Present Tense vs Past Tense: Choose the Right Tool for the Job

  • by

It’s a decision many authors struggle with, and it’s a perennial question at writing conferences: How do you decide whether to use past tense or present tense in your fiction?

The answer is, of course: Use whatever feels right for you and your story.

Even though that’s the correct answer, it’s a tad vague and more than a little unsatisfying. So let’s explore it a bit deeper, shall we?

Novels are written in present tense so often these days that it’s easy to think present-tense novels have always been with us. Not so. Present tense is a modern writing technique. Charles Dickens used it as one of the two narrative threads in Bleak House, which was serialized first in 1852-53. Some say John Updike wrote the first complete present-tense novel, Rabbit, Run, in 1959, but Joyce Cary wrote a present-tense novel, Mister Johnson, in 1933, and Damon Runyon was writing present-tense short stories in the same era. So present-tense fiction has been published for at least a century and a half now. Still, in the history of writing, that’s pretty recent.

Change—no matter the topic—is always eyed with suspicion by a good-sized portion of the human race, so there are plenty of old-guard writers and editors who prefer writing “the way it’s always been done.” However, since present-tense novels have been with us at least since Dicken’s day and are growing in number every year and in every genre, it’s safe to say it’s now a perfectly valid technique.

This doesn’t mean present tense is right for every story. For that matter, past tense isn’t right for every story. We can say the same for first-person point-of-view, third-person omniscient narrators, formal tone, slang, dialects, stream-of-consciousness inner dialogue, or any other technique. No single writing approach will adequately serve every story. Thankfully, we have a myriad of techniques to choose from to make our own story unique. Tense is only one of those.

I have encountered a few people who declare that they HATE present-tense novels. However, when the discussion turns to popular books written in present tense, those same people will look aghast when they realize a book they’ve read was, in fact, written in present tense AND THEY LIKED IT (gasp). What’s more, they somehow didn’t even remember that it was in present tense.

This just proves that when used for the right story, for the right reasons, present tense can be incredibly effective. After all, the most effective writing techniques are the ones you don’t notice because you’re too caught up in the story. Don’t believe me? Try this: think of a half-dozen books you’ve read recently that you liked. Without looking them up, which ones were in present tense, and which were in past tense? Now go look them up. Did any surprise you? (This can be a fun party game at your next book club!)

This is my rule of thumb:

Present tense adds suspense, urgency, intimacy, action. If your story needs these to thrive, then you may want to give present tense a try. Murder mysteries, suspense, shocking introspectives—those types of stories might benefit from present tense.

A lot of modern young adult (YA) literature is in present tense, possibly because editors believe the younger audience wants to feel the story is really happening to them right now, and they crave that intimate immediacy. Or it may be that younger readers aren’t caught up in that “this isn’t how we’ve done it for centuries” mentality and are more willing to give fresh angles a try. Whatever it is, it’s very common in novels for young readers, and it’s growing in popularity in adult novels.

Where present tense can be a problem is the same as with all writing techniques: if it’s used for the wrong purpose, it falls flat. Think about the reason you’re considering using the present tense. If you need that sense of immediacy and no distance from the events, then stick with present tense. If past tense gives you room and distance to view events through a necessary filter of growth, color, or introspection, then use past tense.

A published friend of mine once wrote an entire YA novel in past tense—not her usual choice. As I read it, I kept getting jarred by the past tense. It didn’t flow naturally, and I kept wanting the young protagonist to be experiencing events and feelings in real time. My friend’s editor told her the same thing. So she went back and changed the whole manuscript to present tense, and it suddenly came to life. The novel was much stronger, the emotions were richer, and the characters were more engaging. Her topic, genre, characters, and action benefited greatly from using the present tense.

You certainly don’t have to wait for the end of your novel to decide you used the wrong tense, though. Try a single chapter. Write it twice—once in past tense, once in present tense. When you’re finished, see what you think. Does one seem to grab your emotions more? Pull you deeper into the scene? Make the dialogue sparkle? If so, that’s probably the right tense for your story.

So do what feels right, for the right reason. Tense is a tool, and you know the cardinal rule of tools: use the right tool for the job.

[Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *