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Verb tense

One of the many issues to address in writing is to how to properly relate when the events in your story actually took place. For example, are the described events related from memory as a narrative? Are they happening in real time? This is the purpose of using the correct verb tense in writing.

Using incorrect verb tense – switching from past to present or vice versa during a story – causes a large percentage of story rejections. Many new and experienced writers struggle with the subject, so read on to find out how to avoid having your work returned.

In stories told about events that have already occurred, almost every verb should be in the past tense. It is like relating a story to a friend. You would naturally describe everything in a way that made it clear that they happened before your conversation. For instance, you might confide to a friend something that occurred the night before:

My wife and I were at a club last night and we had passionate sex in the restroom.

It would be unnatural to discuss this any other way, as it clearly happened in the past. Similarly, in a story written about past events, you would tell the story in the past tense. The only time the present tense would be used, is when describing something that remained unchanged since the events took place. For instance, in describing a woman, you might write:

She has the most beautiful eyes.

Even though the events in the story happened in the past, it is acceptable to use the present tense to describe something that remains unchanged over time. Using the past tense here ("she had the most beautiful eyes") might imply that her eyes have somehow deteriorated! If, however, the story occurred a long time earlier, that difference in time can be acknowledged by phrasing it this way:

Her eyes were as beautiful then as they are today.

The result is that you have conveyed that she had not changed despite the passage of time. You may choose to employ the past tense if the character with the beautiful eyes lives only in memory:

She had the most beautiful eyes I have ever seen.

The most important thing to remember is that in a story written in the past tense, only things that remain constant through time would ever be described in the present. Here's another example:

I am of Italian descent.

Your heritage would not change over time, so would use the present tense even though the main bulk of the story would be written in the past tense.

The issue of proper verb tense becomes much more complicated when writing in the present. It is so complicated in fact, that writing in the present verb tense should not be attempted by beginners, unless there is an overarching reason in the plot to do so. The vast majority of stories rejected due to shifting tense issues are those written in the present verb tense in the first person (I am, I see, I do).

If you decide to use the present tense, only those events that are actually happening in real time, before the reader's eyes, are written in the present:

I slip my hand into your panties, dipping into your moist sex. Your sudden gasp excites me and a wicked smile appears on my face.

In this case, the events are happening before our eyes, so use of the present tense is correct. However, even if the story is written in the present, only those actions we actually see happening are written in the present verb tense. If something happens outside that immediate window, it should be written in the past tense:

As I pour the Champagne, I hear the soft ruffling of cloth falling to the floor. I turn and am pleasantly surprised to see that you have allowed your dress to fall away from your slender body.

In this case, using the past tense to describe a change the narrator did not actually witness is appropriate, even in a present tense story, because the events described have already taken place. Shifting from the present to the past tense is logical in that sentence.

When editing stories, you should pay attention to verb tenses and any shifts back and forth between the past and present tense. The important thing to remember is that the past tense should be used almost all the time in writing stories. The present tense should only be used in limited instances where the story is actually happening as it is being told. Overall, you are aiming for consistent verb endings throughout your story in past tense narrative (said, walked, ran, touched) compared with their equivalent present tense endings (say, walk, run, touch).