One of the most difficult things for fledgling writers and English learners is verb tenses. Most memoirs and fiction stories are written in the past tense for the obvious reason that we tend to tell stories about things that happened in the past. Even science fiction set in the future is usually written in the past tense. Academic papers, letters to the editor, and most technical or business writing is done in the present tense.
If you want to keep it simple when writing fiction, stick to the past tense. While writing fiction in the present tense can create a sense of immediacy, flashbacks have to be written in the past tense and switching back and forth can be tricky for less-experienced writers.
Incorrect: I walked to the door, open it up, and see a dark, shadowy figure.
Correct: I walk to the door, open it up, and see a dark, shadowy figure.
Also Correct: I walked to the door, opened it up, and saw a dark, shadowy figure.
Squire Trelawney, Dr. Livesey, and the rest of these gentlemen having asked me to write down the whole particulars about Treasure Island, from the beginning to the end, keeping nothing back but the bearings of the island, and that only because there is still treasure not yet lifted, I take up my pen in the year of grace 17__ and go back to the time when my father kept the Admiral Benbow inn and the brown old seaman with the sabre cut first took up his lodging under our roof.
I remember him as if it were yesterday, as he came plodding to the inn door, his sea-chest following behind him in a hand-barrow—a tall, strong, heavy, nut-brown man, his tarry pigtail falling over the shoulder of his soiled blue coat, his hands ragged and scarred, with black, broken nails, and the sabre cut across one cheek, a dirty, livid white. I remember him looking round the cover and whistling to himself as he did so, and then breaking out in that old sea-song that he sang so often afterwards:
Treasure Island by Robert Luis Stevenson
“Fifteen men on the dead man’s chest—
Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!”
This is the opening of Robert Luis Stevenson’s classic novel, Treasure Island. You will notice that the first paragraph is written in the present tense (“I take up my pen…”), but the second paragraph is in the past tense (“as he came plodding…”). This type of “framed” story (a story which is “framed” at the beginning and end with something that’s not part of the main story) was particularly popular in the nineteenth century and Stevenson uses this technique to add a sense of realism to his novel.
Use the present tense when citing quotes in your writing.
Example: In his Meditations, Emperor Marcus Aurelius writes that “[i]t’s silly to try to escape other people’s faults. They are inescapable. Just try to escape your own.”
Even though Marcus Aurelius has been dead for a few thousand years we still use the present tense to describe his writing.