Narrative Writing

Control the Narrative Tense

Many students get a poor grade on their short story because they fail to control the narrative tense.

Study the following examples.

Mistake Correct

I went to the store. I ask for a Coke. The clerk pointed toward the cooler in the back. I buy a six-pack.

I went to the store. I asked for a Coke. The clerk pointed toward the cooler in the back. I bought a six-pack.


In the example above, the mistake consists of writing a paragraph with two past tense verbs (went, pointed), and two present tense verbs (ask, buy).

Make up your mind!

Are you writing a past tense narrative (in which case all your main verbs should be in the past tense), or are you going to write a present tense narrative, in which case all your main verbs should be in the present tense.

Most students can tell the difference between a present tense narrative and a past tense narrative. (If you can't, go back and re-read the last two lessons.) The problem is that they don't pay attention to tense in their own writing. They switch back and forth between past and present, without any awareness of their mistake. The effect is jarring and their writing comes across as amateurish.

I see this mistake a lot when I'm grading short stories. For example, for the first few pages, I'm reading sentences like these:

But somewhere around the third page, I'm reading sentences like these:

Don't let this mistake creep into your own writing. Take control of your narrative tense. Pick a tense, then stick to it—all the way through to the end!

Key Point:

Whatever tense you choose, be consistent. Do not switch back and forth between tenses!

Instructions for the Quiz

Quiz