Tenses help us convey the time in which action or events occur, and in writing, they play an important role in creating cohesion and maintaining a planned structure for your overall project. Deciding which tense to write your story in is one of the most important decisions you’ll make. It determines the scope of perspective and the viewpoint from which you can explore time, the unfolding of events, and the background you outline and refer to in your exposition. The decision about which tense to write in has an effect on character perspective and point of view, but they are dealt with in a separate write-up.
Here, we’ll explore the main tenses used in writing fiction, considering their advantages and disadvantages, the scope they offer, and the pitfalls you might encounter.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” - Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
Most people talk in terms of what happened in the past. It affords you great opportunity to reflect on the consequences of actions, as well as the chain of events to which they belong. This fleshes out the world you’re creating, not to mention the characters populating it. There are five different ways to narrate the past. Let’s take a look at them:
Past Simple - I did; she ran; they watched
The basic staple for speaking about the past, this tense is as ‘simple’ as it sounds. Just say what your character did on that sunny day all those years ago. When you say ‘he said’ or ‘they said’, that’s the Past Simple. It’s arguably the most popular tense in modern fiction writing.
Past Continuous - I was doing; she was running; they were watching
As you know, the Past Continuous is all about ongoing actions, and when you combine the Past Simple and Past Continuous in one sentence, you immediately quicken the pace. For example, They watched the shooting stars, marvelling in the wonder of the universe.
Past Perfect - I had done; she had run; they had watched
A good way to think of this tense is that it makes you jump back in time twice - first to one point in the past (for which we use the Past Simple tense), and then to a second point before that one. The idea is to show that actions or events were completed before or by the time another action began.
We had finished eating when…
The armies had stopped fighting by the time I arrived.
When you switch to Past Perfect, you can take the reader back to the second point in time and then resume as if you are in that time. This is good in First Person POV (see Point of View in Fiction Writing), as it allows you to reach out a little more in time.
Past Perfect Continuous - I had been doing; she had been running; they had been watching
This tense helps us speak about ongoing actions in the past, and in writing it’s a great way of talking about significant memories or formative events in a habitual framework (see ‘Habitual Past’ below). For example: Up until that day, we had been going to the forest after school for months, dropping our bikes at the big oak and exploring to our hearts' content.
Habitual Past -
This is a nice way of talking about habits and repeating actions in the past, possibly while reflecting on the foundations for the situation or circumstances your character ends up in. Don’t confuse the use of ‘would’ with the Conditional Tense - this use of ‘would’ is a twist on the Past Simple. Instead of using adverbs like ‘always’ or ‘sometimes’, adding them into a sentence in the past simple, the habitual past uses words like ‘would’ or ‘used to’ to encapsulate the idea of repetitive or regular behaviour in the past. You will see from the comparative examples below that the adverb following ‘would’ (in the Habitual Past) is not necessarily required.
Past Simple + adverb
When it comes to exposition and point of view, using the past tense allows you to reflect into the ‘future’ of your characters or events, a future that exists between your point of view (as the writer) and that/those of your character(s). After talking about an event in the past, you could say something like “He would never be the same after that, always thinking back on [these events].” This allows your reader to imagine a developmental period that you don’t even need to develop.