Doubt on stories in past tense

Hi there! I’m not quite sure if this thread belongs here, but after some thought I’ve decided this must be the best place for solving my doubt.

Most stories are written in past tense (i.e. “John walked towards the exit while Luke yelled at him”) and that makes sense since that’s the way we usually talk about things that have happened in our everyday life. Talking about what’s in the past should be as easy as changing the tense of the verb, but is that the only thing that has to be changed?

So here’s the thing, whenever I’m reading a story in past tense and I come across words like “here”, “this” or “yesterday/today/tomorrow” I can’t help but wince a little. I feel that when talking in a past tense those should be changed for “there”, “that” and “the day before/that day/the day after” to be coherent with the tense.

I don’t know if there’s a rule there that says that certain kinds of words like adverbs should be changed when talking about the past, so I was hoping someone could maybe tell me. That way, if I write a story in English I’ll be able to be sure about that part.

Thank you in advance!

There is no rule, but if you write in 3rd person you usually use Past Tense (or sometimes past perfect to tell something even further back).

But in first person, it depends whether the person is virtually telling about something that happened to him in the past. Then you can put some thoughts or break the 4th wall by using present. Still, you will primarily use past tense, too.

To tell a story completely in present will sound strange, but it can be done. It’s like you tell the story as it happens like you would explain the scene to some unseen observer. Like in a computer adventure where the scene is described to you, or in a pen and paper RPG where the game master is telling the players what’s happening.

It’s a strange way to create a story, but it can be done, I guess.

I know it can be done, my first story I posted here is 1st person, present tense. One of my college professors liked certain things to be written in present tense and insisted we use it. It’s effective at conveying action, but I don’t think it could be done well in 3rd person.

Third-person present is very viable! It’s has been used to great effect in popular and well-respected fiction since its big boom in the 90s (though you’ll find it in much older stories as well). Two books of N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy are written almost entirely in third-person present. Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, and J.M. Coatzee’s The Disgrace are some highly lauded examples from the past few decades.

Third-person present offers the immediacy and action of first-person present while also making it easier to switch between point-of-view characters without confusion. For this reason it’s moved well beyond literary fiction to become particularly popular in sci-fi and fantasy.

But as far as the original question is concerned, I agree: when writing in third-person past, it’s best to keep the tense and perspective consistent. Verbs should generally be past or past participle, “here” should be “there,” etc.


I also tend to write in past tense and have the same issues you do with it. As much as possible, I try to save specific date references for the character’s thoughts/words at the time. That, at least, makes it a bit less jarring. It’s not always practical to do it that way, though. When it’s not, I try to use phrases like “the next day” instead of “tomorrow”.

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Thanks for the answers! It’s nice to know it’s not only me. I’ll have all of this in mind next time I write something :blush:

Yeah it’s like it depends on when the word is used

Tommy said he would kill Greg the following day, Greg shrugged nonchalantly.

Tommy said “First thing tomorrow, I will kill you!”, Greg shrugged nonchalantly.

Dialogue doesn’t change tense just like it doesn’t change pronouns (since what was said, was said and you’re writing what was said). But, the regular-non-dialogue writing would change tense/pronoun if you wanted to be formally correct. However, most English speakers would understand the formally incorrect:

Tommy said he would kill him tomorrow, Greg shrugged nonchalantly.

Even though it’s ambiguous and technically wrong.

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I usually think about who I am intending the narrator to be. Is the character telling the story as if it has already happened to them? Or is the narrator a different character than the protagonist, or not a character at all? Are they all-knowing, or do they only know the inner thoughts of one characters? Or, is there really no narrator at all, and I’m just describing the scenes (reading more like a screenplay)?

I guess it comes down to this: do I want the reader to feel like they are the protagonist, or that they are being told a story orally by someone within (or not within) the story, or that they are watching a movie/play. In the first and third, any tense change is likely to break immersion. In the second, tense changes are fine but should be used very thoughtfully.

Although there’s only a small number of stories on this site that make use of second person style, it does exist for those instances where you want the reader to feel like they’re the one in the story.

It can go either: “He pulls you across his lap and begins to deliver stinging slaps to your bare butt.”


“I pull you across my lap and deliver several stinging slaps to your bare butt.”

Like I said, very few stories. But I’ve come across a couple of good ones.

(you could also think of second person style as “roleplaying style”)

While I agree that the present tense is perfectly viable, it comes across as rather breathless to me. I personally think it’s best suited to short stories, or used sparingly, perhaps as a dream sequence between chapters in the past tense or as the ‘voice’ of one particular character who stands outside the general narrative.

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