Fiction 101: Narrative Tenses

Is your story happening now or did it occur in the past? There are about twelve tenses in the English language but we will be focusing on the two types of tenses most stories are written in.

Present Simple Tense

Here, the narrator or viewpoint character tells the story as it is happening.

  1. I hand over the cig, which now bears my red lipstick, and watch as Emily squeezes it between her thumb and forefinger.

2. The smile that forms on her lips nearly splits her cheeks in half as she tries to contain every emotion short-circuiting through her.

An example of works written in present simple tense are The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins

Past Simple Tense

The narrator/viewpoint character tells the story as though everything happened in the past.

  1. I handed over the cig, which now bore my red lipstick, and watched as Emily squeezed it between her thumb and forefinger.

2. The smile that formed on her lips nearly split her cheeks in half as she tried to contain every emotion short-circuiting through her.

The Maze Runner series by James Dashner were written in past simple tense.

Once you have chosen the narrative tense you wish your story to be written in, ensure you stick to it. Avoid the mistake of mixing tenses. Consider these sentences with mixed tense:

  • The smile that formed on her lips nearly splits her cheeks in half as she tried to contain every emotion short-circuiting through her
  • I handed over the cig, which now bears my red lipstick, and watched as Emily squeezes it between her thumb and forefinger.

In the first sentence, splits should be split in order for it to accurately relay when the action occurred. I bet you can correct the second example on your own. While writing your story, pick one narrative tense and stick to it like a wet tongue on an iced pole. Weird comparison, I know. 

Tip

There are some rules in fiction writing that can be bent or broken. For example, in Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, we see the author using present tense when describing certain locations even though the novel is chiefly a past tense narrative. Some authors even switch tenses when they alternate between characters’ POV. At the end of the day, it’s up to you and your creativity; just ensure you understand the rules of tenses well enough before you bend or break them.

Activity

Read through your story (remember the story you have been working on since the beginning of this course? Yep, that one) and see if you mixed tenses. If you did, pick a tense and stick to it. If you didn’t mix them up, pat thineself at the back.

Next Class: Punctuations.

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