Second Commandment

Honor Thy Verb Tenses

Stories are all about events taking place through time. Making sense of any sequence of events, then, would naturally require an author to specify when any given event occurs in relation to any other event. As far as stories that proceed consistently along one timeline (chronologically), the golden rule is to maintain one verb tense.  So, just like the POV choice then?… Choose an appropriate tense and stick with it?

Well… almost. Imagine that the narration of a certain story is from a character’s POV and that that character is describing events that (relative to the reader’s experience of reading the book) have already happened. So the narration is in simple past tense. But then that same character remembers something that happened in their past (not the past that the reader is usually reading about, but a deeper past) and begins to describe that event. For this, we need past perfect tense.

Don’t worry, if that’s got you all in a twist, there’s an example just below.

– be intently aware of any disassociated regions of time in your storytelling structure: i.e., “John took a seat in the waiting area and remembered the anxiety he had experienced the last time he had spent time in this now somewhat less foreboding office space.” John taking a seat happens in one region of time (simple past)… the feeling of anxiety happens in a disassociated region of time that happens well before his action of taking a seat. (past perfect)

– Use words like “had” to be clear about the time that has elapsed between the two actions: “John took a seat…” (simple past) and “he had experienced anxiety.” (past perfect)

– Of course, dialogue is another can of worms because a character might speak with any number of tenses as referenced to their ‘present,’ the one that they are experiencing as they speak… and these do not need to make sense in reference to the chosen tense for the narration of the story.

– And then there are flashbacks, dreams, visions of future events, etc… and all these need special consideration so that loss of clarity will not confuse or frustrate a reader.

–  to organize verb tenses in your head, think of three categories: Past, Present, Future. Then think of each of those categories as having four categories of their own: Simple, Continuous, Perfect, and Perfect Continuous. This link takes you to a great chart for visualizing and understanding this matrix of verb tense possibilities:  Link to Verb Tense Matrix.

Understanding the broad topic of verb tense may take some time, but a lot of this is largely intuitive for those whose native language is English. Actually, the most common error in submitted manuscripts takes the form of an author just not staying in one verb tense while narrating within one chronological region of time. So… consistent use of tense for the primary narration and clear use of other tenses to differentiate from that primary narration pretty well sums up the task.


Bottom Line for FQP Submissions:

If you submit a manuscript that reveals confusing or shifting verb tenses, you basically have two options: Resubmit at a later date with the verb tenses clarified or work with one of FQP’s developmental editors to resolve the POV issues (typically from $50 – $200.)


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