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There are questions here about specific use of tenses, but I wonder if there is a more complete guide on what tense to use when?

For a fictional novel, Past Tense is the accepted choice. But which one? Simple, Perfect, Progressive, Past Progressive? When would I change? Would I be mixing tenses as part of the normal flow?

For example, take this:

He was hiding in the dumpster. He had been hiding here for more than two hours already, and he knew that it would be at least two hours before we could leave. Finally, they were gone and he climbed out of the trash. He unsuccessfully tried to hail a cab -- even cab drivers have standards here -- and walked to his hotel.

This is mixing past (and even future) tenses without use of a device that I would normally consider an acceptable reason to change (e.g., Flashbacks or reading out a Newspaper article).

Is there a guidance I could use to figure out what specific past tense I should be using in what context?

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I'd like to point out that while grammar itself os off-topic here, the use of grammar as a writing tool is quite on-topic. I'd ask that answers focus on the latter aspect of this question. –  Neil Fein Jun 16 at 1:00
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@Neil Yes, thanks for clarifying that. My question is not What is Perfect Progressive Past Tense? but In what situations is it appropriate to use when writing a work of fiction? –  Michael Stum Jun 16 at 1:16
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Just want to point out that when it comes to fiction there is no accepted tense. As long as you don't change tense, perspective or person midstream you're fine. Yes past tense is most common but I've read future, present, and past tense and I've read first, third and even second person (that one took a little getting used to but was very well used by Charles Stross) –  CLockeWork Jun 16 at 8:08
    
@CLockeWork I'd make your comment an answer. It's pretty much exactly what I'd say. –  Lauren Ipsum Jun 16 at 11:18
    
OK, thanks @LaurenIpsum –  CLockeWork Jun 16 at 12:05

4 Answers 4

When it comes to fiction there is no accepted tense. As long as you don't change tense, perspective or person midstream you're fine.

Yes past tense is most common but I've read future, present, and past tense and I've read first, third and even second person (that one took a little getting used to but was very well used by Charles Stross)

The real answer is that there is no right tense, person or perspective. Instead it is very much down to what suits the specific story.

The most out-there I've managed was a present tense, third person from the protagonist's perspective, in which she is being interviewed about her past. Much of the story is in first person past tense. Here the transition between tense and person is made clear in that the first person/present tense sections are strictly restricted to her dialogue.

So just keep an eye on you tense usage, but feel free to use whatever feels natural. For your example I would write:

He was hiding in the dumpster. He had been hiding here for more than two hours already, and he knew that it would be at least two hours before we could leave.

Finally, they were gone and he climbed out of the trash. He unsuccessfully tried to hail a cab -- even cab drivers had standards here -- and walked to his hotel.

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You are going to want simple past most of the time. Simple past gives you the widest array of active verbs, and it's the active verbs that you absolutely need to make your narrative vivid. I should say, actually, that this explanation only applies to people writing in English, written by people for whom English is the primary language and for whom their lives are rooted in a world outlook and culture that is derived from any place where Britain once controlled and/or influenced, AND that the writer is writing for an audience within the same general culture, language, and outlook.

Other languages and cultures may have a different way to go about telling a story. Many other languages do not have the array of tenses that English has, and some languages tell their stories in tenses that we lack!

So, considering all of that, the majority of stories written in English for an english speaking audience will be a combination of simple past and past progressive. It's all about what you want your reader to pay the most attention to in a dynamic setting.

Let's look at how the same action sentence can be changed by each tense. The scene for this sentence would be a gladiatorial arena where a gladiator is performing.

Simple past: --He brandished his claymore and excited the jeering crowd.

past progressive: --He was exciting the jeering crowd by brandishing his claymore.

past perfect: --Though the crowd had jeered at him, they were excited because he had brandished his claymore for them.

past perfect progressive: --He had been brandishing his claymore before the exited crowd, which had been jeering at him.

Past habitual: --When he was in the arena and the crowd jeered at him, he would brandish his claymore and that would excite them.

As you go down the different ways to write this sentence in past tense, do you notice how the sentences keep getting longer? That is because you are inserting verbs into your action that don't go anywhere, and it has the effect on your readers of pulling them out of the position of being a participant in your scene and into the position of an observer to the scene or worse, an observer to the narrator who is himself observing the scene.

The goal in the modern style is to immerse your reader. This means to be able to get your reader to feel as if they are right inside or right above the character's perspective. Simple past does this job without the help of "was", or "to be" or "Had", all that these three verbs accomplish is weak, passive, clinical storytelling. You should avoid them whenever possible. There are exceptions for certain types of scenes, such as flashbacks and summary, or if you use a narrative device like a storyteller frame, but for the most part, every use of those three verbs in your writing will grind the action incrementally to a standstill and add unnecessarily to your word count.

Average story crafters bounce back and forth between past progressive and simple past, confusing the two all the time.

Alternatively, there are writers that write in present tense. Suzanne Collins wrote the Hunger Games in present tense. At the risk of inserting personal opinion here, It's a perfect thing for script writing, but in a novel, it seems a bit strange. While a script can get away with present action because it is directing an actor to that action, a story pulls the past forward into the present. It's safest to make sure that your story is a storytelling rather than a play-by-play.

He was hiding in the dumpster. He had been hiding here for more than two hours already, and he knew that it would be at least two hours before we could leave. Finally, they were gone and he climbed out of the trash. He unsuccessfully tried to hail a cab -- even cab drivers have standards here -- and walked to his hotel.

He was hiding in the dumpster--past progressive, by the use of the verb "was" followed by the action verb in the present tense.

He had been hiding. . .This is past perfect progressive, you can tell that by the use of "had been"

. . .He knew that it would be. . .--this is tricky, but this is actually simple past. YOu are just revealing the character's inner sense of time. Your character is estimating two more hours before "they" are gone. the estimation is being done past tense because the important verb here is the word "knew"

. . .They were gone. . . Past progressive ...and he climbed. . . simple past

. . .tried to hail a cab. . .simple past

. . .walked to his hotel... simple past.

Nope, no future tenses here. Now, Let's look at this paragraph with clarity of tense:

simple past: Two hours after his dive into the dumpster, he knew that they still sought him so he stayed another two just to be safe. After those four hours bedding down in the muck, he crawled out of the trash, finally convinced of his safety. He tried to hail a cab unsucessfully-- even cab drivers have standards here -- and walked to his hotel.

Past progressive: He was hiding in the dumpster. He was hiding there for two hours, and after those two hours he was certain that he should stay for two more. Finally, they were gone and he was able to climb out of the trash. He was walking home because though he was trying to hail a cab, even cab drivers have standards.

Past perfect: He had hid in the dumpster for more than two hours, and he had known after those first two hours that it would take a total of at least four before he could leave. Finally, they had called off the search and he had climbed out of the trash so that he could try to hail a cab. Since cab drivers generally had standards of cleanliness, he was unsuccessful, and so he'd given up and he'd walked to his hotel instead.

past perfect progressive: He had been hiding in the dumpster for more than two hours already out of a four hour wait. He had been aware that it would take at least that long before he could leave. Sure enough, after he had been waiting all of that time in the filth and slime, they had been disinclined to stick around and he had been inclined to climb out of the trash. He'd been walking home because he'd been unsuccessful in hailing a cab due to the cab drivers' standards for clean passengers in their vehicles.

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Primarily simple past tense. When fiction is past tense, the primary tense is simple past tense. The other tenses are used briefly, for specific purposes.

Past perfect to indicate that an action was already completed. This is the grammatical effect of past perfect.

Past perfect for timeframe transitions. Writers often use past perfect tense to switch into and out of flashbacks. You're writing a scene in simple past tense. To dip into a flashback, you switch to past perfect for a sentence or two or three. You continue the flashback in simple past tense. Then you use a few sentences of past perfect to transition back to the timeline of the main narrative. The switch in tense becomes a hint to the reader that you're switching timeframes.

Past progressive to relate an event to an ongoing action. As far as I can tell, this is used mostly to indicate that some event occurred while some other action or condition was ongoing. As I was going to Saint Ives [ongoing action, past progressive], I met a man with seven wives [event, simple past]. So use this when it's important to indicate the timing of some event with respect to some ongoing activity.

Helping verbs. In English, past perfect and past progressive both use helping verbs. Because of this, it would be tedious to read a whole novel (and probably a short story) written entirely in these tenses.

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Well, the way I understand the tenses is as follows (warning: this is my personal understanding, which might not be entirely correct, especially since I'm not a native English speaker; if anything is wrong, corrections are welcome):

There is a "baseline" tense, past, present or future, which tells you the time of the main event line relative to the narrator. Since in everyday life, if we tell someone about real events it is almost always about events in the past, the "natural" tense for narrations is the past tense. However if you think about a reporter telling you about current events, he'll certainly use the present tense. Thus the present tense gives you some "immediacy", like if you were reported some current events. The probably rarest "baseline" tense would be the future tense, which would be used for example in prophecy.

Note that this also affects what the narrator can know: In a present-tense story, I'd be very surprised if the narrator could tell you about events which haven't yet happened in the story timeline, unless it's a prediction. In a past tense story, there's no such restriction; after all the whole story "already happened" so it's to expect that the narrator knows something about events to come, because for the narrator they already happened.

And then there's a "modifier" telling you the ordering of events relative to the current point in the story line. The story line itself goes in the simple time. Perfect time is for things which already have happened at the "story current time", "relative future" ("is/was going to", "would", I don't know the correct grammatical term) for events which have not yet occurred in the story timeline, continuous for ongoing actions. Since most of the story telling is chronological, those would be used more rarely.

Of course, things can get more complicated: If a narrator is part of the story, parts of the story can be at different times relative to the time of narration. For example, someone telling his children about past events would report about the events in the past in past times, but in between switch into present time to tell something about what it means for the current situation, or even to the future tense. For example: "Then I finally had enough money to buy the house. It is the very house we are currently living in, and I hope I will be able to stay in it until the end of my life."

Also, if you make a longer detour, the baseline will naturally shift to the story line of the detour, and back after the detour (this is what Dale Emery stated as "past perfect for timeframe transitions"). Also, a temporary switch from past tense to present tense for action scenes could be done to give that specific scene more immediacy. And of course, the story may itself have an embedded narrator whose time of narration then is the story baseline, while the baseline of his narration would then be timed relative to that.

So to summarize:

There are actually three time frames determining the tense:

  • The "narration time", possibly not explicitly specified, which is the time when the narrator tells the story,
  • the "baseline time" which is the "current" time in the story, and
  • the "event/action time" which is the point in time or timespan when the event happens.

Note that the "baseline time" is not independent of the "event time", but essentially a sort of running average "event time".

  • The relative position between narration time and baseline time determines the "base tense" (past/present/future).
  • The relative position between baseline time and event time determined the "modifier" (simple/perfect/"relative future"/continuous).

However the actually used tense may temporarily deviate from the tense determined by those rules for dramatic effect.

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