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Are there no rules to when you can and can not change tenses, using narrative present?

Like, could I say one of these:

I was on my way back home by bus. The guy who sat next to me looks at me weirdly and gets off the bus.

I was on my way back home by bus. The guy who's sitting next to me looks at me weirdly and gets off the bus.

The first one just seems odd. Would it be okay to use it? Or constructions like:

I was walking with my mother down the street the other day. The whole way she's been holding my hand tighter than usual. I didn't know why she did that. Anyway, we were walking down the street, this car pulled up right next to us and it was an expensive car, I look at it, my mother looked at me looking at it and slaps me.

That whole thing might just be complete gibberish, but is it okay to speak this way? Are all three of the highlighted parts okay to use when speaking?

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The short answer is that in good writing, you shouldn't switch tenses the way you did in your examples. Inserting the narrative present into a narrative that is otherwise in past tense has to be handled very carefully with good transitions between. Usually, you want something to indicate that you are now going to tell a story within a story of sorts. And after you switch to the present tense, you want to stick with it for the entire story. For example:

I had the strangest experience with my mother the other day. We're walking down the street and she's holding my hand tighter than usual. I don't know why. An expensive car pulls up right next to us, and I look at it. My mother looks at me looking at it and slaps me.

The first sentence sets the stage for telling the story about your experience. Then the experience itself is related in present tense to give it a sense of immediacy. Some writers would insist that you shouldn't make a tense switch like this one, either, but in my opinion it can sometimes be an effective tool (when used sparingly). You might, especially, see it used to relate dreams within a story, for example.

In spoken language, however, people mix up tenses all the time, and I can easily imagine someone mixing their tenses in speaking the way you did in your mother story (although not the way you did in your bus one—that one's too extreme even for speech). But it's not necessarily purposeful, it's just a question of mouth moving faster than brain—and possibly of the person telling the story switching in and out of a personal sense of immediacy. For example, the person is possibly living in the memory of the story when saying "she's been holding my hand tighter than usual" and then coming back to the true present to reflect on it with "I didn't know why she did that."

The reason the bus example feels too extreme is simply that it's just too short to support the tense change. There's isn't a separate subnarrative there. It's only two sentences, and each is in a different tense.

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    I agree with you and I think adding the word 'suddenly' in the first example - to indicate a shift - might just about make it acceptable. As in 'Suddenly, the guy who sat next to me, looks at me wierdly...' – Jelila Jan 31 '18 at 10:45
  • Good point, thanks. That kind of shift would absolutely work in spoken language, although outside of quotations, it wouldn't get you an A in English comp. :) – joiedevivre Jan 31 '18 at 11:30
  • You're welcome. Thank you for the tip. Luckily I already got A+ for English Comp, many times. But that was loooong ago! And I've either forgotten it, or more likely, I am more coming from the perspective of loving writing... and enjoying writing my booooks!!! – Jelila Jan 31 '18 at 11:45
  • Sorry if it sounded like I was trying to give you a "tip." My comment was intended for English language learners more than for you—to point out that that kind of shift would be less formal. – joiedevivre Jan 31 '18 at 11:53
  • Ok! 😊You're quite right. – Jelila Jan 31 '18 at 12:00
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Introductory to Narrative Present:

From different sources we know that the Present Simple and Present Progressive can be used in narration to emphasise the recreation of the event or situation and to represent it in an active (dynamic) manner, as if it is happening now:

When telling a joke or story, we use present and present progressive tenses to recreate the event in an active (dynamic) manner. The joke or story teller relates the story as if it is/were happening at the moment.

Unlike the Past tenses, which are used to report "what happened", a completed event, in the Present tenses the narration is told as if it were happening at the moment.

A progressive tense is commonly used to set the scene for the events that follow. This use of tense is often called "backgrounding".

The Present Progressive is used to set up the scene and is usually followed by the Present Simple to show events that happened during that time.

  • A young man is walking home one night when he suddenly sees two hooded figures, each holding a large bag, run out of a shop.

The narrative present is often introduced interrupted by a remark (commentary) made by the narrator at the time of narration.

  • The woman came back shortly after. She was sad and her eyes were filled with tears. I have to admit this is the first time I saw that she'd cried.

Even though most narratives are told in the narrative past, they are frequently interspersed by statements of general application in the present tense. This use of the present tense is called gnomic present. This gnomic present is grammatically speaking no different from the narrative present, but it does not represent a tense switch in the same sense. In narrative present the action of the narrative is given. By contrast, in gnomic present, generic statements are made that claim general validity (Chatman 1978: 82; Stanzel 1984: 108)


The present simple is regularly used depicting past narratives for informal storytelling. It can create a sense of immediacy, urgency or informal friendliness, so it may be used for dramatic or comedic effect. This is common in spoken English.

The present tenses in narration are also used to put the listener in the moment of the story or in a particular scene or state of mind. This technique is sometimes used in creative writing, as well as in spoken language.

Recommend reading:

  1. Writing tenses: 5 tips to get past, present and future right
  2. Verb Tense Consistency

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I would suggest you stick to the same tense throughout your story. If you use past tense in the first sentence, put the other sentences in past tense as well. Be consistent.

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I was on my way back home by bus. The guy who sat next to me looks at me weirdly and gets off the bus.

For your first question, It seems something wrong with it.

Switching between tenses should be handled very carefully. To say it right, you should stay at the tense which you used at the beginning. In this sentence, you suddenly changed tense at the middle of the sentence doesn't give much sense to it.

For the second part, It feels something is off, but it had better approach than first one.

I don't think mixing up tenses is a good idea. It's hard and have to do with extreme caution. but I agree sometimes it brings certain uniqueness and beauty into the story

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I know I'm late on the train. But here are my thoughts. Maybe, they will help you in the future.

The first example is not as simple as it may seem. Just to convert the second sentence to the past tense may not help. Try to use past perfect continuous tense to indicate that something, continued in the past, ended at a defined point in the past. Also, as suggested, it is better to use "shifts" when you move between simple and continuous tenses.

I was on my way back home by bus. Suddenly, the guy who had been sitting next to me looked at me weirdly and got off the bus.

Does it make sense?

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