I know what you’re thinking: unless you’re a non-native English speaker, it’s pretty easy to avoid verb tense mistakes.
Well, okay, there’s the whole lie versus lay situation (read Grammar Girl’s explanation of it here), but I’m not talking about irregular verbs. I’m talking about global issues with tense that you might not notice in your own writing. So check out these common verb tense mistakes and learn how to correct them.
#1 Not Being Consistent with Tense
This verb tense mistake is a no-brainer, but decide whether you’re writing your story in present tense or past tense, then stick to it. It might also be helpful to think about which tense works better for your story. Present tense is popular in YA and action/thriller stories because it can make the story sound immediate – like it’s happening right now.
If, however, your narrator is looking back and reflecting on something that has happened, you need to use past tense. Past tense is also what you want if you’re going for a story-telling tone, or if the narrator gives information about events that one could only know after the fact. For example, “When she showed up at my house unannounced, I should have realized something was wrong.”
#2 Not Using the Past Perfect Correctly
Does the phrase “past perfect” give you unpleasant flashbacks to middle school grammar lessons? Don’t worry. It isn’t that complicated – I promise.
Past perfect is used to signify events that happened even earlier in time than the simple past. If we were looking at it on a time line it would look like this:
(The second line shows the continuous forms. For example, “I had been baking a cake” is the past perfect continuous. I’ll explain more about the continuous in #5.)
Still confused about the past perfect? Here’s an example in a sentence with a corresponding timeline:
I had never been a fan of vegetables in my cake until I tasted Marjorie’s carrot cake; now it’s my favorite dessert!
So if you’re writing your story in the past tense and then you mention something that happened even earlier in the past, you’re going to need to use past perfect.
Here’s an example from Hold Me Closer, Necromancer by Lish McBride:
I recognized Ramon’s voice without opening my eyes. Not surprising, since I’d known Ramon since sixth grade.
Makes sense, right? Of course it does! Moving on!
#3 Not Using Tense Correctly with Flashbacks
Let’s say you’re writing your story in past tense. Now let’s say the narrator goes into a flashback. Wait, you say, I remember this from #2: I need to use the past perfect for a flashback!
Yes… but. The thing is, all those “hads” make the past perfect annoying to read. So here’s what you do. You give us a few past perfect verbs to get us “into” the flashback before switching to the simple past for the rest of the scene. Then, at the end, give us a few past perfect verbs to get us “out” of the flashback.
Novelist and writing professor Amanda Boyden suggests a “Three In, Three Out Rule” for flashbacks, but I think this is negotiable. If it’s a really short flashback, you can probably get by with two in, two out. Ultimately, it’s all about giving your reader verb markers to help them understand when a scene is taking place. Transition phrases and page breaks can also help place the reader in time.
If all of this is giving you the heebie-jeebies, here’s a great idea suggested by novelist and writing professor Joseph Boyden: just write your story in present tense. That way, your flashbacks will be in the simple past. No past perfect needed, and no “three in, three out” required!
#4 Not Thinking About WHEN the Narrator is Telling the Story
Out of the common verb tense mistakes, this one is not always immediately obvious. Let me give you an example that I’m going to make up right now:
“Sara, do you want some orange juice?” my mom asked. My mom was a dietician, and she was always worried about my vitamin C intake.
What’s the big deal, you ask? It doesn’t sound wrong. And it’s not, but… is Sara’s mom no longer a dietician? Is she no longer worried about Sara’s vitamin C intake? Maybe so, if this story is being told by a 40-year-old Sara looking back on her teenage years. But if teenage Sara is the narrator, it doesn’t make as much sense. In that case it should be:
“Sara, do you want some orange juice?” my mom asked. My mom is a dietician, and she’s always worried about my vitamin C intake.
See? Even though the story is being told in the past tense, since teenage Sara is the narrator, some things still need to be in the present.
When writing a story in past tense, especially in first person, it can be really helpful is to decide when the narrator is telling this story.
In The Catcher in the Rye, for example, Holden is telling a story about last year: “I’ll just tell you about this madman stuff that happened to me around last Christmas just before I got pretty run-down and had to come out here and take it easy.”
In Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld, on the other hand, Lee also tells about her high school experience, but she is looking back from a more distant vantage point: “Of course, I did go back, for both my fifth and tenth reunions. Do you want to know how everyone turned out?”
You may not have your narrator explicitly state from when in time they are telling their story, but it’s a good idea for you to know in your own mind because it will help you figure out what should be in past tense and what should still be in the present . And once you decide, be consistent about your choices (see #1).
#5 Using the Continuous Tense When It’s Unnecessary
Remember back in #2 when I mentioned the continuous tense? It’s the form that uses a helping verb and the –ing form: she was baking a cake, for example.
The continuous tense is often used to signify an ongoing action — something that happened before, and perhaps after, another action. For example:
I was waiting for the bus when I saw my ex-boyfriend.
When I get home from school, my parents are cooking dinner.
It’s totally fine to use the continuous tense. However, many writers use it when it’s unnecessary. And that’s a problem because all those helping verbs and -ing words can clutter up your prose.
Example 1: With the continuous:
Sara was waiting for the bus, shifting her weight from foot to foot. She was worrying about what her parents would say when she got home.
Example 2: Without the continuous:
Sara waited for the bus, shifting her weight from foot to foot. She worried about what her parents would say when she got home.
It’s not that the first example is wrong. “She was worrying” gives us a sense that her worrying has been continuing for a while, so I don’t mind using the continuous in that second sentence. But do we really need the continuous in both of these sentences? No. And too much of the continuous can really clutter your prose. Doesn’t the second example sound cleaner and stronger?
My point is, it’s definitely worth looking for continuous tense verbs in your prose and considering if they might sound better in the simple past.
#6 Not Providing Enough Transition for Your Rreaders
Even if you use verb tenses perfectly, you still want to orient your readers in time and space, especially when you’re using flashbacks or nonlinear storytelling. When you are going to make a jump in time you want to not only use proper verb tenses but also give your readers some sort of transition or “signpost.” Page breaks can be useful, for example. Some writers will also label chapters or sections with dates or times. And simple transition phrases like, “earlier in the day” or “before she met him” can be invaluable in keeping your reader from getting confused.
Are you guilty of making any of these common verb tense mistakes? Are there any I forgot?