Novels are often written in past tense, but writing in a consistent tense can be tricky. Here are some tips for writing a novel in past tense.
Don’t Jump Tenses
If you’re writing your novel in past tense, stay in past tense. Changing the tense is not only jarring to the reader, but can make the timeline of the novel confusing.
There are some exceptions: dialogue (which would appear in quotation marks) and inner thoughts (which should appear italicized). The tenses for these can vary, depending on what the characters are talking about, but they’re always from the perspective of the speaker or thinker. If it helps, imagine you’re the character talking or thinking in that situation to get the correct tense for dialogue or inner thought—the tense should sound natural.
Double-Check around Dialogue and Inner Thoughts
Because dialogue and inner thoughts are often in present tense, it’s easy to accidentally slip into present tense directly after writing dialogue or inner thought.
Correct: His hair stuck up straight on his head. “You look ridiculous,” I choked out through my laughter.
Incorrect: His hair stuck up straight on his head. “You look ridiculous,” I choke out through my laughter.
Watch Out for These Verbs
Some verbs are easy to mix up when writing in past tense.
1. Would Versus Will
“Will” is present tense and should not be used when writing a novel in past tense. “Would” is the correct conjugation, even if the action will be happening in the character’s future.
Example: Tomorrow, she would run to the store to pick up ingredients.
2. Had Versus Have
“Have” is present perfect tense, and “had” is past perfect tense. Be sure to use “had,” not “have.” You use the perfect tense (rather than regular past tense) to show an action that started in the past and continues in the present.
Example: I had just started eating when the door burst open.
3. Lay Versus Lie
These two verbs are tricky beyond deciding which one to use because the past tense of “lie” is actually “lay.”
For your reference, the past tense of “lay” is “laid,” and the present participle is also “laid.” The past tense of “lie” is “lay,” and the present participle is “lain.”
You can read more about “lay” versus “lie” and how to use and conjugated these verbs in our blog post here.
Do you have questions about writing in a consistent tense? What trips you up when writing a novel in past tense? Let us know in the comments below!