When I start writing something new, I tend to default to the past tense automatically. In my opinion, this is the easiest tense to write in, and that’s why I tend to revert to it. From time to time, I dabble in the present and the future tenses, too, although admittedly far less frequently. Each tense can give your writing a very different feeling.
Our theme for this month has been language. We have thought about some of the ways that writers can use language to make an impression on their audience and why we should think carefully about the language choices we make, So far we have covered speech, the first, second and third person, and active and passive voice. Today, we’re going to think about the tenses.
For this exercise, I’m going to assure that you are already familiar with how to change the tense of a verb and the different forms of each tense. If you think you might be a little rusty, you can find a useful table to help you here (scroll down the page to “Verb Tense Overview with Examples”). When you’re ready, let’s think about the impact each tense can have in turn.
As I stated above, this feels like the easiest tense to write in for me. The past tense allows you to write a story or poem about events that have already taken places, whether at a specified or unspecified time in the past. It also allows you to easily move around between moments in time in the past without having the change the tense you’re writing in. I like to use the past tense because it helps me to distinguish between text and dialogue, as my character’s talk in the present tense as the events happen to them.
I believe that the past tense is the most useful tense for long pieces of writing. However, you can also argue that it makes things feel a little emotionally distant – the reader may not experience as many edge-of-their-seat moments compared to the present tense, because they know that what they are reading is not happening right now.
The present tense allows you to write about something that is happening at the exact moment your audience reads it. This can make it the most exciting of the tenses when it is done right, provided there is enough action in your piece of writing (or it is short and snappy enough) to keep the reader excited. Consider using the present tense for something with lots of twists and turns to keep the plot moving.
One con of using the present tense is that it can be harder to stick to the correct tense. I know I find myself slipping into the past tense without meaning to. If you want to write flashbacks, then these will need to be in the past tense, and you will need to ensure that you return to the present tense when it is time to do so.
If you have a great, unique narrative voice, then present tense can help you to show it off. Voice is a very important tool in keeping a story in the present tense alive – so make sure you practice your own a lot!
The future tense allows you to talk about actions that will or may happen at a specified or unspecified time in the future. I like to keep anything written in the future tense short and sweet. Again, flashbacks will need to be in the past tense, so watch out for when you move between the tenses to keep your verbs tight and accurate.
This tense is best for small pieces of writing, poems discussing the future of individuals or groups, short stories or piece of flash fiction imagining what the world might look like in a certain number of years time, or anything with a message of warning or hope. There are lots of possibilities with the future tense, as long as you work within the limits of predictions and potentials.
Do you have a “go to” tense? Which is your favourite tense to write in, and why?
This month’s theme is LANGUAGE. If you have written something that you would like me to share on this blog on the theme of language, then please post a link in the comments or email me on firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject: Language.