Imagine you are writing a story in the past tense. This comes naturally to you, so you decide to stick with it. You get to a part about halfway through where you feel it’s better to use the present tense, but you stop. Is it permissible to mix past and present tense in a story?
It is not advisable to mix past and present tense in a story. It is good practice to avoid switching tenses during a scene or within the same paragraph unless doing so is essential for clarity. Switching tenses can be jarring to the reader and make the story hard to follow. If absolutely necessary, there are ways to incorporate appropriate tense shifts when needed.
Mixing the past and present tense can be a useful tool during the writing process. Keep reading to learn how you can mix the past and present tense in a story.
Can You Switch Tenses in a Story?
It is not grammatically incorrect to switch tenses during a story. Writers use tense changes in various ways throughout their stories to convey the flow of time or express a change in a character’s reality.
If you can utilize the tense changes correctly and stay consistent within the context of the story, the reader will be able to lose themselves in the plot without getting confused about the timeline.
While changing from past tense to present tense in a story is not wrong, it is important to remember that changing the tense in the middle of a sentence or paragraph without the proper cause or context can read strangely and create confusion for the reader (source).
Changing the Tense Within a Sentence
More often than not, changing tenses during a sentence can create a very confusing statement. However, there are methods, such as a verb tense shift, that you can use to change the tense during a sentence that makes sense and can help you establish a timeline for the character you are referring to.
Verb tense shifts can be beneficial, but there are some ways that they can become a hazard to the story. In the next few sections, we’ll discuss verb tense shifts and how some work and others don’t.
Verb Tense Shifts That Work Well in a Sentence
A change in tenses during a sentence is a type of verb-tense shift. Verb tense shifts are not grammatically incorrect. In fact, writers use them often to convey different times of events in their stories and in what order those events happen as the story unfolds.
Notice the change in the tense of these next two examples.
- Jason was an honor roll student in high school, but now he spends his days begging.
- Eddie is running for President, but he had a very tough life growing up.
Notice how the verb tense changes in the middle of both of these example sentences. In the first sentence, as an honor roll student, Jason is in the past, and as a beggar, he is in the present. Likewise, Eddie is running for President in the present despite his tough life in the past.
Notice that you combine the first part of the sentence with the second part by using a conjunctive adverb. A conjunctive adverb combines two sentences or clauses and modifies the first part of the sentence to fit the latter part.
Verb Tense Shifts That Do Not Work in a Sentence
Some verb tense shifts do not read well in a story. For example, if you change the tense in a sentence without following the context, the sentence can communicate a different time frame than the one you intend to convey.
Let’s take a look at the following example to get a closer look at a verb tense shift that does not work so well.
- Mary lives in Japan and spoke Japanese.
In this example, the reader cannot be certain if Mary still speaks Japanese or only spoke Japanese at one time in her life. Sentences like this can create more questions than answers and disengage the reader (source).
Changing Tenses in a Paragraph or Scene Within a Story
Linguists and members of the writing community mostly frown upon changing tenses in the middle of a paragraph or scene of a story unless you are consistent and use the tense change to show different time frames.
Usually, in the case of showing time frames, the scene or point of view changes along with the time frame to create a more seamless transition between tenses. This is not always the case, though, and it only works if the story’s context allows for it.
Again, inconsistent tense changes from past to present tense within a paragraph or a scene can confuse the reader, resulting in a challenging reading experience.
Notice the tense changes in the paragraph of the next example.
Tamara married her high school sweetheart. They go to the church and have a small ceremony. They had three children. Tamara wants to name them Tom, Pete, and John.
Notice how difficult it is to place the true time frame in the above paragraph. For example, Tamara got married in the past but goes to the church in the present.
The details are also unclear as to what Tamara actually named her children. She wants to name her children Tom, Pete, and John in the present, but she had already had them in the past.
You should make sure that the verb tenses match to improve the readability of this paragraph.
For example, if you start a paragraph or scene in the simple past tense, you should not incorporate simple present tense verbs into the paragraph or scene unless it serves a purpose in the story.
Simple past tense verbs are most commonly a verb, or action word, that ends with -ed, and simple present tense verbs are plain form verbs that typically end with “s.”
Let’s take another look at the paragraph in the previous example with the tenses changed to be more consistent.
Tamara married her high school sweetheart. They went to the church and had a small ceremony. They had three children. Tamara named them Tom, Pete, and John.
Notice that with consistency in tense, the time frame the characters are in is a lot more straightforward. Thus, the confusion created by the inconsistent tense changes is also minimized in this example (source).
How to Transition From Past to Present in a Story
Transitioning from the past tense to the present tense in a story is as easy as following a timeline. Writing flashbacks or premonitions are good ways to implement a substantial change in the tense of a story.
For example, if you are writing your story in the present tense and you decide to write in a flashback or a scene set in the past relative to the characters, you can demonstrate this further by writing the scene in the past tense.
On the other hand, if you are writing your story in the past or narrative tense and want to write about a premonition or a scene set in the future relative to the characters, you can write that scene in the present tense to indicate the time change.
Switching Tense From Past to Present in a Sentence
If you want to relay something that happened in the past and compare that with something that is happening now or in the present, it is possible to use both simple past and simple present tense in a sentence.
Similar to the passage above about verb tense shifts, you can use simple past tense verbs, which are usually action words ending in -ed, to tell the reader what was, or used to be, in the first part of the sentence.
Then, in the latter part of the sentence, you can use the simple present verb tense, or the plain or “s” form of the verb, to convey to the reader what is happening now or in the story’s present.
The following example will show you an easy way to switch from past to present in a sentence.
Keith has had a debilitating crush on Beth since he was a child, so today, he decides to finally ask her out.
Notice that the tense change also signals a change in the character as well since he decides to finally take a long-awaited action.
Also, note that this particular example only works if your main tense for the story is simple present tense. If you use the simple past tense, it is best to use the past perfect tense to travel further into the past.
If you want to know more about changing tenses in a sentence, you can read “Can I Use Present Perfect and Past Perfect in the Same Sentence?”
Switching From Past Tense to Present Tense in a Scene
If you are writing a story in the narrative tense, which we otherwise refer to as the simple past tense, you may want to state a fact or describe something to the reader that is not necessarily a part of the story.
You may want to switch from simple past tense, where you are using the -ed form of the verb, to simple present tense, where you use the plain or “s” form of the verb or action word.
Usually, in doing this, your story’s point of view, which is the viewpoint from the characters to the reader, changes from third person (he/she/they) or first person (I/me/we) to second person (you), and the narrator seems to speak directly to the reader.
Notice the tense change in the following example of exposition.
Arnold froze as he stared into the pool. He never told his friends that he was hydrophobic. A person with hydrophobia is someone who is afraid of water. With tears in his eyes, Arnold turned away and ran home.
When the narrator defines hydrophobia in the above example, note that the tense changes from simple past tense to simple present tense, and the narrator seems to speak directly to the reader.
Writers often use this storytelling style to engage the reader further and make them feel like they are a part of the story. It is an effective and significant change in modern storytelling.
Mixing Verb Tenses
In the world of storytelling, it is common to tell your story in the past tense or the narrative tense.
There are valid reasons why you may choose to move away from the narrative tense and shift the tense of a story in the middle. Writers most commonly reserve mixing tenses for writing circumstances like a flashback, a dream sequence, or a premonition.
Generally a method of conveying different time frames or realities within a story, writers use tense shifts to show those specific changes in the story instead of directly telling the reader about the changes.
Using Tense Changes to Demonstrate a Change in Time Frame
If you use the narrative tense, which, remember, is the simple past tense, to tell your story, you may want to use a different tense to describe a different segment time in the story.
Use Past Perfect to Write Further Back in the Past
You may decide to use a flashback to build the backstory of the character. In this method, you may want to use the past perfect tense to convey that the time you are speaking or writing about is even further back in the past than the simple past tense that you are already using.
The past perfect tense uses the verb or action word “had” and can help you imply a time further back in the story’s timeline without necessarily having to say it (source).
Notice the difference in how the time seems to change in the two sentences below.
- Mathew was swimming in the ocean when he saw a shark.
- Mathew had been swimming in the ocean when he saw a shark.
In the above examples, the second sentence using the past perfect “had” seems further back in time than simply saying “was.”
Use Simple Present or Future Tense to Change Reality
You are writing your story in the narrative tense, and you want to write in a dream sequence or premonition that exceeds the time frame you are writing in.
You can change your writing tense from the simple past tense to the simple present tense or even the future tense for a premonition to fully immerse the reader in what “will” happen later in the story.
Note in this example how you can mix past and present tense to write a dream sequence.
Aaron walks through the forest, aware of the eyes watching him from the trees. He hears footsteps come closer behind him, getting faster and faster. Suddenly, Aaron awoke with a start, breathing heavily as if he had been holding his breath.
This article was written for strategiesforparents.com.
Notice that the dream sequence itself is not the real world in the story, so the tense shift really pulls the character and the reader into what is happening in the scene. Then, when Aaron wakes up, the tension subsides with the tense change. The danger doesn’t seem so immediate.
It is possible to mix past and present tense in a story as long as the story allows it. Writers commonly use this method or style of storytelling to convey changes in time and the character’s reality, like dreaming or seeing the future.
However, if you don’t mix the tenses of your story correctly, or if you are inconsistent with your changes, you can confuse the reader and create a challenging reading experience.
If you do it correctly, though, you can take your story to the next level in this modern age of writing.