The future tense comes naturally to most of us in everyday speech. We talk about future plans, express hopes and dreams, and tell people what could happen in the future with this tense. But writing in future tense is a different sort of beast. Luckily, it’s a fairly simple concept to grasp. And since you’ll probably use the future tense in your writing on occasion, it’s good to learn all about it.
- What defines future tense in fiction.
- How to write in future tense (with examples).
- Pros and cons of writing in future tense.
Table of contents
- What is the Future Tense in Fiction?
- Understanding Future Tense: The Four Tenses
- Future Tense Stories to Read
- Benefits of Writing in the Future Tense
- Drawbacks of Writing in the Future Tense
- Writing in Future Tense: Conclusion
What is the Future Tense in Fiction?
Most fiction writing is done in the past tense. However, in recent decades, more and more present-tense books have hit the shelves. But what you don't see a lot of are books written entirely in the future tense.
There are several good reasons for this, which will become apparent as you read this article. But the biggest reason this isn't normal is that there are no future verb tenses in English. Instead, for future tense, we use auxiliary verbs. More on that later.
Identifying Future Tense
While writing an entire book in the future tense is probably not the best use of anyone's time, it doesn't mean you shouldn't experiment with all the available tenses if you want to!
Luckily, identifying future tense prose is a relatively simple matter. Since English doesn't have future tense verb forms, you only really need to look out for certain words or phrases: “will,” and “going to.”
In the case of future tense, “will” is an auxiliary verb that helps turn a regular or irregular verb into a future tense verb. (You can also use “shall,” but it's becoming antiquated and is more often used in British English than American English.)
I will have that report done by tomorrow at three pm.
I will not see you tomorrow for drinks tonight.
She's not going to meet me for lunch after all.
They are going to see a movie together.
Any sentence that refers to something that may or may not happen in the future is a form of future tense. As you probably know, future tense is used in many books. It's just not often used to write an entire novel or short story.
But to give you a better idea of why this is, let's look at the four forms of the future tense.
Understanding Future Tense: The Four Tenses
There are four types of future tense in English. These include Simple Future (or Future Simple), Future Continuous, Future Perfect, and Future Perfect Continuous. If you're familiar with the variants of these tenses in both past tense and present tense, then you'll have no trouble understanding them. Even if you're not familiar, they’re not hard to get the hang of.
Simple Future Tense
Simple future tense is all about something that will begin and end in the future. This could be an activity, action, or even a condition. There are two easy formulas for simple future. They are as follows.
The Simple Future Tense Formulas:
- Formula 1 (formal): Will + [Root form of verb]
- Formula 2 (informal): [Am or is or are] + going to + [Root form of verb]
Formula 1 Examples
She will drink two cups of coffee before noon.
He will listen for the doorbell.
You can also make the simple future negative by adding a word to this formula:
James will not drive to Texas next week.
I will not sleep all day, even though I want to.
Formula 2 Examples
Darius is going to read two books this week.
I am going to write a novel this year.
You can make this formula negative, too:
They are not going to swim in the ocean.
Reggie and Lisa are not going to eat pizza for dinner again.
Future Continuous Tense
Future continuous tense is used to discuss something that will be happening at a specific point, or during a specific timeframe, in the future. It's also used to ask questions about the future.
The Future Continuous Tense Formula:
- Will be + [-ing verb]
I will be reading from three to five today.
She will be driving home from work at that time.
They will not be boarding a plane on Saturday morning because the flight was canceled.
Will you be listening to your audiobook on the way to work?
Future Perfect Tense
When we use future perfect, we do so to determine when an action will be done at some specific point in the future. When making plans with people, we often use future perfect tense.
Future Perfect Tense Formula:
- Will have + [past participle]
I will have finished writing my book by Thanksgiving.
Delia will have forgotten all about him by then.
He will not have eaten his dinner at six.
Will you have talked to Ahmed by nine?
Future Perfect Continuous
Future perfect continuous tense is a little trickier because we don't use it as much as the other three tenses. It's essentially a combination of future perfect and future continuous. It's used to discuss cause and effect or to talk about something that's going to happen until a certain time in the future.
Future Perfect Continuous Tense Formula:
- Will have been + [present participle]
She will have been running the race for three hours by then.
Simon will have been sleeping for ten hours at noon!
I will not have been reading much because I'll have been so busy.
Will you have been eating for an hour at that point?
Future Tense Stories to Read
As I mentioned earlier, there aren't many books or stories written entirely or mostly in future tense. Now that we've covered the four future tenses in American English, you can probably see why. But the following books get as close as possible to future tense. Check them out if you like:
- Amalgamemnon by Christine Brooke Rose
- Smiles On Washington Square by Raymond Federman
- Aura by Carlos Fuentes (Written originally in Spanish, which has a definitive future tense. The English translation necessarily loses some of this because of the lack of future verb tenses.)
Benefits of Writing in the Future Tense
There are limited benefits to writing an entire story in the future tense. While good for experimentation, I would caution you to go in with tempered expectations if you write a story in the future tense and hope for commercial success.
There are, however, other benefits of using the future tense in your stories.
For certain sequences, it can add variety to your story or novel. It can also help with character development when used sparingly.
For example, you could have a character who suffers from terrible anxiety. The character could fret about going to the grocery store (or any activity). Using future tense and inner dialogue, you could have the character predict all the awful things that will happen when he or she leaves the house.
“I will fumble for my credit card, dropping it on the ground. And when I bend down to grab it, my pants will rip. The laughter will be so cruelly rich and piercing, I will run out of the store crying, groceries abandoned and stomach rumbling. By the time it's all over, I'll have been humiliated ten times over. And I'll never be able to go back to that store again.”
This is a basic example. You get the idea.
You can also use future tense to great effect in dialogue. After all, we often use it ourselves in everyday conversation. If you want a masterclass on using future tense in dialogue, read Jane Austen's Persuasion.
Future tense can also be used well in prophecies. Whether it be a witch stirring a cauldron or a religious leader proselytizing, future tense can set up expectations in your story that you can then subvert or use to create tension.
Drawbacks of Writing in the Future Tense
Since future tense is not often used in fiction, it can take readers out of the story unless it is used wisely. Just as present tense is used in dialogue for stories written in the past tense, future tense can also be used in dialogue. But you want to be careful of this. Too much future-tense writing will backfire. There needs to be an obvious reason for it.
The main issue with writing prose using the future tense is that it makes it hard for the reader to stay in the story. It's that much harder to suspend disbelief when you're reading about things that haven't happened yet. And, for that matter, may never happen.
Two characters talking about a planned future event is fine, but when the whole story is talking about a future event or events that never come to pass, then it can make for tedious reading.
Plus, the limitations of future tense are crippling. You can't reference a past event unless you change from future to past tense. And you can't talk about the present tense unless you switch verb tenses again. This factor alone can make telling a coherent and entertaining story nearly impossible when only using future tense.
Tips for Writing Future Tense
Although we've covered why you wouldn't want to write a full story in the future tense, there are some tips to take away from this article. Most of them have to do with using future tense in your present or past-tense story through dialogue or for specific scenes.
- Keep it to a minimum and only use it when there's a storytelling reason for it.
- Stick mostly to simple future and future continuous for simplicity's sake.
- Practice writing in the future tense if it's something you struggle with.
Writing in Future Tense: Conclusion
The different tenses in the English language can be confusing. And although we often use the future tense to describe or discuss plans for the future, we don't actually have future verb tenses. Instead, we use what's called an auxiliary or modal verb like “will” to create the future form verb tense. While this makes writing a story entirely in the future tense a daunting and even unnecessary process, it can be used in stories told in the past or present tense if needed.
Understanding all the different tenses is good for any writer, and I hope this explanation of writing in future tense has helped you!