Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Basics: Verb Tense Consistency

I think we should call this one a Very Basic post.  Which doesn't mean it's not important; on the contrary, it's VERY important.  But it's something that's usually evident in the writing of Very New writers.

Notice I didn't say Very Young.  Because this isn't an age thing.  It's an experience thing.

So, a quick lesson on verb tense:

There are three simple tenses:

PRESENT TENSE (action is happening now)
PAST TENSE (action has already happened)
FUTURE TENSE (action has yet to happen)

Most novels are written in PAST TENSE, with an increasing number showing up in PRESENT TENSE.

There are three perfect tenses:

PRESENT PERFECT TENSE
PAST PERFECT TENSE
FUTURE PERFECT TENSE

The above tenses are used in the context of the three simple tenses, to clarify when certain actions occurred in relationship to other actions.  I'll save the perfect tenses for a separate post.

As a writer, it's IMPERATIVE that you understand all six tenses.

Here's the basic message:  You've got to nail the tense of your story and STICK WITH IT.  I can't tell you how often I've read the work of "newbies" who seem to have no grasp on basic verb tenses.  Just a few weeks ago, I read the opening of a fantasy novel in which the tense flipped back and forth between past and present tense.  Constantly.

I pointed out to the author (ever so gently) that he had a tendency to switch tenses.  I lightly suggested that his writing needed some "basic training."

His response sounded something like this:  "Yeah, some other people said something about the way I switched between past and present tense."

Um, hello?  TENSE IS IMPORTANT!  You can't ground your readers in a story that doesn't have any sense of time.

Try this:

Melodia sank to her knees and wept.  Her village was gone, her sword was broken, her comrades missing.  She didn't know what to do.


A crash sounds in the distance.  Melodia gasps and spits out her chewing gum.


"Who's there?" she called.


No one answers.


Silently, she creeps to the edge of the forest, where she discovers several naked hippos dancing.  She tiptoes through the trees to get a better look.


The hippos screamed in embarrassment and trampled her to death.


Yes, it's a totally dumb example.  But what makes it hard to follow is the constant tense-switching.

Verb tense is one of those things you simply have to grasp.  And use correctly. ALL THE TIME.

More on verbs another day.  (Don't you just love verbs??)

5 comments:

  1. Is the past perfect the same as the pluperfect?

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  2. Yes, Becca. Though I think it's more often referred to as pluperfect in other languages, such as Spanish and German.

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  3. I like this one. ^^ 'Nuff said.

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  4. Moral of the post: Don't sneak up on naked hippos! :)

    Great post. I've never heard of perfect tenses, so I'm looking forward to that post!

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  5. while Barbara was putting in her contact lenses, the telephone rings.

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