Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Why So Tense? Writing Past and Present.

Whether you write past tense or present tense is up to you. One thing that's not an option is falling in and out of one or the other.

Example: Bob sees Evie walking toward him, and so he waved hello.

Sees implies it's happening at that very moment, whereas waved means it's already happened. Jumping in and out of tense is not only incorrect, it's irritating as all get out. Your reader will quickly become frustrated.

So, past or present ... how do you choose?

To answer this question, I ask the following: Which do YOU prefer to write? Which lends itself more to the story?

For me, reading present tense is like being beaten repeatedly over the head with a teaspoon. It's irritating and unnatural in my mind. It completely pulls me out of the story until I can get used to it, and even then, I don't really enjoy it. I feel rushed as I read. Granted, my non-creative writing is more present tense, but that's a different post altogether.

I prefer to write past tense. It's what I like to read, and it's what comes naturally. Past tense makes the reader accept things have already happened, and therefore are inevitable. Nothing they can do will change it. For darker stories, this is a priceless advantage. That sense of hopeless, how-will-they-make-it? feeling drives the emotion behind the story. You can practically feel readers' tears as they come to grips with the character's despair or the destruction of their world, and the fact that there's nothing to be done.

A downside to writing past tense is this: The reader knows, if you're writing first person, that the character isn't going to die or suddenly cease existing. You are in the narrator's head. The narrator can't tell a past tense story if they're dead. Mostly not, anyway. I can think of some instances where that would work if, you know, you were a ghost or something. But still.

Another thing to keep in mind is, some past tense writing has a tendency to make you feel like you're reading the past. Sounds idiotic, I know. However, there are times you want to feel the history. If you have a story set in the future, or you have a fantasy/sci-fi/paranormal type of book, what the reader takes in becomes their history as well. It takes you to a new world with a past but also a future. The reader is completely immersed, feeling as if they're a part of it all. This wouldn't work as well set in present tense. Past tense causes a new world to feel real, credible. In my novel, there's a culture who's ancient but still around. Writing in past tense allows the reader to experience their lives from long ago, but connect with them in the present, too.

If I wanted to be dramatic and really draw out the story, I would go present tense, because it's so much more suspenseful. Present tense gives more of a sense of urgency and immediacy. Certain stories work better with present tense, mainly action, thrillers, suspense, and the like. Present tense causes the reader (and the character) to feel as if something is happening right before their eyes. If you truly want the reader to feel what the character feels as it's happening, present tense could be the better choice. It can work wonderfully if you're building a world in the present. Be mindful however, if you have a historical or fastasy-esque setting, and you want to bring the reader presently into the past!

All in all, both past and present have their pros and cons, and whichever works best for you is the way to go, but don't be afraid to experiment with tenses. You never know which might work best!

Which tense do you prefer and why?

Happy writing.


  1. When I read present tense, it's totally awkward for awhile until I can get into the flow of the story. Past is so much more natural to me... but there have been a few authors I've come across that have nailed present so perfectly. Perhaps one day I'll dive into the unknown and try it! ;)

  2. This is interesting. I usually write in 1st person POV and when I do, present tense seems to fit better. When I write in 3rd person POV, past tense is what automatically comes out. I've tried switching my 1st POV to past, but feels forced and incorrect and even worse, voice awkward. I'll be interested to see other's comments.