How to effectively use the past tense in your writing
The past tense is often used by authors to allow for a more free, non-linear way of writing without the need for flashbacks when talking about past events. Some authors simply find it easier to write in the past tense than the present tense because in their mind, they're just 'retelling' what happened. Whatever the reason for using it, knowing what the different past tenses are used for and applying them effectively in your writing will drastically improve your manuscript. Mind you, some authors do this by heart and feeling, which is absolutely fine, but if you struggle, this post might help you out.
To start at the beginning, let's have a look at all the tenses which deal with the past.
Present Perfect Simple
Present Perfect Continuous/progressive
Past Perfect Simple
Past Perfect Continuous/progressive
Before I begin explaining what they are used for, let me show you what they generally look like. There's actually a rhyme and reason to how these tenses are formed, but I'll talk about that later.
Past simple: I walked. She talked. I wrote.
verb + ed/past simple of irregular verbs (past simple).
Past Continous: I was walking. She was talking. They were writing.
was/were + verb + ing.
Present Perfect Simple: I have walked. She has talked. I have written.
have/has + verb + ed or have/has + irregular verb (past participle)
Present Perfect Continuous: I have been walking. She has been talking. I have been writing.
have/has + been + verb + ing
Past Perfect Simple: I had walked. She had talked. I had written.
had + verb + ed or had + irregular verb (past participle)
Past Perfect Continuous: I had been walking. She had been talking. I had been writing.
had + been + verb + ing
Below is an extensive list of the irregular verbs (not an affiliate link).
Obviously when you are writing, it's not only important to know why a tense is used, but also what they are supposed to look like. As mentioned before, some people will know this by heart, and in many cases it's about the message you're trying to convey. In some cases, you absolutely must have one of these tenses. So let's talk about why we use them, shall we?
The Past Simple is used to talk about an event which happened in the past and is finished. It's important when it happened. In writing, this is the tense we use most often as it's a good tool to recall past events. Let's call it our base tense from which we branch out to the other ones. You could, technically, write an entire story in the past simple, but we'll all agree it won't read as nicely.
The Past Continuous is used to talk about events that were ongoing in the past. You'll use this one to stress that something was happening at a particular moment in time. Perhaps you want to tell us your main character was hiding as the soldiers were marching by. In this case, you want to stress the fact the hiding was ongoing for as long as those soldiers were marching by. You can also use it to stress the ongoing action until it gets interrupted; the tense that does the interrupting is the past simple.
a. I was writing when my computer suddenly froze.
In this sentence, the ongoing event was that you were writing, but it got interrupted by your computer freezing if that makes sense.
The Present Perfect Simple is generally used for four things:
When something happened in the past but it's unimportant when;
I have written three books.
When something happened in the past and you can still see the result;
I've broken my leg. Do you want to write something on the cast?
When you want to talk about the duration of something that happened in the past and is still happening.
He's had corona since the start of the week.
When something just happened.
I've just finished writing my novel!
The Present Perfect Continuous is used to say something began in the past and is still ongoing now. You'll often find the words lately and recently in the sentence.
Compare the following two sentences.
I have written three books.
I have been writing three books.
In the first sentence, we mean it to say that those three book exist. We wrote them. It's done. It's just unimportant when we did it. In the second sentence, we mean to stress the fact that it's been an ongoing process. We've been writing three books, possibly at the same time, and at this point in time, you are still working on it.
The Past Perfect Simple is used to talk about a past that happened before the past. This tense is especially common when writing in the past tense. Because we're already talking about past events, we use this tense to talk about something that happened even before then.
I knew I had seen her before. It must have been well over a year ago, and I would have forgotten had it not been for those clear blue eyes. I had bumped into her, spilling coffee all over her white blouse. I apologised straight away, but it had not helped her shirt. By all accounts, she should have been angry with me; instead she had laughed, telling me accidents happened. I hadn't seen her since. With a shake of my head, I dispelled the memories and smiled at her.
In this example, 'I knew' indicates this is written in the past tense, so to go back even further in the past, we need the Past perfect (simple) to show that it happened even before the moment we are writing about.
The Past Perfect Continuous is used to talk about something that was ongoing in the past up till another point in the past. Basically, it began in the past, continued in the past, but also finished in the past.
We had been talking, drinking, and laughing all evening. I remembered it vividly. She had looked stunning that evening, absolutely breathtaking, and I had been having a hard time not to try and kiss her. Now I wished I had.
In the example above, we use the past perfect continuous to show what had been ongoing in the past; we want to put emphasis on it because it's somehow important. The 'Now I wished I had' indicates that it started, continued, and finished in the past. We can only assume what happened, but at the time the events of this story take part in the past, what they had been doing is no longer valid.
Like with all tenses, the reason for using them can be up for interpretation in some cases, but I can assure you that your writing will be much stronger if you know how to use them effectively. So, when you go into self-edit mode, ask yourself what it is you want to say, and if it's perhaps something that should be emphasized.
I won't guarantee you'll get it all right in one go; tenses can be tricky buggers, but I hope, if you are someone who struggles with tenses and wants to liven up their writing, that this post has helped.