Story writing is hard. Anyone who writes them with any regularity will tell you the same. The small things, such as mixing up tenses, can really mark up an otherwise brilliant story. How do we fix such errors, at least until they become habit? I have a few ideas about improvement.
Every word processing program has a “find” function. In Microsoft Word, pressing the Control key and the f key (Cntrl-f) at the same time brings up the find function. Once activated, here are a few key words to look for and eliminate from your past-tense story.
This – The word “this” can be eliminated from almost any past-tense story, and it will actually read better. For new writers, the only time “this” should be used is in dialogue. If one of the characters in the story is talking or thinking, “this” might creep its way in. Otherwise, find something else. “That” is almost always a better choice, but make sure it fits in the context.
Now – “Now” denotes that it is happening at the moment, not necessarily some time ago. In past-tense writing, this word should be used with extreme caution. For instance, Now Sherry had all the information she needed, could be replaced with Sherry had all the information she needed. It’s simpler, it is more correct, and it avoids confusing the reader in any way.
Has – The word “has” can get us into trouble in past-tense writing. In almost every single instance, you can find and replace the word “has” with the word “had” and the sentence will read better in the story. It has been seven years since Aaron had been to the movies, suggests that it is currently happening. It had been seven years since Aaron had been to the movies, however, keeps in the past-tense context much clearer.
These – Ah, yes, “these”. These kids would taunt me at practice. Or maybe, I hadn’t seen these coins since grade school. Neither sentence is wrong, if the speaker is talking in real-time. But, replace the word “these” in both examples with the word “those” and it reads better in a past-tense story.
Once again, spoken dialogue or thoughts of the character can change any or all of these examples. Just be sure you use the right word in the right place! While this list is in no way comprehensively complete, it is probably enough to improve your story.
Two more words that I personally watch out for include still (because “still” implies present-tense most of the time), and must (also something that usually happens in the “now”). While they aren’t always incorrect, they can sound weird in the story, and I try to avoid them unless I’m completely sure that they are used correctly.