Monday, September 9, 2013

On the Matter of Tense Shifts

Yesterday I sat in on a works-in-progress critique group. One writer's manuscript was interesting, had some nice description and a creative premise, but the writer shifted from past to present tense several times and changed points of view at least once.

While the POV shift was a minor distraction, I found the tense shifts confusing. I couldn't tell if the action was occurring today or yesterday or in the future.

While this isn't an excerpt from the work-in-progress, it is a crude example of what I mean:

"What's going on," he said.

"Not much," she answered.

"Do you think we'll get out of here alive?" John says.

"I hope so," says Ann.


The first person to comment picked up on the tense shifts and pointed out where they occurred. Before she could finish with her remarks, another person chimed in that wasn't quite right because the second person had read a book explaining it's okay to mix tenses when the writer is summarizing the scene.

I spoke up in favor of using one tense in a scene and sticking with it to avoid confusing the reader. I believe that whichever tense a writer uses, she should be consistent. 

Although I didn't get time to elaborate or give exceptions, such as if a writer adds in backstory or has a flashback, now I'm wondering if I mislead the other writers with my "be consistent" advice.

Okay, you expert writers. What are your opinions on tense shifts?


  1. I like to be consistent with tenses, even with flashbacks. My thinking is that past tense usually works best (in what I've written anyway). When writing a scene, even if something is pretty current, it takes about 1 second for it to be considered past. I think keeping tenses consistent means less confusion for the reader.

  2. I like to be consistent with tenses, and I prefer to read this way.

  3. Oh, dear! I just hit "publish" on a blog post that I am sure is filled with more tense shifts than a factory full of strike-breakers.

    I do not presume to be an expert writer, but I'll put in my two cents, because at least it shows I'm reading. I agree with keeping tenses consistent to avoid confusion. It's something that does not come easy for me.

    Tense shifts are my bugaboo. Thanks so much for this post, because I rarely get a chance to use one of my favorite words...bugaboo.

  4. I think if the reader is confused, and has to read a passage several times trying to muddle through the muck as they try to understand what is going on, the tense changes are NOT working. Yes, there are flashbacks and backstory tidbits and strange elastic things a writer can do with time, but they have to be crafted in a way that doesn't leave the reader wondering, 'What in the world?'

    I sometimes screw up tenses, but I have a Grammar *itch who is a member of my critique group, so she--along with the rest of them--will catch them and call me on it. She's like a younger, darker-haired version of Alice... ;)

  5. Hi Donna, I'm no expert, but I do try to be consistent on tense within a scene, and be conscious of changing tenses for flashbacks or special effects. The only time I've mixed tenses on purpose was within a short story where I showed a character abruptly moving back and forth between her fantasy world and the real world, which she eventually gets confused. It was really hard to do it without getting the reader (not to mention me, the author) confused too. :D

  6. There are a few situations in which I think it may be okay to mix tenses, like perhaps if a character in the present is relaying a story from the past, but it's a tricky thing to pull off. That's where a critique group comes in handy. If readers who may already be familiar with your style and understand what you're trying to do, get hung up on the tense shifts in a passage, then what chance will other readers have? There is the old adage that rules are made to be broken and I think this often applies when writing fiction in particular, but I think it should also be said that you should never break a rule unless you have a really good reason for doing it.

  7. I think it's best to be consistent. I've been horrible with tense--and I'm slowly, but surely getting better. I'd hate to have that all messed up again.

  8. I agree with keeping tense consistent, but the tags are what really jumped out to me with your example. He said-she answered-John says-says Ann. No, no, no! (Can you tell I hate tags??)

    Critter Alley

  9. Hi Karen, Linda, Val, Sioux, Patricia, Sarah, Lynn, and Pat,
    Wow! Thanks for your comments. I always learn a lot from my blogger friends.

  10. I agree with Pat, I don't like tags, either!


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