Keeping tenses consistent throughout a story is an area that a lot of writers have some difficulty with. The modern tendency for people to use the present tense when describing things that happened in the past is not helpful in this regard. It is a classic situation when many footballers talk about the match they’ve just played. It is as though they are reliving the events in their mind – “Joe passes the ball to me and I slip past Pete, pass it to Mic and he hammers it into the goal.” In reality this is action that took place a while ago and using the past tense would be ‘Joe passed the ball to me and I slipped past Pete, passed it to Mic and he hammered it into the goal.”

Writing a whole story in the present tense, unless you are good at it, which in my opinion few writers are, can be clumsy. Well written, it is a work of art. What many writers do is end up with a mixture of tenses. “Joe passes the ball to me and I slipped past Pete, pass it to Mic and he hammered it in the goal.” When this happens the writer needs to go back and edit their work!

Another consideration on tenses is the wide range there are available. He has, he had, he would have, he was having and so on. Choosing the right one can be difficult. One thing to bear in mind when writing for children is the ages they start to learn different tenses. Taking as an example the conditional progressive ‘He would have been’ this is not a tense to use in stories for very young children as it is not one they will have yet learnt to use.

When writers drop into back story it is customary to use the pluperfect or past perfect tense to differentiate it from the ongoing story. As an example:

‘Sam and Marie weren’t talking to each other, again! Why were their evenings always like his now?

There had been a time when they never stopped talking. Sam had come home each evening and hugged her, wrapping his arms around her and lifting her off the floor. He had told her about his day…’

You don’t have to stay in pluperfect. After a couple of lines that have given the signal to the reader that you have gone back in time, you can return to the past tense. Then when you are ready to come out of the back story you use the pluperfect as a transition tool to bring you back up to date.

It may feel as bad as conjugating verbs in language studies at school, but in many ways learning the uses of the English tenses helps to make sense of other language learning. It is perhaps a shame that teaching tenses of verbs in English language teaching has gone so far out of fashion.

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