All right guys, today we’re going to be talking about verb tenses. The passage I’m using today is from Chapter 20 of the Quizilla story “The Devil Wears Playboy Boxers” (Spelling errors have been fixed in red)
Amy started playing with her cell, waiting for me to finish. “She said it was true. She was about to say the girl’s name, when he interrupted her. Then he got all mad and started going about how he didn’t care if anyone believed him or not. I thought that was weird because. . . it’s Forrest. And he got all defensive about it.”
Suddenly Amy’s phone rings. She gives me the index finger as if to hold on. “Who is this? Oh hey! Yeah I’m totally going. . .”
I sighed and continued to watch the cartoons. The conversation Amy has lasts about seven minutes. When she finishes I look up at her expectantly to answer my question.
Instead she yawns profoundly. “Spence I am so sleepy right now. We’ll talk about this some other time.” Before I could answer she gets up and leaves my room, yawning once more.
I shrugged when I noticed Amy forgot her phone on my bed. I picked it up to return it to her when I accidentally press a button and song comes out immediately after.
I look at the screen to see the ringtone app opened. Confused, I look at the recent caller list and see the most recent call was two hours ago. I gaze confused at the cellphone screen for a few seconds before realization dawns on me— Amy had faked a phone call. For over five minutes just to avoid what I’d asked her.
Now you may notice a couple funky things about the passage, you might not. The more you read online, the less likely you are to notice because this is a pretty common mistake that spellcheck often won’t find for you.
All right, so if you noticed that she switched verb tenses in the middle, go ahead and give yourself a pat on the back. If you didn’t notice go “oh, darn” and if you don’t know what I’m talking about, don’t worry! I’ll show you!
Verb tense is just a fancy way of saying “past,” “present,” or “future.”There are other verb tenses, too: commands, imperfect, subjunctive, and even if you’ve never heard some of those words before, trust me, you know the tenses. It comes with learning the language! But today we’ll just be focusing on past, present, and future.
Past tense is pretty simple, everything you say sound like it came from the past.
She ran through the streets.
She runs through the streets.
She is running through the streets
She will run (or “She will be running”) through the streets.
Now you probably know these tenses already. But what a lot of us make a mistake on is the little grammatical rule that says that we can’t use more than one unless it follows the plot line. For instance, if I’m talking about a past event, I can’t randomly switch to the present and then go back again. I’ll explain about the plot line in a bit. First, let’s take another look at that passage again.
Before I could answer she gets up and leaves my room, yawning once more.
I shrugged when I noticed Amy forgot her phone on my bed.
Notice that she switches verb tenses a couple times, once even in the same sentence. Take a look at that first sentence again.
“Could” is the past version of “can,” correct? But “gets” is in present tense. Then Amy “leaves” the room, and the main character “shrugged.”
Essentially, how the rule works is this: as an author, you make a special little world. It’s either a special little world that happens in the past compared to where your reader is sitting, will happen in the future compared to where your reader is sitting, or is happening right as your reader sits down and picks up your story. Now, your characters can’t travel through time, right? So if Amy “gets up” and “leaves” currently, right now, right as you’re reading this sentence, is it possible for the narrator to have “shrugged”? No, simply because the shrugging happens after the leaving. And the leaving is happening right now. You have to make sure that the verb tense in your story makes sense to the reader. So let’s see what the passage should look like. The dark blue is verb tense, the light blue is grammar stuff that I won’t be discussing in this post:
Before I could answer,she got up and left my room, yawning once more. I shrugged when I noticed that Amy forgot her phone on my bed.
Before I can answer, she gets up and leaves my room, yawning once more. I shrug when I notice that Amy forgot her phone on my bed.
Now why is the word “forgot” still in past tense, even when the rest is in present tense? Because in your little narrating world, just as the reader reads the sentence about Amy forgetting her phone, the action of forgetting already happened. It happened just a sentence ago! So that word stays in the past. So the rule of thumb here is follow you little story world. Don’t turn your characters into time travelers!
Hopefully this makes sense to everyone. Leave a comment if it needs clarification 🙂