Choosing the proper verb form that makes ‘tense’
SIDENOTE: This will be my last post for 2015. I won’t write another post until the next Tale Tuesday writer on January 5, 2016.
Whether writing an essay, a blog post, a news article, or a story, the correct tense must be considered. There are many forms, some of which you may not be familiar with, and it may be a good idea to understand what they all are and why they’re important to consider before you begin writing.
What Is Verb Tense?
Verb tense is described as when an action took place. there are three basic forms: Past, Present, Future.
Each form is easily recognized for native English speakers, but we’ll go over it real quick, and we’ll use the verb “jump.”
I jumped over the fence.
I jump over the fence.
I will jump over the fence.
Easy stuff. Most of you understand this, but that’s not all that falls under these forms. There are forms within these forms. I’ll give you a quick list, and I’ll continue using the verb “jump.”
There are many verb forms, but there is a reason I’m posting about this, and it will help you improve your writing.
Verb Form Choice In Writing Demands Consideration
When you’re writing a novel, a poem, an essay, a short story, or even a blog post, verb form has an effect on the mind. Whether you use first person, second person, or third person, you can use a different verb form.
The most common choices for verb form in writing are present tense and past tense. Future tense is used commonly in certain dialogue or in letters, both of which are involved with past tense and present tense writing.
If you want your novel to be immediate, more active, present tense is a considerable option. Past tense is immediate, yes, but present tense demands a different kind of immediacy. For those who struggle with whether they should write in past tense or present tense, these are the advantages of writing in present tense:
- ideal immediacy for “here and now” or for stories where the reader is in the action as it happens
- unique for stories with an intense climax
- the main character’s personality reflects a “here and now” perspective that is important for the readers to share
- simple verb form use; you only use simple present, present progressive, some simple past, and some simple future. Past uses many more.
There are more advantages, I’m sure, but these are a few of the most important ones. If your main character is stuck in the past, why use present tense to narrate the story? If your climax isn’t something that demands immediacy, why use the more uncommon of the tenses? It’s harder to manipulate time in present tense because everything is happening now. It’s also a little more difficult to create complex characters, however, it’s not impossible. You have to consider what your story needs, then consider what you want to come from your story.
Past tense is the most common verb form used in writing. News articles use it, when we tell stories, we use it…Why? Because I don’t recall ever telling someone a story about what I’m doing now.
“Oh, Christina. You’ll never guess what I’m doing. I’m sweeping the floor, and…”
Granted, this does happen, but not often. When we have something interesting occurring, we usually tell the story after the fact. Therefore, past tense is the most common. It’s how we’re used to hearing stories, but let’s review a few pros for past tense while we’re at it:
- it is the most common tense used in writing
- since it’s common, readers are more comfortable reading it
- you can take advantage of more tenses, meaning more can happen, making your story more complex
- you can create complex characters with depth (not that you can’t in present tense)
Past tense opens doors that the present tense doesn’t, and the reason is because you can use so many more tenses that allow you to create elaborate scenes, worlds, thoughts, etc. You can do this in present tense, too, don’t take what I’m saying the wrong direction. But think of it like a maze. You can create a maze with three paths, or with 12. Which is more complex? Which is more interesting? Again, you need to consider what your story needs, then consider what you want for the story. Either tense is great if you use it well, but consider what you want most … what gives you the opportunities you need.
When you’re writing, it’s easy to use passive voice. In some situations, this is okay. It shouldn’t be used in excess, but it can work in favor of your character or the set tone…sometimes.
The common verb for passive voice is “was” and “were.” These “to be” verbs are common because they’re a basic state of being…of occurring. “I was going.” “I was watching.” When we think, it’s common to think in the progressive form. “I am walking.” “I am calling.” This is because we consider it an on-going action. If it happened in the past, it’s happening while you’re writing, isn’t it? If it happens in the present, it’s happening while you’re writing it, too, right? Wrong.
You’re writing in the past, meaning it already happened. That’s why you’re writing it now. This is the same with the present. It is happening right now. If it’s on-going, fine, but if not, you are not walking. You walk. You are not flying. You fly.
Consider the action and when/how it took or when/how it is taking place. If it’s immediate, you’re not using progressive. If you are flying over a roaring waterfall, it’s progressive. If you fly past a roaring waterfall, it’s immediate. It happens quick or, if you want to stick an adjective in there: I fly slowly over the waterfall–that’s fine too.
What is wrong with passive voice?
Sometimes, nothing. BUT. Active voice helps the story continue without lagging in the reader’s mind.
“I was hiking through the canyon under the blistering sun that was roasting my skin until it matched the clay soil.”
If you think about this sentence, it’s almost like you’re expecting something. Your mind hesitates a little while trying to transition into the next sentence. It also serves as a slightly diminuitive gesture. In this sentence, the sun is stronger than you are. In the next sentence with active voice, the hiker seems a bit stronger.
“I hiked through the canyon under the blistering sun that roasted my skin until it matched the clay soil.”
Passive voice deserves its own article, but this is a quick overview. Both sentences work but serve different purposes. Do you want to make your subject weaker? Passive? Timid? Do you want to imply the action happened for an extended period of time and drag it on? If you answered “no” to those questions, use active voice.
Consistency Correlates With Concise Collaborations
I’ll be honest … that last word didn’t fit well with this topic, but I needed another “C” word.
If I use different tenses, anything I write, or type, is confusing.
If I counted ten toes that would poking out of people’s shoes, I might found out someone is missed a toe.
I can’t begin to explain how hard I had to think to write a sentence that didn’t make sense. My head hurts. So, I used many different tenses in a sentence and although that is one of the most obvious screw-ups, not every sentence reveals the mistake so easily. I wanted to make a point, and hopefully I did because my brain is still mad at me.
It’s important to keep verb forms in mind. If you are in present tense in one sentence, then past tense in another, you’re implying you have drifted into the past, or a memory, and if you didn’t mean to do that, your reader will be terribly confused.
How to Catch Incorrect Verb Forms
You would be surprised how easily a verb slips by. A perfect example is the verb “lie” and “lay.” If I “lay” down, I’m doing it in the past tense (simple). If I “lay” the bat against the fence, I’m doing it in the present tense (simple). This is called an irregular verb, but it’s a good example of an easy mistake.
The best way to find these is to read your sentences aloud. You’ll benefit your work in more ways than one, but you’ll also be able to identify places where you wouldn’t normally say something a certain way. Your verbal language is more practiced than your written language. Why? You talk every day. Of course it has more practice.
You can also give it to someone else to read or, if you simply have a verb you don’t know, like the verb “lie” and “lay” as shown above, look it up. It won’t take long.
Don’t underestimate yourself as a writer, but don’t underestimate human error, either. I guarantee I missed a few things, grammatically, in this post alone. And I’m an editor. It’s hard to identify your own mistakes–all of them, anyway. Don’t think you escaped that fate. We’re all prone to error. Don’t fight it, just work around it. Hopefully, you learned a little something that you can take away from this and apply to your writing. It’s a simple topic, but it’s one people tend to overlook as a serious topic.
Have a wonderful day!
Finish a novel? Get a free ten-page sample edit!
If your novel is more than 50,000 words, I'll edit ten pages for free! I want you to know what kind of editor I am. Subscribe to my blog below so you don't miss out, and I'll send you a link to my form so you can get your edit and a personalized cost sheet for each of my offered services.