Recently I made a big decision. I decided to write the current novel I’m working on in the first person, singular voice. It’s a work in progress, so we’ll see if this decision remains. However, there are still a lot of other decisions I need to make regarding this work in progress. One of them involves fictional tenses.

As I was writing today, I noticed something when playing around with tenses.

Understanding and using past and present tenses in fiction

Today when I was writing, I noticed that the past tense is best used when characters or the narrator are being more contemplative and introspective. Writing in the past tense helps you, as a writer, define a character’s behavior and personality in a way that the present tense or future tense doesn’t. Using the past tense also helps writers develop characters and their personalities in a way that scenes with flashbacks don’t. Although flashback scenes have their own value, of course.

I also noticed that writing in the present tense is best used for describing immediate action, and intense action. If you have a fight scene, or a scene in which you really want readers to remain present and feel what your character is feeling and sensing, using the present tense is ideal.

Example sentence: She was braver yesterday when she signed up for cliff diving lessons after Sue accused her of living life too safe. Now she could not bring herself to step up two feet from the ledge.

While you can describe what a character is thinking using the present tense, it can likely be a bit redundant at times since you can simply describe what a character is doing in the present tense, or use dialogue and descriptions of their mannerisms or facial expressions in the present tense. On the other hand, when you use the past tense, you are revealing more of a trend in behavior and thoughts for characters, in a sense.

Using the future tense in fiction

I think writing in the future tense is more likely than not to elicit feelings of hope and longing in a reader. Writing in the future tense signals a promise of something to come that is still unknown. It can elicit suspense and hopeful feelings– for true love to be ignited or a monarchy to be toppled, for instance.

This post is only about my musings for the day, on what I was writing earlier in the day. There’s likely no hard science or evidence regarding what I said about fictional tenses above. Maybe there is. Either way, it’s worth theorizing and writing about, I suppose.

It is pretty clear that tenses, grammatically speaking, do much more than reference time in a piece of writing. That’s for sure. The tenses you decide to use in your fiction, fictional tenses, can determine a lot about your characters, who they are, what they care about, etc.

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