Sometimes even readers don’t realize what’s missing or wrong with the story. They just know something isn’t quite right. Then they submit reviews such as:
“I just didn’t connect with the story like I hoped I would.”
“It was an uncomfortable (or confusing) read for me.”
“This wasn’t an enjoyable read for me.”
“This was a nice story, but it contained a few errors which were distracting.”
Then there are the more intense readers (English majors/grammar police/those who “could have written it better”) who will pick up on the tense problems right away—especially if they ARE authors or editors, or have a great deal of experience in professional writing.
Readers SHOULD get an author’s best work! Therefore, paying attention to tense shifts in writing is just as important as correcting grammatical errors.
Here are a few examples of tense shifts. Sometimes they are subtle. See if you can spot them.
His fingers traced the outline of my lips and he leaned in to me. An electric charge surges through my body at his touch and butterflies are dancing in my stomach. Then, in one smooth motion, he blessed my lips with his own. It was warm and soft … perfect, just as I’d remembered. Notice the paragraph begins in the past tense. Then in the second sentence, the author moves to the present tense as if the kiss is taking place in the moment.
It has been six months since we had seen one another. I have no idea what to expect or what he is expecting. The plane lands and taxis around the lot. On pins and needles I keep my eyes locked on the gate. Finally, he came into my view and all my worries disappeared. He was back in my arms where he belonged. This paragraph is all over the place, but I see it in fiction writing all the time. First, it’s in present tense and halfway through that sentence, the tense shifts to past. Then it jumps back to present in the second and third sentence. And in the last two sentences, we are back in the past. I highlighted the key words to help you spot the differences in tense this time.
Here are 5 tips to avoid tense shifts in your writing:
Before you do the final proof, click on the “Find” feature in Word. Type in “ing.” The program will find any words ending in “ing” to allow you the chance to change them if needed. The same can be done with “ed” depending on what tense your story is supposed to be in.
During the final proof, read one line at a time, checking the verbs for tense shifts. Take breaks every few chapters to be able to come back to your story with fresh eyes. Read your story out loud and you will more likely hear the shifts more accurately.
Read other books. A lot. See if you can spot tense shifts in the books you read. I’ve even noticed them in traditionally published children’s books – by Scholastic! The more you study other books, the more you learn what NOT to do and how to do it right. The more you practice in your own writing, the more proficient you will become in this part of the craft.
Be sure to check your dialogue as well. Tense shifts can sneak into dialogue just as easily.
Be sure to get an extra set of eyes, if not two, on your document. Others tend to find our faults better than we do.
Here is some add-on advice on this topic, shared by Stephen Geez:
This is an important tip, Traci. It boggles more than my mind how often story-tellers don’t keep present and past tense clear. I’m thinking of lots of common mistakes at the more advanced level, too, but I’ll limit this to two examples:
A lot of writers don’t realize that a shift in tense (especially with participles) requires staying in that shift for the rest of the sentence unless specifically shifting back. Even fewer realize it is proper (and preferable) to continue that shift for the entire paragraph (another of the umpteen criteria for proper paragraph breaking). For example: “She had had every possible kind of bad blind date.” If the paragraph will go on to describe a dozen examples, many writers will continue to manually shift every sentence: “She had had no-shows. She had had run-and-hides.” etc. When the first sentence of a paragraph has any combo of have/had, the rest of the paragraph nearly always should not have any. Thus: “She had had every kind of bad blind date. Men failed to show up. Others ran and hid.” etc.
Once the first sentence shifted us, the rest can (usually should) be simply in past tense.
When you have a paragraph freckled with hads and haves (which you can Word search to look for yellow blemishes), it’s time to revise everything after the shift. Now, the next paragraph is an auto-reset, so you need to shift again if you intend to continue the same pattern.
Another common one is a form of comma error. With present participles (evidenced by those ING endings Traci pointed out), you can go all day adding those clauses with a comma to start each, and they always reflect the tense of the opening clause.
Thus a past example: “He always RAN to the store, PAUSING to greet neighbors, ENJOYING the sunshine, SINGING a happy song…”
Thus a future example: Someday he WOULD recover and RUN to the store again, PAUSING to greet, ENJOYING the sunshine, SINGING…”
The first set of ings are put in the past tense by RAN and in the future tense by WOULD…RUN.
Here’s the kicker that’s critical to know, a comma rule: When you start an ING clause with a comma, it throws it back to the sentence subject. When you omit the comma, it attaches it to the nearest previous noun, which can void (in rare examples) the tense string I just described.
Thus: “Bob found Fred WALKING in the park” with no comma before the ING means FRED WALKING (Bob could have been biking when he found him walking). A comma in “Bob found Fred, WALKING in the park” throws the ING verb back to the subject Bob. We know Bob was walking, but maybe Fred was TAKING a nap in the grass.
Traci started with the basics because many need to sort that out. However, even if that much is clear to you, never forget the abundance of more advanced nuances that can and should come into play. Practice the proper, discover the nuanced, and enjoy the wonder in how the finer wordsmiths manipulate all this into art.
Thanks, Traci. You sure are hitting a lot of my head-shakers. Be sure to check out Traci’s new books. Like I said…she knows her stuff.