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Tenses in Story Writing

When writing a story, the majority of students are able to come up with creative plots and vivid characters. But when it comes to the actual writing, students can struggle with using the correct tenses. This takes some practice, especially when stories move around in time a lot. For example, a story set in the past might have a character who speaks in present tense, thinks about a coming event in future tense, and reflects on past actions using past perfect tense. To get started with clear story-writing grammar, it helps to really master the basics. The narrative tense and the dialogue tense are great areas to focus on:

The Narrative Tense

Most stories are written either in the simple past tense or simple present tense, depending on what effect the writer wants to create.

We use the simple past tense when writing about events that have already happened. The past tense gives writers more flexibility in time – they can go forwards (‘three days later’), backwards (‘a year earlier’), or stay in a version of the now (‘at that moment’).

On the other hand, writing in the simple present tense creates a sense of immediacy. Italo Calvino’s novel If on a Winter ‘s Night a Traveller is written in the simple present tense and starts like this:

‘You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought.’

The reader becomes part of the story and feels as if the events are happening right now.

Using tenses in dialogue

After choosing the main narrative tense, other tenses might still appear in a story, especially in dialogue. This is usually in present tense as it records exactly what characters say, when they say it. Look at this example from Judy Moody Was in a Mood by Megan McDonald:

‘She’s wearing pajamas!’ said her brother, Stink, when she came downstairs. ‘You can’t wear pajamas to school.’

Even though the dialogue tag (and therefore the narrative) is in the past tense, Stink says Judy is wearing pajamas (present tense) because that’s what he sees at that moment.


Once we feel confident with using tenses in these parts of our writing, we can use more advanced types of grammar to express complex ideas. Learn about these and become an expert writer in i-Learner’s popular Love to Write course.