Changing Tense

Recently, my Memoir Writing II class workshopped a story written mostly in past tense, until the final scene, when the writer shifted her verb tense from past to present. We agreed unanimously—we loved the switch. It made an already arresting moment even more breathtaking.  

This breaks the age-old rule, Pick a verb tense and stick to it. It’s a good rule—after all, no one wants to give their readers whiplash. That said, sometimes, shifting verb tenses can be a smart choice—as long as you’re mindful about it.

A few suggestions:

One, do so sparingly—See my above note about whiplash.

Two, know why you’re doing is—The most common reason writers give for changing tenses is that they want to slow the action and create immediacy. It can do that—and so much more.

You can use a tense shift to move a story out of the plot and into a character’s memory. You can use it to show a character slipping into fantasy.

You can make a narrator more or less reliable—an unreliable narrator might change tenses when telling the truth, or when trying to sell a lie more convincingly.

And while switching verb tense can create intimacy with the reader by narrowing the lens of a story, it’s also a good way to widen it.

In a recent piece in The Atlantic, Rachel Monroe uses past tense to describe a con-man fleecing his victims, but pivots: “Americans love a con man.” Monroe brings the reader into the story in a different way—she makes us complicit.

Three, mind your transitions. Tense shifts can be jarring, so ease your readers into the change. Start a new chapter, section, or scene. Switch from plot to reflection. Use quotes or dialogue.

With each tense shift Charlotte Brontë makes in her classic novel Jane Eyre, she takes a fresh approach: She poses rhetorical questions, quotes Jane’s internal thoughts, and even addresses the reader directly.

Before he switches from past to present tense in his essay “Momma’s Boy,” Rick Bragg moves the action away from his mother’s struggles as a single parent and toward his own memories, saying “The first memory I have is of a toddler sitting on the back of a cotton sack …” The effect is so subtle that whenever I teach that story, students are surprised to find they missed the tense shift completely.

I’ve compiled some examples of tense shifting for you, including from Jane Eyre and “Momma’s Boy”, here. Take a look, and then try it for yourself. See if changing the verb tense in one of your stories helps you steer the reader in a new way, without giving them whiplash.

Kelly Caldwell
Dean of Faculty

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