Even though I’m an editor for hire, I firmly believe in self-editing. Each month I’m going to drop a tip for developing your ability to edit your own work or identify things to look for as you edit. Make sure to check out all the DIY Edit Tips to improve your self-editing.
07 Tense Shift Triggers
Aside from reading over my work very carefully, one way I can find tense shifts is by being aware of times when I’m most likely to have a tense shift.
Past to Present
When writing in past tense, I’m careful to check for tense shifts after long sections of dialogue or thought and after flashbacks or memories.
Dialogue can cause a tense shift because the dialogue is usually written in present tense. Fast-paced dialogue with few tags or lines of narration can get me out of the habit of writing past tense, so when I finally slip back to narration, there’s a tense shift from past tense to present tense. Thought (which is also often written in present tense) can be a trigger for a similar reason.
Using the past perfect tense to describe something that happened in the “further” past from the story timeline (something that had happened) is another warning sign for a potential tense shift. As I transition to the story present, my mind sometimes wants to switch to present tense instead of returning to simple past, so flashbacks and memories are another good time to carefully check tenses.
Present to Past
My biggest problem with switching from present tense to past tense is that I’m so familiar writing and reading in past tense, I’m often surprised to find that I was writing a story in present tense at all (and I usually check to see if it’s the result of a tense shift). But when I have discovered shifts in my present tense fiction they tend to be based around flashback and memories and around breaks in my writing schedule.
Because I’m so used to writing and reading in past tense, it feels awkward to use past tense to talk about events that happened “yesterday” in a present tense story. Often, I find that I switched to past perfect to describe the earlier events and then I slipped into past tense for the narrative, instead of going back to present tense. Oops.
I’ve also noticed that I make more tense shifts after taking a break from working on a story. When I get out of the story’s world, I tend to forget what tense I’m writing and assume it must be past tense. I’ve tried to train myself to confirm the tense before I get 500 or 1,000 words into a scene in the wrong tense, but it’s a tough thing to remember when I’m also trying to remember character and world details.
While these are triggers I’ve identified in my own work, they may not be your tense shift triggers. As you edit and revise your work, pay attention to when you catch tense shifts and see if you can find a pattern. Do they happen mostly after dialogue? At the start of new scenes? When you’re writing from a particular point of view? Analyzing the patterns of our mistakes is the path to finding and correcting them in the future.
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