Watch for verb tense shifts in your writing

A common mistake among novice writers is shifting within their story so that events occurred in the now but then in the next paragraph happen in the past. This is a sign that the writer is changing verb tenses.

There are two common verb tenses in which you could write. Most typically used is past tense. In this case, the story’s events are told as if they’ve happened in the past (never mind that your story may be set in the future – the reader actually is hearing about the events from a future beyond which the story is told):

Col. Noel turned away from the reflection of his wrinkled face in the starcraft’s portal. Nothing to see but dust and gas anyway, he muttered to himself. His baggy eyes glanced at the gamma ray radiation sensors; soon the ship would enter the glowing cloud’s open center, where immortality awaited him. He moved toward the helm but cringed as the arthritis in his knee spiked. There was nanomedicine for the infirmity, but taking the capsules only reminded him of his body’s inevitable slow destruction. He sighed, resorted to giving the computer a voice command to slow speed, noticed a rasp in his words that had never been there before.

The other verb tense used in stories is present tense. In this case, the story’s events unfold exactly at the same time that the reader reads them. Notice how the above example of past tense writing changes when rewritten in present tense:

Col. Noel turns away from the reflection of his wrinkled face in the starcraft’s portal. Nothing to see but dust and gas anyway, he mutters to himself. His baggy eyes glance at the gamma ray radiation sensors; soon the ship will enter the glowing cloud’s open center, where immortality awaits him. He moves toward the helm but cringes as the arthritis in his knee spikes. There was nanomedicine for the infirmity, but taking the capsules only reminds him of his body’s inevitable slow destruction. He sighs, resorts to giving the computer a voice command to slow speed, notices a rasp in his words that had never been there before.

Writers should stick to one tense when writing. Shifting between tenses jars the reader.

In addition, writers rarely should use present tense. In the hands of a master, such as Margaret Atwood in her novel “The Handmaid’s Tale,” it can be used to great effect by creating a sense of immediacy and making the narrators’ voice unique. But present tense largely is an unnatural way of telling a story. After all, which of the two versions of Col. Noel’s tale do you prefer?