Posted in Writing

How to Choose Between Present Tense and Past Tense


In her craft book Writing Irresistible Kidlit, author Mary Kole says,

While a fair share of all fiction is written in the past tense, the present tense is considered a children’s market darling. With present tense, you automatically pick up the pace and add urgency to your writing style. However, present tense isn’t a panacea. Even if your slow Info Dump chapters are written in present tense, a reader will still get bored. Past tense is more classic, but it gives you an obstacle: You have to work extra hard to make the narrative seem immediate and compelling.

Before you start a new fiction writing project, you have to pick a tense.

I’ve written twenty novels in ten years, and this process never gets easier. Because there’s not a correct answer. There’s not always the obvious choice to make.

The same way you have to decide whether you write your book in third person or first person, you have to decide if you’re going to write it in past tense or present tense.

There’s a lot to think about before you get started on a new writing project — the story, the characters, the conflict. How it begins and how it ends. What your schedule for the actual writing is going to be.

But two things you also have to pay close attention to is your point-of-view choice and, yes, your tense choice. These are not things to pick at random. You want to think carefully and critically because the wrong decision can make for major headaches later.

What is a tense, exactly? Mary Kole defines it as “the time signature of your story, which informs your grammatical and plot choices. Present tense is primarily happening in the now, with backward reflection happening in past-tense flashback. Past tense is technically happening in your narrator’s present moment, but she is reflecting to a story that happened in the past.”

That last point is worth repeating. Past tense is a story not necessarily happening in the past. It’s happening in your narrator’s present, it’s happening now. It’s just that the narrator is reflecting on a story that’s already happened, remember that.

So — present tense or past tense? Which one do you choose?

Present tense, as Kole points out, is hugely popular in middle grade and young adult. Kid and teen readers love immediacy in their stories, and an easy way to accomplish that immediacy as a writer is by using present tense.

Maybe the most famous use of present tense is in The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. First person, present tense, you are with Katniss every step of the way at the exact moment everything is happening to her. You feel like you’re right there alongside of Katniss from the first page to the last. It’s a thrilling adventure, in part, because the novel is written in present tense and not in past tense.

Present tense can be a fantastic choice for your latest story or novel. Here are the main advantages…

  • The immediacy, first and foremost. The immediacy of the present tense allows us to convey a character’s change as it happens, not after the fact. In present tense, we are there with the narrator step by step as they change, and hence the story’s climax can be more intense and exciting.
  • Present tense simplifies our handling of tenses. Whereas past-tense stories often contain the majority of our language’s twelve tenses, most present-tense stories employ only four. It’s not always the obvious choice in your writing, but it’s actually easier to write present tense than it is to write past tense.
  • Present tense often feels more cinematic. Like a film slowly playing out.
  • The present tense also lends itself to exploring doubt and uncertainty, since the events haven’t happened yet and anything can happen to your characters.

But present tense definitely has its disadvantages, and sometimes you might want to go with past tense for these reasons…

  • Present tense restricts our ability to manipulate time. Altering chronological order and varying duration work against the primary purpose of present tense, which is to create the feeling that something’s happening now. It seems natural to alter the chronology of events in past tense, when the narrator is looking back, but it seems unnatural to do it in present tense.
  • It’s more difficult to create complex characters using present tense. Past tense techniques allow us to convey our character’s subjective experience of time and thereby achieve more psychological depth and realism.
  • The present tense can diminish suspense. Because present-tense narrators don’t know what’s going to happen, they are unable to create the kind of suspense that arises from knowledge of upcoming events.
  • The use of present tense encourages us to include trivial events that serve no plot function simply because such events would actually happen in the naturalistic sequence of time.

That last one is something to think about if you write your latest project in present tense. Are you going to describe every trivial event that happens? Are you going to tell us everything your character does since you can’t manipulate time in your storytelling?

Ultimately you’re going to want to pick the tense that works the best for your story.

And you know what? Sometimes you won’t know right away. Sometimes you make an intelligent guess and then soon discover you made the wrong choice.

This has happened to me before. In twenty novels I have made mistakes about tense, and POV too, and have had to start over from scratch. Sometimes you feel super confident about a tense, but then you read those first three chapters back and realize the tense should be changed. If this happens, don’t panic. Just do what’s right. Make the changes that are needed.

Here’s the deal — if you have no idea what tense to choose, go with past tense.

Past tense, as Mary Kole says, is more classic. It’s more common. Even in young adult and middle grade, you’ll see past tense more often, and in other kinds of fiction, you’ll see present tense occasionally and past tense all the time.

In twenty novels I’ve only written three of them in present tense. For each of these three novels I had a strong reason why I chose present tense. I didn’t pick it just because. I picked it for a reason. To add urgency to that specific narrative, to make it more immediate.

If you believe the story can exist in either tense, I would go with past tense. When it comes to the gatekeepers like literary agents and editors, they’ll probably be happier to see past rather than present. Present tense isn’t for everyone, after all, while pretty much everyone is on board with past tense.

But if you want to give present tense a try, by all means, do it! I love present tense, writing it and reading it. If you’re not sure if you’ll be successful at it, write a short story in present tense and see how it feels.

To grow as a writer you have to take chances and keep learning new things. You’ll want to eventually try both tenses in the long run, but pick the tense that feels right for your latest project, and then focus on what you should always be focusing on — telling a great story.

Want to take your writing to the next level?

Click here to find out about my Editorial Services.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s