Guest Writers / Tips

The trouble with tense and how to resolve it


When you’re deep in the editing stage with a piece of writing, it is easy to feel stuck. You have produced draft after draft, yet something about the piece still isn’t quite right. Perhaps the problem isn’t in the dialogue, plot arc or the structure of that one problem sentence—perhaps it is the tense in which the story is written.


(Flickr: Angie Garrett)

Read: Coping with writing criticism

Finding the perfect tense to use is just as important as having an interesting plot and well-developed characters.

Reader Impact

Each tense has a different impact on the reader, and therefore can completely change the story:

Using past tense gives a more reflective tone to a piece of writing. The events and thoughts are memories—this opens up the possibility of misremembering and can add another layer to the narrative.

Present tense makes the story more immediate. Things are currently happening, everything is in motion, and this has a great impact on the reader. Present tense can be great for action-packed stories.

Writing in the future tense renders a piece of writing less concrete and more speculative. As with past tense, it is more removed than the present tense. The future is always changing; so saying that something will happen is sometimes not as impactful as saying it is currently happening or it has already happened.

Accompanying tense is narrative point of view (first, second or third person). The two truly work in tandem: when considering one; you must think about the other. Third person past tense has a very different tone than second person present tense or first person future tense.

First person builds a strong relationship between the reader and the narrator (often the main character), allowing the reader to connect to the narrator and become invested in their story.

Read: Writing for a rainy day

Second person draws the reader in to the story by making them feel like a character in the story. Be careful, though, because using second person can also be off-putting to the reader if not used properly.

Third person has the potential to seem removed, but it can also make the story relatable to a wider audience.

Pairing the appropriate point of view with the perfect tense can give just the right tone to your piece of writing.

Shifting Tense

Changing the tense in the middle of a story—whether for a sentence, paragraph, or for a half of the story—draws the reader’s attention to what is happening in that part of the piece.

Read: On the history of the writing Muse

For example, if the introduction to a story is written in third person past tense, shifts into first person present to deliver the action of the story, and then switches back into third person past, that middle section stands out. Be careful with shifting tense. If it’s not used properly, it can be distracting.

Use Technology

Here’s the most helpful tip when editing tense: Open up multiple word documents and copy your story into each window. As with most elements of a first draft, the original tense might not be the best one for the story. Rewrite your story with different tenses, playing with the pace and structure by changing between first, second, or third person and past, present, or future. Try shifting tense or using a different tense all the way through. Create multiple “tense” versions of the story and print each one out to read.

Next time you’re editing a draft of a work-in-progress or revisiting an old, abandoned piece, reconsider tense. You might be surprised how simply changing some verbs will make your story an entirely new piece of writing.

Lexi Bollis is a student at Kenyon College pursuing an English major with an emphasis in Creative Writing and a double minor in Music and Mathematics. You can find her other writing at Miss Millenia Magazine, Her Campus Kenyon and Geek Insider.

Lexi Bollis

Leave a Reply