The Fiction Editor’s Desk: Verb Tense Errors by Eve Paludan #MondayBlogs
Today’s blog is about verb tense errors. I’m currently editing a fiction manuscript where nearly every narrative paragraph contains one or more verb tense errors.
Let’s look at the definition of verb tense. According to YourDictionary:
“Verb tense errors occur when you use the wrong verb tense and are a common grammar mistake. The verb tense tells the reader of your sentences when the action is taking place – in the past, the present or the future. You must be consistent on verb tense, unless there’s some reason to make a switch to a different tense.”
I’m going to give you my own examples (not from the manuscript in front of me).
I feel like I should say something seductive, but I didn’t.
I eat a piece of cherry pie and hoped she didn’t notice.
The first parts of these sentences are written in present tense.
The second parts of these sentences are written in past tense.
Here are my corrections:
I felt like I should say something seductive, but I didn’t.
I ate a piece of cherry pie and hoped she didn’t notice.
Now, imagine that you have 75 pages of this to edit and nearly every narrative sentence needs correction. I don’t mind doing it and am so happy that people are willing to pay me to do it. I do love editing fiction and my clients appreciate my hard work. However, when authors write this way as a book-after-book habit, it’s detrimental to their professional growth. It’s a failure to adhere to a simple grammar rule: Don’t mix verb tenses in a narrative sentence.
One of the very basic skills of writing is to stick to one verb tense in the narrative. (In dialogue, it’s different. In dialogue, we can and do speak in the present tense to explain things that are happening in the now. )
Bonus opinion about the present tense:
My pet peeve is editing books that are written completely in the present tense. When I see the narrative of the first chapter written in the present tense and first-person viewpoint, I assume that the protagonist/main character will die at the end of the book. I can’t think of any other reason to write an entire novel in the present tense. I know some bestselling authors do write in present tense, but as an editor and a voracious reader, I avoid editing and reading present-tense novels unless there is a strong reason to dive into such a project.
There are a few occasions when I would use present tense in fiction (or when writing about fiction):
1. It’s a screenplay, so, traditionally, any action or description must be written in the present tense.
2. It’s a synopsis. Always use the present tense for a synopsis.
3. It’s a book description for the back of the book or your book’s buy-it page on Amazon. (Present tense also comes in handy for writing book reviews.)
4. In dialogue.
When I choose a book for pleasure reading, I always pick a book written in the past tense. Just my preference.
I would love to know your own thoughts on this blog and your own verb-tense preferences as a writer and as a reader.
Thanks for reading my blog!