Only two tenses are conveyed through the verb alone: present tense (“sing”) and past (“sang”). Most English tenses, as many as thirty of them, are marked by other words called auxiliaries. Understanding the six basic tenses allows writers to re-create much of the reality of time in their writing. 

  • Simple Present: They walk.
  • Present Perfect: They have walked.
  • Simple Past: They walked.
  • Past Perfect: They had walked.
  • Future: They will walk.
  • Future Perfect: They will have walked. (Online Writing Lab)


A single short story or even a novel might go through several revised tenses before the writer decides which tense works best within the narrative. It can be a helpful exercise for the writer to rewrite the open paragraphs in both present and past tenses in order to gauge the more authentic verb tense. Likewise, rewriting integral sections of the narrative in a different tense can often unveil important details the writer might not have otherwise discovered.

One benefit of writing a narrative in present tense is that memories and flashbacks can then organically take the past tense, effectively eliminating the need to use past perfect.

Writers who prefer past tense to present tense often explain that narrative, by its very essence, is a past story being told in the present, and therefore the most natural verb tense is past. 

Whichever tense the narrative takes as its primary tense, it is essential that the writer stay true to the structure of the primary tense and shift tenses only when strategically necessary to the flow and context of the narrative.

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The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain, from Vienna 1900 to the PresentEric Kandel.

A Handbook to Literature. William Harmon.

“Cogito et Histoire de la Folie.” Jacques Derrida.

Eats Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. Lynne Truss.

The Elements of Style. William Strunk. 

New Oxford American DictionaryEdited by Angus Stevenson and Christine A. Lindberg.

The Norton Anthology of World LiteratureMartin Puchner, et al.

The Norton Introduction to PhilosophyGideon Rosen and Alex Byrne.

Woe is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English. Patricia T. O’Conner

Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft. Janet Burroway, Elizabeth Stuckey-French & Ned Stuckey-French.

Writing the Other. Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward.

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