Past or Present Tense

Past or Present Tense

Does your story play out in cinematic ‘real time’ or is it narrated from a past event? Past and present tense narration are the two primary (and most logical ) choices for storytelling and each has pros and cons. Because it is very difficult and time consuming to change from one to the other you must decide which to use at the beginning of the writing process.

Present tense narration in Young Adult Fiction became popular after the success of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, and while it is not a new storytelling technique, many authors are copying this more difficult style, to varying degrees of success. I have read quite a few bad present tense narrations recently, prompting me to remind authors to consider their tensing carefully.

Past tense narration is invisible to most readers since it’s expected. Most literature, news media, journalism, and even advertising is written in past tense. In and of itself, this is not a good reason to choose past tense, but it should defiantly be a consideration to think about as there are people who refuse to read anything written in present tense.

Many people feel present tense narration gives a more immediate feel to the action since the narrator does not know what will happen next. It’s a more ‘hands off’ approach to writing, in that it can feel like the events are being recorded instead of interpreted, and can be a very good way to approach a story that takes place in a short time span or that you want to occur in real-time.

Present tense first person narrative can feel more personal. It’s been used for centuries to address the audience as characters break the fourth wall and it lends itself well to stories with unreliable narrators.

When telling a story, we piece together a sequence of events. As Alfred Hitchcock said, ” What is drama but life the dull bits cut out.” Since we can’t skip time easily when writing in the present tense, it is tempting to give trivial details that do not add to the story. While it’s not impossible to write a longer story in this manner, you are severely limiting your literary bag of tricks.

Moving back and forth through time and presenting stories in a non-chronological sequence is a major storytelling technique. You can’t move forward through time and stay in the present tense, so loose the use of foreshadowing, advance tension, or introspection. Of course you still have suspense of the unknown, but for long and intricate stories this may not be enough.

This also means you must rely on past events to give depth to the characters. Naturally, flashbacks are common in stories but can be more critical in present tense narration. The caution is to not create a story of flashbacks, which would seemingly negate the need for present tense narration unless that’s a critical part to the story.

Present tense narration gives a dreamlike quality to writing. In fact, most dream sequences are presented in present tense, regardless of the narration style because the events are happening ‘now.’ Even memories can be told in present tense, depending on the setting.

English has 12 tenses, but if you write in the present tense, you are limiting yourself to 4 of them and it is easier to make simple mistakes that can pull the reader from the story. A reader that is unable to stay in the story because of grammatical or literary mistakes will stop reading.

Rather than reinvent the wheel with examples, I refer you to Harvey Chapman’s blog.

In general, I would suggest that you write in past tense narrative unless the story you are telling would be much more effective otherwise.


More Resources:

Past Tense of Present Tense: Which is Best?, Harvey Chapman

How to Choose the RIGHT Tense for Your Novel, Joe Bunting

Pros and Cons of Writing Your Novel in Past vs Present Tense, Ellen Brock

In Defense of the Present Tense, Alexander Chee

The Pros and Cons of Writing a Novel in Present Tense, Brian A. Klems