In one of the stories I'm writing at the moment, when the narrator is in the scene, the story is in present tense (which is painful, but so far I like the result). The rest is in the much easier to deal with, and generally superior, narrative past tense.

At one point I had given up on present tense and started writing in past tense, however I have since realized that I actually had a good reason to write those scenes in present tense. So I go back and rewrite them paragraph by paragraph. In some spots I just wipe the whole scene and start over, but for the most part I found that wasn't necessary.

I'm now going through and editing those scenes and finding that I keep slipping into narrative past. The entire purpose of rewriting was to get rid of past tense, yet somehow I am rewriting parts of paragraphs in past tense anyway! This is very frustrating. I don't mind it when it occurs at the very beginning of a scene. To me that's just catching up to the present, however when I'm going back and forth within a scene, that's inexcusable unless a character is explicitly reflecting on past events, and even then that, I feel, should be done with care.

So the question is, how do I avoid this slippage? Other than practice, which is in the works.

P.S. A "problem," if you want to call it that, is that consistent is required. For most of the scenes, either both tenses can work out just as well, or present tense is giving me better results. There are some "down time" scenes, I suppose you could call them. For example what I'm trying to fix right now": sitting around a camp fire. These would, as Mark Baker suggested, work out better in past tense. However I can't have it both ways, or so I believe (I may be wrong).

P.P.S. This is not a question of grammar. I can go back and fix incorrectly conjugated verbs as I have done in this very question (as Cloud pointed out). The issue is structural. The narrative, mid paragraph, takes on the structure of narrative past tense. I have a similar problem when I'm writing in past tense if get excited. In such cases I slip into present tense, but these are easy to fix since, as Baker is quick to point out, past tense is like a Swiss Army Knife. Its usually the tool for the job, and when it's not, it's pretty close.

P.P.P.S. Okay, so lets see if I can make a simple example. If it's too simple it won't work. John walks his dog and John walked his dog are both perfectly reasonable sentences, but they are also quite simple. Compare while walking his dog, John stops to smell the roses against As John was walking his dog, he stopped to smell the roses. There is more to these sentences, and not only do the verbs need to be conjugated differently, but also the conjunctions "while" and "as".

Now, the past tense The following day, while walking his dog, John stopped to smell the roses is fine, however if we want to convert that directly to present tense we're going to have do some tinkering with the structure. The inclusion of "the following day", as far as I can tell, doesn't really have an present tense analog since there is only "now". A character can reflect on past events, but the story itself is always in the present.

This isn't a great example, and that last sentence does have some issues, but I think this illustrates my point.

PPPP.S. As Cloudchaser pointed out, that is not the greatest example. Or even an accurate one. In a lot of ways this is an extension of a previous question of mine. Without copying and pasting collections of paragraphs I don't think I can illustrate exactly how this is going wrong. My question is the same as before -- how to avoid switching from one tense/structure to another aside from the age old solution of practice.

  • I suspect what is happening here is that you are actually slipping into the right tense. If switching to present tense were appropriate (it seldom is) then it would come naturally. If you keep slipping back into the past, that probably means you should stick to past.
    – user16226
    Commented Mar 24, 2018 at 13:48
  • I agree that past tense is generally the right way to go. The problem in this case, however, seems to more likely be familiarity. As an adult, I've hardly read any present tense books, and has't tried writing with it until now. It's outside of my comfort zone, so to speak. I'm going to add some more info to my question.
    – Nero gris
    Commented Mar 24, 2018 at 13:52
  • Damon Runyan's work is a great example of telling a story in the present tense. You might find it helps you learn how to improve this, even for a third-person narration. Here's an example: shortstorymasterpieces.altervista.org/runyonpiecepie.html
    – J.G.
    Commented Mar 24, 2018 at 14:18

3 Answers 3


Before you can avoid slipping into the wrong tense, ask yourself what the right tense is. Because it's not consistent for every story that is told.

  • Jokes use present tense. A man walks into a bar...
  • A factual (terse) recollection of events uses past tense. John killed my cat and then made it seem like it ran away.
  • A narrated recollection of events uses present tense. So John pulls out his gun, looks the cat straight in the eye, and pulls the trigger. The wall is covered in cat brains, and I'm standing there wondering if I'm going to be the next victim.

There is no consistent tense. It very much depends on the context of the story. This is one of those things where it's very hard to define what is right and what is wrong, but we often intuitively understand which tense we should use.

If you keep slipping into past tense; it's more than likely that past tense makes the most sense intuitively. I'd suggest you go with your gut on this one. Any inconsistencies can be fixed at a later stage when you are proofreading.

Focus on writing the story first. Focus on fixing the grammatical mistakes at a later stage.

  • 1
    First off, it is the correct tense, as it so happens, which is why I went back and rewrote past tense to present tense, which is more painful than the other way around because of the limitations inherent in present tense. That said, when I say that it's inconsistent I mean I'll have one sentence in past tense then the next in present for no discernible reason other than the emotions or action is getting intense. So I slip both ways. You're right, of course, that I can fix it later, but ideally, I'd get the tense right the first time since it's a pain to fix.
    – Nero gris
    Commented Mar 27, 2018 at 23:48
  • Bro what's with your examples? xD
    – Tasch
    Commented Mar 9, 2020 at 22:47
  • Upvote for the third example. I want to read your stuff now! Commented Oct 1, 2020 at 22:44

I don't get what you are even struggling with. I'm giving up on attempting an answer to this question. I'm sorry I couldn't help you.

Second attempt at an answer, after an example was given

When you write in present tense, that is not the same as living in the present. In reality, there is never a present moment of which it would be appropriate to say that "the following day, I smell the roses".

But when you write in present tense, the story is told from a moment after it has all already happened. The present tense in writing does not signify that what you read happens now (because the reader knows that while he reads the whole story already exists as a finished whole), but rather the present tense in writing evokes immediacy.

For the characters, every moment in a narrative is their present, no matter if it is narrated in the past or present tense. When you write "John smelled the roses", John smells the roses now. But for the reader every "present moment" in a narrative is always one in a sequence of moments that all lie in the past, no matter if they are narrated in the present or past tense. When you write "John smells the roses", for the reader that has already happened.

For that reason, you can use the exact same constructions in present as in past tense.

It is perfectly fine to write:

The following day, while walking his dog, John stopps to smell the roses.

First attempt at an answer, before the edits

'm not really sure I completely understand the problem you are having.

When I want to write in a certain tense, I write in that tense, I don't slip into another. It's like writing about birds. I don't find myself writing about dogs when I want to write about birds. So how come you slip into another tense?

One reason I can think of, because I see that in many aspiring writers, is that maybe you aren't really in command of your language yet. Simple present and simple past are easy, but when it comes to anteriority and posteriority, past and present continuous, and so on, even many native speakers get confused, because in oral language we often don't use these forms correctly, or even not at all, instead signifying "tense", for example, through adverbs of time.

In spoken English, it is perfectly fine to say something like: Yesterday, I went to the doctor. I tell him my back hurts, and he looks at me and says.... But in written English, unless you want to emulate spoken language, this tense switching is wrong.

I'm not a native speaker of English, so the following might not be completely correct, but it seems to me that in your question you are using the wrong tense in some places. For example, in your second paragraph you write:

At one point I had given up on present tense and started writing in past tense, however I had since realized that I actually had a good reason to write those scenes in present tense. So I go back and rewrite them paragraph by paragraph. In some spots I just wipe the whole scene and start over, but for the most part I found that wasn't necessary.

As far as I understand, all of this has already happened in the past. I therefore believe that you should have written (my corrections are given in bold and my comment in italic):

At one point I had given up on present tense and started writing in past tense, however I have [you have still given up; "had" signifies that you have later changed your mind again] since realized that I actually had a good reason to write those scenes in present tense. So I went back and rewrote [you are not doing that now, it is something you have already done] them paragraph by paragraph. In some spots I just wiped the whole scene and started over, but for the most part I found [here you have past tense, which shows that you meant the whole scene to have taken place in the past] that wasn't necessary.

Now this answer isn't about correcting the grammar of your question. Questions here can be grammatically or orthographically wrong, and no one will think less of you for it, especially since many of us aren't even native speakers and unable to write good English ourselves anyway. But what the mistakes in your question show me in the context of your question, is that you do not use grammatical tense correctly in it, and that maybe this is a problem you are having when you write or revise.

So what you are struggling with might not be a problem related to writing or revising at all, but simply due to the fact that you must first correctly learn some of the more difficult aspects of your language first.

  • Have vs had is a conjugation issue. What's I'm seeing is structural. As for the others, that's just conversational writing. Those aren't even errors in my mind. Not in this context at least. As for not understanding the question, I'm not sure how I'm being unclear. It's exactly as you said -- I start by structuring the narrative in one tense, and then the structure changes to another.
    – Nero gris
    Commented Mar 24, 2018 at 15:26
  • Oh, I assure you there are TONS of grammatical errors. I find new ones every time I make a pass at it, which is why I make several and have someone look at it after the fourth. However, the issue, again, is not one of grammar, but rather structure. I'll create a simple mock example here in a little bit.
    – Nero gris
    Commented Mar 24, 2018 at 15:38
  • I see. Narrative present vs present. Perhaps that's a bad example then because my first inclination was to simply change the verbs, however the effect was kind of iffy. I have more on this in another question which I'll link to in a moment. Baker's answer in particular touches on what I mean by structural differences.
    – Nero gris
    Commented Mar 24, 2018 at 16:30
  • And by that I mean Baker's answer to an old question I link to in this question.
    – Nero gris
    Commented Mar 24, 2018 at 16:36

Lucky for you I just wrote a book in present tense and know exactly what you mean.

Your have to understand preset perfect and present imperfect. Take the two sentences. "John walks his dog" imperfect. and "John is walking his dog" perfect.

You have to pick one of the tenses and write in it. I would say it has to be imperfect. Reading present perfect would be a nightmare. Present perfect sounds childish in most cases like "while walking his dog, John stops to smell the roses" Instead you should write "John walks his dog he stops to smell the roses"

I will also say that I had a very hard time staying in present tense while writing. Half the time of my first editing pass was dedicated to tense

  • The question is about past vs present tense, not present vs present perfect.
    – Flater
    Commented Mar 27, 2018 at 14:52
  • @Flater look at the P.P.P.S.The problem is clearly coming from him actually slipping between perfect and imperfect and not being aware of it
    – Andrey
    Commented Mar 27, 2018 at 15:35
  • The PPPS compares these examples: (A) while walking his dog, John stops to smell the roses (B) As John was walking his dog, he stopped to smell the roses. Both examples use perfect + imperfect. The only difference between the two is that (A) uses present perfect + present imperfect and (B) uses past perfect + past imperfect. The distinction made here is about past versus present tense.
    – Flater
    Commented Mar 27, 2018 at 15:42
  • @Flater right, so because OP is mixing perfect/imperfect tenses he is unable to maintain the tense he wants and is falling out of it. If he consistently maintains imperfect, he will have an easier time writing. Maybe I am wrong, but I am answering the question. I had the same problem in my work, and getting a good grasp on the present tenses made my time writing much easier.
    – Andrey
    Commented Mar 27, 2018 at 16:03
  • This is very interesting. I'm currently on a chapter that is past tense (sigh of relief), but when I go back for editing I'm absolutely going to watch out for this. Thanks.
    – Nero gris
    Commented Mar 27, 2018 at 23:44

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