Tense Change Examples

Here’s just a handful of examples of writers switching verb tenses mid-story. I’ve bolded the sentences where the writer makes the shift — pay particular attention to the care they take to make their transitions seamless:

Rick Bragg, “Momma’s Boy,” The St. Petersburg Times:

I could have lived my life in the shade of the persimmon tree on Possum Trot Road, shooting beer cans off fence posts. But I used what talents I had, and I found my way out of it.
Because my momma worked too damn hard for too damn long to knock a little crack in the wall, so I could squeeze through.

The first memory I have is of a toddler sitting on the back of a cotton sack and the sound it makes as the tall, blond woman drags it over the hard ground.

The baby is me. The woman is my momma, and she can make $8 if she picks enough of Walter Rollins’s cotton before it gets dark.

This is rural Alabama in the early 1960s, 80 miles northeast of Birmingham, 100 miles west of Atlanta, a million miles from Tampa Bay.

I wondered later, if the straps of that sack cut deeper into her back because I was there. I asked. “You wasn’t heavy,” she said.

Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre:

When I got there, I was forced to sit to rest me under the hedge, and while I sat, I heard wheels, and saw a coach come on. I stood up and lifted my hand; it stopped…I entered, was shut in, and it rolled on its way.

Gentle reader, may you never feel what I then felt! May your eyes never shed such stormy, scalding, heart-wrung tears as poured from mine. May you never appeal to Heaven in prayers so hopeless and so agonized as in that hour left my lips; for never may you, like me, dread to be the instrument of evil to what you wholly love.

Chapter 28
Two days are passed. It is a summer evening; the coachman has set me down at a place called Whitcross; he could take me no farther for the sum I had given, and I was not possessed of another shilling in the world. The coach is a mile off by this time; I am alone. At this moment I discover that I forgot to take my parcel out of the pocket of the coach, where I had placed it for safety; there it remains, there it must remain; and now, I am absolutely destitute.

Lou Mathews, “Crazy Life,” Crazyhorse:

The D.A. walks me back downstairs to the desk and shakes my hand. Thank you Mrs. Medina, he says.
I tell him, Look, don’t call me Mrs. Medina no more, O.K.? They’re going to check and find out anyway and it doesn’t make any difference. It’s not Mrs. Medina, I tell him, It’s Dulcie Gomez. I’m only married in my mind.

I got what I wanted, I guess. Chuey’s lawyer who was this woman from the Public Defender’s office, and Chuey’s mom, and me, we all worked on Chuey. We worked on him real good. Chuey testified against Sleepy Chavez. We talked him into it.

“The Third and Final Continent,” by Jhumpa Lahiri, The Interpreter of Maladies:

Now it was I who laughed. I did so quietly, and Mrs. Croft did not hear me. But Mala had heard, and for the first time, we looked at each other and smiled.

I like to think of that moment in Mrs. Croft’s parlor as the moment when the distance between Mala and me began to lessen. I like to think of the months that followed as a honeymoon of sorts. Together we explored the city and met other Bengalis, some of whom are still friends today. …

“The Perfect Man Who Wasn’t,” by Rachel Monroe, The Atlantic:

The three women’s conversations had another recurring theme: “We also knew there had to be more victims,” Linda told me.

Americans love a con man. In his insouciance, his blithe refusal to stick to one category or class, his constant self-reinvention, the confidence man (and he is almost always a man) takes one of America’s foundational myths—You can be anything you want to be!—to its extreme. The con man, the writer Lewis Hyde has argued, is “one of America’s unacknowledged founding fathers.”

According to the Justice Department, only 15 percent of fraud victims report the crimes to law enforcement, largely due to “shame, guilt, embarrassment, and disbelief.” “You feel really crappy about yourself,” Missi told me, then slipped into a tone that sounded like the mean voice that lives inside her head: “I’m a stupid woman; I’m a dumb, dumb, dumbass.”

But Derek’s victims didn’t let their shame stop them from coming forward. Many of them did report him—only to discover that by drawing them so deeply into his con, he had paradoxically made it less likely that he’d face consequences.

Jesmyn Ward, The Men We Reaped:

As Joshua said when we were kids hunting down ghosts: Somebody died here.

From 2000 to 2004, five Black young men I grew up with died, all violently, in seemingly unrelated deaths. The first was my brother, Joshua, in October 2000. The second was Ronald in December 2002. The third was C.J. in January 2004. The fourth was Demond in February 2004. The last was Roger in June 2004. That’s a brutal list, in its immediacy and its relentlessness, and it’s a list that silences people. It silenced me for a long time. To say this is difficult is an understatement: telling this story is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. But my ghosts were once people, and I cannot forget that.