Writing 101 – Tenses


(c) Robyn LaRue 2014

Hoo-wee! What a week we’ve had here at SarMus HQ (formally SarMus Towers, but we all know what happened there): Amanda has given us the secrets of horror; Robyn has guided us to publishing resources, not to mention her version of The Little Author That Could; and, Michelle has shown us how to play with dots

But Ladies and Gentlemen, I come to you today to discuss a serious matter. I come to you today to discuss tense.

Ladies and Gentlemen, please, let’s have order.

I know that it’s a pain but we all have to do it. When we write, we first have to choose our tense. It’s supposed to be the most basic of decisions we make as writers, but our choice not only affects the way we write and our choice of words, it can affect the whole cadence of our narrative.

Written tenses

Written tense, also grammatical tense, is used to indicate time. English has three main tenses used in writing: past (before now), present (now) and future (after now). All have their uses; all have their quirks.


As the name implies, this tense deals with events that have already occurred. It is the traditional tense used in fiction, especially longer narratives and because of its heritage, it tends to be the one writers are most comfortable with. As past tense can refer to events that happened moments ago or eons, it allows a mechanism to easily move around in time. Thousands of years can pass in a simple sentence or focus can shift from the recent to the distant past without interrupting the flow of the story.

Example – Vengeance.


Present tense deals with events as they unfold to your characters and, by proxy, readers. It offers a sense of immediacy to the narrative, often creating faster paced prose than the past and future tenses. It isn’t as common in adult fiction and, as a result, some writers can have difficulty sustaining it throughout, often slipping back into the familiar past tense. Present tense best serves a first-person perspective and provides a greater focus on voice (both the characters and the authors).

Example – Crow.


Last, but not least, we come to future tense. Future tense covers events that are yet to happen be it tomorrow or in the distant future. It is the rarest tense in fiction and incredibly difficult to master. The average reader, unfamiliar with the format, can find it hard to read. It’s a tense best used for short stories and flash fiction. Future tense is perfect where the narrative calls for an air of uncertainty.

Example – Questions.

Tips when using tenses

1. Let your story dictate its own tense

Most stories know which tense they best fit; it comes naturally. Listen to them and don’t be afraid to change if the story isn’t working. Sometimes the only thing keeping a good story from being great is the wrong tense.

2. Read

When writing in a tense you don’t often use, it pays to read other works written in that tense. Not only will it give you a feel for it, it will also give you an insight into the way other authors have used it to their advantage.

3. Keep it consistent

There’s nothing harder to read than a story that switches tenses, especially one that switches in the middle of a paragraph or even a sentence.

4. Keep tense changes to breaks

Where the story calls for changes in tense, keep them at logical break points e.g. chapters and page breaks.

5. Does it flow?

The right tense will give the story the right rhythm. It will practically sing to you from the page.

6. Check, check and check again

Unfamiliar tenses are riddled with minefields. When we are caught up in drafting, it is all too easy to slip back into the more comfortable tenses. Check your work. Weed out anywhere you may have slipped back into old habits. Rest it and then check it again. I guarantee you’ll find ones you missed the first time.

For more grown up look at the use of tense and aspect, check out Michelle’s post here. Go on…you know you want to.

What’s the hardest tense you’ve ever encountered? Have you ever written in an unfamiliar tense? What were the results?

A Bit of Grammar: Verb Tense and Aspect

timelineToday I’m going to put on my bossy grammar hat and talk about a misconception that was brought to my attention the other day during a chat with my critique group. One member asked if the verb “to stand” was passive in the sentence: “He was standing in the doorway.” Another member said yes, it is passive. And I said no, it is not.

Why isn’t it passive? It has the conjugated form of the verb ‘to be’ followed by the present participle ‘standing’ – aren’t those instances of passive voice? In short, no. Not every verb paired with some version of ‘is’,  ‘was’, ‘has been’ or ‘had been’ is passive.

What they confused for passive voice is actually the past progressive form of the verb. But to understand what exactly that means, I’ll have to start from the beginning.

Grammatical Categories

Verbs in English have several grammatical categories: person (1st, 2nd, 3rd), number (singular, plural), voice (active, passive), and then, tense, aspect, and mood. What does this mean? That depending on what you’re trying to say, you use these categories to convey your intended meaning. Who is doing the action? How many people/things are doing the action? When is/was the action done? In the past? Now? How long does the subject do the action? Is the action completed? Is the action given as a command, a hypothesis, or a fact? Without knowing it, every time you write a sentence, you convey all of this information to your reader.

Today I want to go over tense and aspect, as they seem to cause some confusion. I know this is technical, but I’ll try to break it down as best as I can.


The first grammatical verb category is tense, which references time: the past, the present, or the future. English only has two morphological tenses: present and past. The future tense is formed with the aid of modal verbs such as auxiliaries (will, shall) or from context (with adverbs), but English itself has no morphological future tense (unlike French). When I say “morphological tenses,” I mean that we do not conjugate the verbs into a specific form to indicate the future.

  1. Present tense: He stands in the doorway.
  2. Past tense: He stood in the doorway.
  3. Future tense expressed with auxiliary: He will stand in the doorway.


The second category, aspect, expresses the frequency, duration, or the completion of an action and works, more or less, as a modifier of tense. The progressive aspect is used for an action that is ongoing, while the perfect aspect is used  for an action that has been completed.

When dealing with aspect, it’s easier (for me) to think of events occurring on a timeline. Does the action start and stop at a specific point on that line? Is it still ongoing? Has it been recently completed but still have some influence over the future? If you have two verbs, how do their actions interact with one another on that timeline? Does one action occur and end before the other starts? If so, this will have to be conveyed in your writing as a means of orientation for your reader.

The four aspects of the present tense:

  1. The present (tense) simple (zero aspect): “He stands in the doorway.”
  2. The present (tense) progressive (aspect): “He is standing in the doorway.”
  3. The present (tense) perfect (aspect): “He has already stood in the doorway for two hours.”
  4. The present (tense) perfect progressive (aspect): “He has been standing in the doorway for two hours.”

In sentence (1), there is no progressive or perfect aspect. The verb states a fact — that the action is occurring. According to Katie Wales (2001), the present progressive is used much more often than the simple present when describing actions done at the present time. This may be a stylistic choice, but I won’t get into that now. In sentence (2) the progressive aspect shows that the action is still ongoing and has not yet been completed by the subject. In sentence (3), the perfect aspect illustrates that the action has already been completed before a certain point in time but may still have some effect on the future. Sentence (4) combines both the perfect and the progressive aspects (called the present perfect progressive) to specify that the action has been completed up until a certain point but is still ongoing at the present moment.

The four aspects of the past tense:

  1. The past (tense) simple (zero aspect): “He stood in the doorway.”
  2. The past (tense) progressive (aspect): “He was standing in the doorway when I entered the room.”
  3. The past (tense) perfect (aspect): “He had stood in the doorway for two hours to await Mary’s arrival.”
  4. The past (tense) perfect progressive (aspect): “He had been standing in the doorway for two hours by the time Mary arrived.”

Just as with the present progressive and perfect, the past progressive and perfect also deal with duration, frequency, and whether or not the action has been completed. In this case, however, we have simply shifted backwards in time (changed tenses). Sentence (1), gives no temporal information. In sentence (2), the “I” subject does not know how long “he” has been standing in the doorway, but the action of standing is still ongoing even when “I” enters the room, so the action is not completed.

Issues with the past perfect (Sentence 3) come up a lot when I’m editing. The example sentence needs a bit more context to show its relationship to the current temporal setting, but I used it to show the structure. The past perfect is an indication of something that has happened (and been completed) at some point in time before the current moment of the narrative (usually the simple past) but which may still be relevant to the future (to that point beyond the current moment in the narrative).

Sentence (4) is an action completed up until a certain point in the past but which is still ongoing at the moment (in relation to the simple past). The subject “he” has completed some of the action of standing in the doorway (in other words, he has already been there for a while before the point on the timeline when Mary arrives), but the action itself is still ongoing in relation to the current moment of the narrative (the point when Mary arrives).

The perfect and simple past tenses have a complicated relationship, but Wales (2001) argues (and I agree) that in narratives where the past tense is (arguably) more widely used, the “significance of the (past) perfect is apparent.” Therefore, as a writer, there will be moments when you must clarify whether the actions have occurred or are still occurring. In these cases, it is imperative to use aspect to orientate your reader. (The same goes for present tense progressive and perfect aspects if your story is in the present tense.)

Final thoughts . . .

Don’t mistake the progressive or perfect aspects for passive voice. The English progressive and perfect forms are completely natural (and necessary) for expressing actions in relation to time — whether they’ve been completed, whether they’re ongoing, whether they are only partially completed.

In order to make the original sentence in question passive (He was standing in the doorway), it would need to be worded (that was passive) like this: “He was being stood in the doorway.” Now it has the past tense, progressive aspect, and passive voice. The subject is no longer the one doing the action; the action is done instead by an external unnamed agent.


If this post was helpful, check out my post on passive and active voice:

A Bit of Grammar: Passive and Active Voice


Questions? Comments? Concerns? Do you have issues with aspect or tense? Was this confusing? Does it help at all? Let me know below!


Wales, Katie. A Dictionary of Stylistics. Pearson Education Limited, 2001. (pg. 31, 389)
Delatour, Y.; etc. Nouvelle Grammaire du Français. Cours de Civilisation Française de la Sorbonne. Hachette Livre, 2004.
My brain (for what it is worth).