Don't let your confusion over verb tenses make you emotionally overwrought!! There are a dizzying number of verb tenses (from 6 to 12, depending who you believe), but writers are in luck! We only need to choose from the two main tenses, PRESENT and PAST. And guess what? Each (as well as FUTURE TENSE) will star in their own spoonful.
First up (drumroll please): PRESENT TENSE!!
Do you want to share information in "real time"? If so, PRESENT TENSE is for you. Book reports are written in PRESENT TENSE, as are blog posts and advertisements. I write my spoonfuls in PRESENT TENSE because my aim is to provide current and readily usable information.
Is your story contemporary or set in another galaxy? Do you want readers to keep wondering how your story will unfold or to identify closely with the main characters? Consider writing narration in PRESENT TENSE. This tense is especially fitting when you wish to achieve edge-of-the-seat, nail-biting suspense with the fate of the main characters (and perhaps of the world) hanging in the balance.
PRESENT TENSE works especially well with the 1st Person POV (Point of View) - when the narrator is a character in the story, typically the main character. (For more about the 1st Person POV, check out Spoonful 47.)
Whether you choose PRESENT or PAST for your overall narration, dialogue should be written in PRESENT TENSE. Dialogue tags, however, should reflect the tense of the narration. SAYS and SAY are common PRESENT TENSE dialogue tags, while SAID is the most common PAST TENSE tag.
***Special note: When writing in PRESENT TENSE, you can't have a narrator muse about events that already occurred before the events are revealed in your story!***
PRESENT TENSE verbs and dialogue tags are underlined in the following examples:
1) Cars race down the street, rupturing the peace and quiet.
2) " Look at that enormous dog!" I gush.
3) "Close your books and take out your pencils," the teacher says to the class.
4) When evaluating literary passages for a book report or essay, use present tense. This is true whether or not the author is still living.
If you've never written in PRESENT TENSE, give it a whirl! You don't have to commit to writing your entire novel this way: start with a paragraph or two and see how you like it. Whichever tense you choose for your overall narration, stay consistent!
Next up: PAST TENSE!!
Laura Fineberg Cooper