Maintaining the proper level of pressure on readers to continue reading is essential to a healthy novel. Present tense, when used properly, can put readers on the edge of their seats, eager to turn the next page. Past tense is easier to write, and vanishes into the background, allowing the story to flow easily into the reader’s mind. Jumping back and forth between present and past tense will usually throw the reader out of the story, and on to someone else’s book.
In order to prevent Hyper-TENSE-tion, it is helpful to know the difference between present tense and past tense.
Past tense is the most common writing style, as shown in this example:
They went to the store and found a bag of candy, then walked home.
Everything looks normal, right? That’s what most readers expect to see, so the tense doesn’t pop out at them. All the action happened in the past: went, found, walked, all actions that have already happened.
Here is the same example sentence written in the present tense:
They go to the store and find a bag of candy before walking home.
Do you see the difference? It can be subtle, but the verbs are happening now: go, find, walking, all actions happening now.
There is one more tense which is rarely used; future tense. Why is it rarely used? Because it feels more like a prophetic statement than a story. The only time people talk about what will happen is when they are planning something, or describing a vision of the future.
Here is the same example sentence written in future tense:
They will go to the store and find a bag of candy, then they will walk home.
The actions are happening later: will go, find, will walk, future actions instead of past or present actions.
Sometimes it is useful to mix tenses to keep the reader involved. The whole structure is still considered one tense, but it is possible to use present tense actions in a past tense prose, as follows:
They went to the store, finding a bag of candy before walking home.
How is this mixed tense? Because the sentence starts with a past tense action, went, then uses present tense actions of finding and walking. This sentence is still past tense, but uses verbs with more action to them. When used properly, this technique can keep the reader interested and involved. When used poorly, it can jerk them between the comfort of their seat and the edge of their seat, usually throwing them out of the novel and on to something else.
Please note I have said nothing of aspect. That is a subject for another day.
Thanks to bodymad.com for the blood pressure picture.