Writing a novel is like creating your own universe. You can create characters and storylines in the past, present, and future. The question is, can you switch between tenses in a novel to exhibit these time shifts?

It’s okay to switch tenses in a novel with a separation between timelines. For example, some authors set different chapters within different timeframes or use multiple tenses in a chapter. You must keep tabs on the timeline you’ve created for your story to make it work. 

Let’s take a look at the creative ways that authors use tenses while maintaining a concrete timeline that’s easy for the reader to follow. 

Deciding on a Tense for Your Novel

Writing a novel is more complicated than it seems on the surface. Everything down to the tense the author writes in is a conscious decision that affects the reader, one they may not even consider.

Before writing your novel, you must decide what tense you want to write your book in. If you choose to switch tenses, first determine how you’re going to execute this and what effect you want it to have on the reader. 

Past Tense

Past tense is the standard for novels, so much so that readers don’t even notice it most of the time and have no issues immersing themselves in the story. 

The benefit of the past tense is that you can manipulate time and events to create suspense. Events unfold in layers, and the author has more control over the information their readers have access to. But, with present tense, events happen sequentially. 

Stories told in the past tense have twists and events that are more difficult to anticipate and create distance between the reader and the story. Because this is the most prevalent tense in novels, it’s easy to find good examples of past tense writing, especially in fiction. 

Present Tense

Present tense has an immediacy that the past tense lacks, which creates its own kind of suspense and anticipation. 

Characters act in the moment, and the fast-paced storytelling leaves the reader racing to see what comes next. Describing the characters’ actions and thoughts as they happen presents a unique opportunity to color the story since it brings the reader closest to the characters. 

The reader can situate themselves in the story, perhaps even as the main character. Your novel can be pretty cinematic if you write it in the present tense. 

That said, present tense can introduce the device called the unreliable narrator, which exposes the reader to one point of view that, if or when it falters, creates even more of a shock factor. 

You can check out some books featuring an unreliable narrator. 

Future Tense

It’s extremely rare to find an entire novel written in the future tense, and many would go so far as to say it’s virtually impossible.

The future tense is potentially the tense with the most distance between the reader and the story. The reader can’t situate themselves within the story, as everything is hypothetical.

It has the potential to create a considerable amount of mystery and suspense, almost to the point of surrealism, because there’s no way of knowing if events will unfold as predicted. 

Because of this, authors can twist it to become pretty ominous for a horror or thriller story. 

Although it’s very unusual to write a whole story, let alone a novel, in the future tense, it’s fairly common to write particular passages of a story in the future tense. For example, a character can have an internal dialogue about something they’re expecting to happen.

Check out this article for guidance on the different kinds of future tenses and how to use them in a story. 

How To Switch Tenses in Your Novel

Switching tenses in your novel is relatively straightforward. You may not have noticed that tense switches happen in most, if not all, of the books you read. 

Writing in Habitual Past Tense

Let’s say a writer is writing a book in the present tense. They could have their characters talking to each other, and at the moment, one says to the other: “Back then, I’d go for walks along the beach every day.”

This is what’s known as the habitual past, which is characterized by words like “would” and “used to,” It tends to go undetected because it’s such a natural way of speaking, so it makes sense that it’d be in a novel too.

Switching Tenses Between Sections or Chapters

You can switch tenses in your novel seamlessly if you do it correctly. Switching tenses mid-sentence or mid-paragraph without rhyme or reason or warning a reader is a no-go.

Many authors start their chapters by reminiscing about something that happened in the past as a setup for the rest of the chapter, which is situated in the present. Think of this as the book equivalent of the “I bet you’re wondering how I got here” trope in movies

Switching Tenses Within a Paragraph

Habitual past, or referring back to something that happened prior to where the author introduced the reader to the story, is widespread in every genre of writing. 

Characters talking about something they expect to happen in the future is also a very natural way to switch tenses within a paragraph. It won’t be jarring for readers and has a purpose, meaning it’s justified. 

Tense Depends on the Author’s Timeline

Sometimes, tense isn’t something that’s expressed outright, or that pivots from one fixed point. There are instances where tense depends on the author’s timeline and what they consider “now” and “then” at any given moment.

A brilliant instance of a multifaceted timeline is David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. The book has six distinct points in time, with different relationships to each other. The chapters set in 1849 are written in the present tense, as are the chapters set in 2321.

Though there’s a clear timeline through 500 years of history, the reader doesn’t experience the story as linear, so every chapter is the present, with every other chapter being the past or future.

Cloud Atlas aside, many other books play with time in this way, and it’s a beautiful and effective storytelling method that allows the reader to follow patterns spanning over an indefinite period. 

The sky’s the limit for the author that writes this kind of novel. Look at Elizabeth Is Missing by Emma Healey and Speak by Louisa Hall for more inspiration. 

Conclusion

Switching tenses in a novel is very common and totally acceptable, provided you do it for a reason and transition into it naturally. A reader will notice if your tenses are inconsistent, leading to a jarring reading experience.

Categories: Fiction

Ol Adams

Letter Review is currently edited by Ol Adams, who is a PhD candidate in Creative Writing, casual academic, and guest lecturer at the University of New South Wales. Ol Adams has had short stories published in leading literary journals such as Overland, Southerly, Seizure, and TEXT. Ol has had novels long listed for major awards such as the KYDUMA, has received government funding to produce plays from Create NSW and screenplays from Screen NSW, and has performed / produced professional work at major theatrical venues such as the Sydney Opera House.