Short Story

 

Control the Narrative Tense

A common mistake at the intermediate level is failing to fully control the narrative tense.

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.

At the intermediate level, most students can tell the difference between a present tense narrative and a past tense narrative. If you can't, please study this lesson (from the unit on narrative writing) before you go on.

The problem, however, is that intermediate writers often don't have much awareness of tense. They switch between tenses without even being aware of it. The effect is jarring and the writing seems amateurish.

I see this mistake a lot when students start writing their short stories. For example, the first few pages of their story, they write sentences like this:

Joe said, " . . . "-

Mary said, " . . . "

But somewhere around the second page, I'm reading sentences like this:

Joe says, " . . . "

Mary says, " . . . "

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

Key Point:

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

 

Instructions for the Quiz

Note: If you find this quiz difficult, you should probably review this lesson on Determining Narrative Tense.

Quiz