the switch to “had been” instead of “was” — that’s past perfect.

(And if you’re still confused, go and buy a copy of Strunk & White’s Element’s of Style. It’s a thin book, easily read in an hour and even easier to keep by your keyboard to sort out this stuff.)

The other thing that crops up a lot is weird uses of commas — commas put in where they are not needed or left out in other spots. That’s not too bad, but you do have to get this right around dialogue.

You use a comma to separate words spoken by a character from any action when (and only when) that action influences what is being said.

So these are all correct:

“You’re wrong,” she said.

“I can’t win,” he told her.

She cleared her throat, and said, “I love you.”

The action here is called an “action tag” by some and notice how these all form one sentence, and therefore use a comma.

The period is used when the action is NOT influencing what is said–when that is a separate thought and therefore should be a separate sentence. As in:

“You’re wrong.” She slammed her hand down on the table.

“I can’t win.” He let out a breath and shook his head.

She cleared her throat.  “I love you.”

Notice a couple of things. First, if you have action, you generally don’t need to attribute the dialogue (as in he said, she said). The reader knows who is speaking because there is action around the dialogue. Second, he said and she said are valid ways to attribute dialogue. It’s the mark of a beginning writer to go crazy with the adverbs and have folks chuckle, laugh, cry out and otherwise try to talk while they are doing something else.

In other words, rewrite when you put down stuff like:

“You’re wrong,” she yelled at him loudly. (If she’s yelling, then loudly is redundant, and the yelled is not letting the dialogue be strong.)

“I can’t win,” he chuckled sadly. (Try chuckling a word and see if you can do it — I dare you.)

She cleared her throat and breathed sexily, “I love you.”   (When in doubt read something aloud — if you cringe or someone laughs, you know you’ve hit melodrama. )

If you feel as if you need to add an adverb to any dialogue before you do this try rewriting the dialogue — dialogue that needs a crutch needs to be stronger so that it stands on its own.

And that’s my rant for the week. Or at least until the next contest I judge.