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Past or Present?

Before you sit down to draft a story, do you consciously decide on the tense? Or, like me, do you just go for it and see what your subconscious mind selects?

One of my first stories I tried to write was written in past tense, initially. But, over the course of several days in which I pittered away on my computer, I somehow switched to present tense. I find that this problem is rather prevalent among many new writers. Has it ever happened to you?

Over the years I’ve been able to select a tense and stick with it. However, what I initially chose sometimes feels completely wrong after the story is halfway or even completely drafted. So, how do we choose a tense?

Here are some things to consider:

Present tense has a sense of immediacy that helps pull the reader along. The reader may feel that they are witnessing events as they unfold, which can help the reader connect better to the text and moreso to the characters that they are reading about.

To go along with that argument, past tense may feel a bit of a cheat to readers, as they are reading about events as they have already happened. It may feel as though the characters have already passed far beyond whatever is happening in the story, and may make it more difficult for readers to connect to said characters.

In an article posted to the Writer’s Digest page, author Brian Klems discusses some benefits of present tense that I had not previously considered. He argues that present tense simplifies our use of tense, stating that:

Whereas past-tense stories often contain the majority of our language’s 12 tenses, most present-tense stories employ only four—the simple present, the present progressive, and a smattering of the simple past and the simple future—and many consist almost entirely of the simple present tense. Using fewer tenses reduces our ability to convey the full complexity of time relationships, of course, but there’s something to be said for this kind of simplicity. For example, when we’re writing in present tense, we can simply shift into the simple past when a flashback starts and then return to the present when it’s finished.

On the flipside, what are some benefits of using past tense? Some would say that the past tense has a reflective nature to it, which can be alluring to readers. For the most part, if it’s past tense, the reader can be assured that the main character will live. Of course, this is not always the case, especially if there are multiple perspectives in the story. But, I would say that the chance of the main character still being alive, thus, giving us the story through their later reflections, is much greater.

To support this argument, there are several cons to using present tense. Many feel that present tense can become annoying when it comes to sharing trivial information. Pulling from the same article, Brian Klems says, “Because present-tense narrators do not know what is going to happen, they are unable to create the kind of suspense that arises from knowledge of upcoming events.”

I agree with this statement, as I have read some stories written in present tense that seemed to lack the proper build-up for certain revelations. Present tense can also make it difficult to write complex characters, as we are only seeing them as they do certain tasks or make certain decision on the fly, rather than being able to dig much into their past, or have the main character reflect on their experiences and interactions with fellow characters.

Klems with Writer’s Digest also makes a great point when he discusses the restrictive nature of present tense with “time”. We as the author are unable to jump around from various events within the story. He says, “It seems natural to alter the chronology of events in past tense, when the narrator is looking back from an indeterminate present at many past times, but it seems unnatural to do it in present tense, when the narrator is speaking from and about a specific present.”

I came across a blog by Amanda Patterson that helps lay out some genres that lean towards past or present tense. Here’s a snippet from the blog:

Common Present Tense Genres

Memoirs, Young Adult, Literary Fiction, and many of the traditional genres are also being written in present tense.

The present tense is edgier. The reader has to agree to live the journey moment by moment with the characters. There is no guarantee that the story will even have an ending. It is easier to use unreliable narrators in the present tense. Many readers are uncomfortable with present tense stories.

  1. Young Adult. It is accepted by younger readers and it is even the norm with many young adult readers. Examples: The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins, the Divergent series by Veronica Roth, and The Maze Runner by James Dashner. This may have something to do with being brought up on a diet of television and film where everything is experienced with the characters.

  2. Memoirs. It is also effective with memoirs. Readers feel as if they are experiencing the writer's story in real time. The immediacy and rawness allows the writer to create intense emotional reactions in the reader.

  3. Literary Fiction. In literary fiction, writers like Hilary Mantel, Emma Donohue, and John Updike have used present tense to great effect. Examples:

  • Wolf Hall won the Booker prize in 2009. Mantel says that she put the camera behind Cromwell’s eyes, and wrote it as she saw it. Many literary authors have done the same thing (David Mitchell's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, Kevin Barry's Beatlebone) - writing about the historical past in present tense seems surreal and novel and seems to garner literary acclaim.

  • Five-year-old Jack from Emma Donoghue's Room lives, as most young children do, in the present. It would have been difficult to tell the story from his viewpoint in any other way.

  • In Rabbit, Run, John Updike said, 'I liked writing in the present tense. You can move between minds, between thoughts and objects and events with a curious ease not available to the past tense. I don't know if it is clear to the reader as it is to the person writing, but there are kinds of poetry, kinds of music you can strike off in the present tense.'

Common Past Tense Genres

You can use the past tense in any genre. It is the easiest way to tell a story, because it places it in a time frame. It has already happened and it gives the reader a sense of comfort that somebody has lived to tell the tale. Most of us, including many older readers, are happiest with this format.

  1. Typical Genre Fiction. Past tense works well for crime/thriller/suspense novels. Writers can use more than one viewpoint and manipulate time more easily. These novels appeal to a large audience and the majority of readers prefer reading in past tense.

  2. Children's Fiction. Children younger than 12 are more comfortable when they know that a story has already happened. Younger children find present tense stressful as they cannot separate fiction and reality.

This information is very helpful and may draw you one way or another, depending on what you’re writing.

Personally, I feel that when I read a story that is very well written, it doesn’t really matter if it is in past or present tense. If done correctly, the readers should be pulled beyond the text and into the story-to a point where past and present tense doesn’t matter. Try to think of a great story you’ve read recently. Do you remember specifically what tense was used? For myself, if it is very well written, I learn to look past and even forget what tense is used.

For the inexperienced writer though, try to find what works best for your writing style and for the story you are currently working on. Another bit of advice for you: don’t be afraid to change the tense used. If you have a story that you’re working on or have recently finished, try pulling out a scene and re-writing it in the opposite tense. Does it sound better? Does it work well for you? Mess around with it and see what is best for your story. Remember, part of writing is experimenting with different techniques and styles to see what fits perfectly for your current project.


Writer’s Digest article by Brian Klems:

Blog by Amanda Patterson:

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