Writers Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for authors, editors, reviewers, professional writers, and aspiring writers. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

My story is told by one of the characters and frequently uses the past tense when describing events. But occasionally I feel like some of the events should be told in the present tense, and I switch between the two. Does this as an example work? Is it alright to do so?

Our guest grabbed a bread stick without asking, and as Jack, I now also wanted to get to know this stranger a bit better. “Thank you for taking away the burden of us having to order. What is your name?” I asked him. My guess is that it would have to do with either eyebrows or a hypnotized cat.

share|improve this question
up vote 1 down vote accepted

I think the yo-yo effect is jarring to the reader. This is even worse when it's character voice changing. Changing "now also wanted" to "wanted" and "is that" to "was that" is fairly minimal and an easier read. I don't believe it impacts your writing negatively to keep the tenses consistent.

share|improve this answer

As far as there are ever hard-and-fast rules in writing (which there aren't!) you should avoid switching tense within a paragraph or even scene unless the change is consistent. Just as you should avoid changing person mid paragraph or section.

Any change that jars the reader pulls them out of the story. And any time a reader is pulled out there is a chance they won't bother to go back in.

As an example; in a scene in Fallen Dragon by Peter F. Hamilton, there is a scene where he changes person and time mid-section. He goes from a soldier walking up a beach being pelted with stones as he walks through the town, to a woman watching the soldier begin to emerge from the water and gathering stones to start throwing.

If the change is consistent it can be handled, particularly if it is clear why the change is happening, but if the change just happens it will be impossible for the reader to become accustomed to it. Every time I hit a change like this, whether it’s time, tense, person or even a consistency fail — a pipe becoming a cigar because the writer forgot the character was smoking a pipe — I’m thrown out of the world and back into my chair while I try to figure out what just happened.

Peter F. Hamilton’s one of my favourite authors, despite his faults, and I give him time and allowances I would not give an author I was reading for the first time.

Regarding your example specifically:

I now also wanted to get to know...

Using now in this context doesn't have to be a tense change, it can still be used in past tense, and simply adds a sense of immediacy to the moment without changing tense. On the other hand...

My guess is that it...

This one is definitely present tense and is a sudden and jarring change. The edits that Aibrean suggests would be ideal.

share|improve this answer

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.