The past tense is the most common tense in fiction writing, and it has been for some time. Deciding between the past or the present tense is one of the first decisions a writer must make before putting words down. And in order to make an informed decision, it's essential to know the ins and outs of past tense writing.
- What the past tense is and why it's so common.
- How to write well in the past tense.
- Tips for keeping your tenses straight.
Table of contents
- What is the Past Tense?
- Writing Well in the Past Tense: The Four Tenses
- Tips for Writing in the Past Tense
- Benefits of Past Tense
- Drawbacks of Past Tense
- Past Tense Writing: Conclusion
What is the Past Tense?
The past tense is a type of grammatical tense in which events are told as if they happened in the past. As readers, most of the fiction we've read is written in the past tense. You can easily identify this tense by the use of past tense verbs such as went, walked, said, sat, stood, drove, etc.
Here's an example of the past tense:
She was waiting for the bus when she noticed the man. Something about his body language bothered her. She had seen him on the train, three rows down from her. She straightened as he approached, as if making herself look bigger would make him think twice if he did in fact mean her harm. But this was silly because she stood just a hair above five feet tall on her best day. The man passed on the sidewalk without a glance, leaving Uma feeling relief mixed with a dash of self-recrimination. She had been prone to anxiety for years, but this was getting ridiculous.
All the past tense verbs in the example above are in bold to illuminate what makes this passage past tense.
When it comes to fiction writing, we can also use the present tense. But we'll focus on the past tense in this article because it's important to be familiar with this often-used tense before you decide in which style to write your story.
Why is the Past Tense Used More Than the Present Tense?
When we tell each other stories, we naturally speak in the past tense. If you wanted to tell someone what happened to you at the store or at work, you wouldn't tell them about it as if it was happening right now. Because it happened in the past, you would tell them about it using the past tense.
This natural tendency is perhaps the best explanation for why writing fiction in the past tense is so common. While in recent years there have been several bestselling books written in the present tense, books written in the past tense are still much more common. In fact, this is sometimes called narrative tense, which indicates how prevalent it really is.
And because it has been so common for so long, people are used to it. In fact, some readers find present-tense books so jarring that they won't even read them.
So for any writer who wants to master their craft, learning to write in the past tense is essential. And within the past tense, there are four tenses with which to familiarize yourself.
Writing Well in the Past Tense: The Four Tenses
One of the most common mistakes writers make (both new and experienced) is failing to use the correct tense. There are four primary tenses you'll use when writing in the past tense. These are simple past, past perfect, past progressive, and past perfect progressive. Let's take a look at each in turn (with examples).
Simple Past Tense
The simple past tense is the most common type of past tense you'll use when writing a novel or short story. You can think of the simple past tense (sometimes called past simple) as the “now” of your story. It helps the reader keep track of the story timeline, so it's where you will root the “present” of your story, even though it's written in the past tense.
The majority of your story will be told in the simple past, but there will likely be times when you'll need a different tense. Sometimes called a tense shift, this is all about making the order of things clear to the reader. And it all starts with the simple past tense. We can see this in action using an excerpt from the example above:
Something about his body language bothered her.
There are other portions of the example that are in the simple past tense, as well:
She straightened as he approached . . .
The man passed on the sidewalk without a glance, leaving Uma feeling relief mixed with a dash of self-recrimination.
These passages describe action in the now of the story, without deviating to the future or the past of that now. But there are other passages that do deviate. Let's continue with the next tense to explore this more.
Past Perfect Tense
Past perfect is used in novel writing to tell the reader about something that happened before the “now” of the simple past. Crucially, it always refers to something that happened and was completed before. Let's look at the passage from earlier again to see this in action:
Something about the man's body language bothered her. She had seen him on the train, three rows down from her.
By using the word “had” in the bold sentence, we indicate to the reader that we're talking about something that happened in the past. If we didn't use the past perfect tense, instead sticking to the simple perfect, it would look like this:
Something about the man's body language bothered her. She saw him on the train, three rows down from her.
This seems like it's happening in the story's present. It can cause confusion. Is he on the train? Is she? Suddenly, the reader has to go back and try to figure out what's going on. They're taken out of the story, and that's the last thing we want.
By using the past perfect, we can avoid any confusion and keep the chronology clear, therefore keeping the reader in the story.
Past Progressive Tense
Sometimes called past continuous tense, this tense is used to indicate something that was continuing to happen at the time of mention. You can identify past progressive by the verbs “was” or “were” combined with an “ing” word.
The past progressive tense is most often used in fiction to describe simultaneous or interrupted actions.
She was waiting for the bus when she noticed the man.
While it's entirely possible to overuse the past progressive—especially when describing scenery — it does have its place. In the example above, it indicates an activity that was ongoing. The waiting was ongoing, and she didn't stop waiting just because she noticed the man.
But let's try this without past continuous tense:
She waited for the bus when she noticed the man.
Writing it this way can cause confusion. It sounds wrong because the chronology isn't clear. Of course, there are other ways to write this sentence without using past continuous. But sometimes, this tense is just what you need for concise writing.
Past Perfect Progressive Tense
Lastly, we come to the past perfect progressive tense. Sometimes called past perfect continuous tense, this is used to show that something had happened for a certain amount of time in the past. Whereas the past perfect indicates that something happened once (“had seen him”), the past perfect progressive indicates that something happened over a length of time in the past. In our example, there's only one instance of this:
She had been prone to anxiety for years, but this was getting ridiculous.
The use of “had been” shows that her anxiety wasn't just a one-time thing. It was ongoing for years, even up to the story's “now.”
This is also often used to indicate an ongoing action that was interrupted in the past:
He had been reading for hours when the doorbell rang.
Tips for Writing in the Past Tense
Now that we've covered the four tenses you'll use when writing your novel in the past tense, let's look at some tips for using them.
Dialogue in the Past Tense
Even when writing your story in the past tense, your dialogue will be in the present tense. Because, to the characters in the story, it's still the present tense.
This can get tricky, requiring you to switch between simple present tense and past simple tense while writing dialogue scenes. In fact, it can be easy to slip into the present tense when coming out of dialogue, so it's a good idea to pay close attention to these areas.
Likewise, some authors get inside their POV characters' heads with internal dialogue. This should also be in the present, even though your character isn't really talking to anyone. Actually, you could make the argument that a character's internal dialogue is the character talking to him or herself. Either way, keep this in the present tense when the thoughts are verbatim.
Some authors like to use italics to set these lines apart. Others use quotation marks. Some simply change tenses without any other outward signal to the reader that they're hearing the character's thoughts. Really, this is a matter of style and what works best for your genre.
While changing tenses is expected when it comes to internal or external dialogue, it's not something that readers like much in other instances.
It can be tempting to change from past to present tense during an action sequence. After all, the present tense seems to lend itself to fights and other dramatic scenes. But in the vast majority of cases, this will only result in reader confusion and possibly even bad reviews.
There is some debate as to whether to change tenses when writing about universal truths. For example:
Suddenly everything came back to him. He recalled it all. Everything he'd lost. He knew that two plus two equals four and that the Earth is round and that fire is hot.
Suddenly everything came back to him. He recalled it all. Everything he'd lost. He knew that two plus two equaled four and that the Earth was round and that fire was hot.
If your narrator is omniscient or breaks the fourth wall to talk to the reader, the first example would probably be acceptable. However, if your narrator is not omniscient and you are sticking close to your POV characters, the second example would probably be best.
Really, there is no “rule” for writing about universal truths. Ultimately, it comes down to a choice of style and genre.
Using “Had” Judiciously
As detailed above, you will probably be using the word “had” in your novel for both past perfect and past perfect progressive. However, a pitfall to avoid is using it too often. If you're going to tell the reader about something that happened before your story's “now” by using “had,” you don't need to keep using it during that entire scene.
For example, if you want to fill in some backstory to tell about what your character had been doing before the present moment, you can use one or two (no more than three) “hads” to indicate to the reader that this happened in the story's past. This is known as switching the verb tense.
Then, when you're getting ready to bring the narration back to the story's present, you can use one or two “hads” again to indicate you're leaving. Here's an example:
As Terrence stepped out of the airport and into the blizzard, he thought about the last twenty-four hours. He had been trying to drown his sorrows before finally sucking it up and buying the plane ticket. He’d chosen a particularly dark and smelly biker pub in which to do his drinking. And as always seemed to be the case, he attracted trouble.
The man who picked a fight with him outweighed him by a good fifty pounds, but size was only a determining factor when the other guy didn't know what he was doing.
After the fight was over, Terrence tossed a crumpled fifty-pound note on the bar, hoping it would cover the damages. He had lurched down the street before finally catching a cab to the airport.
Now, here he was, half a world away and facing more trouble. But unlike the guy at the bar, Terrence was actually looking for this trouble.
While that could use some cleaning up, you get the idea. You don't have to use the new verb tense every time once you've clearly established a foothold in the story's past. Use it a few times to get the point across, then a time or two more when you're coming back to the story's present. This will prevent all the “hads” from slowing down the story.
Benefits of Past Tense
When you use the past tense in your creative writing, you can rest easy knowing that you won't alienate any readers. This is not always the case when writing in the present tense. While readers who don't like present-tense novels are out there, you won't often find readers that balk at a novel written in the past tense.
You also have more freedom when writing in the past tense. You can stretch or close the distance between your viewpoint character and narrator as the scene requires. If you want, you can even give a hint of what's to come, which is great for building tension. These things are much more difficult when writing in the literary present tense.
There are many reasons to write your novel in the past tense, but it's always good to let the story influence this decision. Because there are certain drawbacks to writing in the past tense, as well.
Drawbacks of Past Tense
When compared to the present simple tense, the past tense can seem a little distant. It doesn't contain the immediacy and cinematic draw that the present tense does. For some stories, especially those that happen over a short period or that have only one viewpoint character, the present tense might be the better choice.
It can also be easy to slip into passive voice when writing in the past tense. This is something to look out for when using the past tense. When we find ourselves writing “was” and “were” along with “ing” verbs, instead of using past participle verbs, we risk slowing the story down and taking agency away from the characters.
Past Tense Writing: Conclusion
Although it may feel to us like we're writing about a past event when using the past tense in our novel, it often doesn't seem like this to the reader. To them, the story is unfolding as they read, and the fact that it's written in the past tense doesn't occur to most readers. This is why mastering the past tense is a worthy pursuit for any fiction writer.
Using the correct verb tense can get a little complicated when shifting tenses. Luckily, as a reader, you likely already have an instinctual knowledge of how to write in this tense. By making it a point to study this tense, you can learn its ins and outs to determine with confidence if it's the right choice for your story.