Bewildering Stories discusses...
A teacher’s rule: Never take for granted that everybody knows what you’re talking about. Recently, a contributor asked a very down-to-earth question:
Dialogue and interior monologue are normally in the present tense, but narration offers the choice of the past or present tense. What’s a good way to avoid verb tense inconsistencies?
Our contributor speaks for many. We sometimes receive texts that combine the narrative present and past tenses almost haphazardly. Let’s make up an egregious example. Red = past tense; blue = present tense:
Eager for Valentines, I run to the mailbox. When I came back in, I find only a handful of bills. I vowed to pay them and dutifully sit down at my computer and logged in to my account.
Do we receive submissions like that? So far, none has been quite so incoherent but, honestly, you would be amazed... Our response: Choose one tense or the other and stick to it; you can’t use both at once.
Which to start with? There is no hard and fast rule. The narrative past tense is customary but not required; either the past or present tense may be the easier to follow, depending on the story.
The present tense may be most useful in first-person stories, where the narrator is “I”'; for example: Robert J. Howe’s “Pinocchio’s Diary.” But the narrative past tense is perfectly okay for “I” characters, too, of course, as in Janet E. Sever’s “Dead Man Working.” The choice of the present or past tense will have somewhat different advantages and effects.
The narrative past tense is usually found in third-person stories, which are told directly by the author. However, the present tense may come in handy when the story consists mostly of dialogue, which has to be in the present tense anyway. For example, Charles C. Cole’s Murder in New Eden resembles a television playscript, and the narration is basically stage directions.
How to check for tense inconsistencies? Scan the text systematically with a single objective in mind: Locate the verbs in every sentence and make sure they’re consistent with the narrative tense of the story, be it the present or past.
Of course, you’ll have to be wary of context. For example, present-tense narration may need to use the past tense in certain cases; it’s the equivalent of the past perfect tense in past-tense narration. Let’s make up another little example; same color-coding as before:
Panning for gold is hard work, here on the American River. I sweat in the summer sun, but the cold water chills my hands. I’ve had good luck today, better than at first, when the river was running high and I would go back to camp empty-handed.
Note that “I’ve had” is a present tense, namely the present perfect. And, in this context, “would go” is an idiomatic form indicating repeated action in the past.
Meanwhile, our Style Manual also offers a handy little reference for verbs and forms that contributors often confuse, including a new verb that seems to be coming down the pike as language evolves!