Present Tense or Past Tense? Which is Right for Your Story?

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Most novels are written in past tense, but lately present tense has enjoyed some trendiness. You might think this means you should try writing a story in present tense.

Not so fast. Present tense introduces a host of challenges that might make it a poor fit for your story. Before experimenting with present tense, consider the pros and cons of writing in the moment.

Present tense: the pros

Characterizes a protagonist who only experiences the present

If your protagonist spends almost no mental time in the past or future, present tense is a natural choice. Children, for example, exist in the moment far more than adults do. A protagonist with memory loss may also work well in a present-tense point of view. The multidimensional, reflective feel of past tense is usually desirable but will occasionally undermine a story.

Creates a feeling of immediacy (sometimes)

Writers often look to the present tense for a feeling of immediacy. It puts blinders on the reader: we can’t experience past or future. This is limiting but can serve a purpose in certain situations.

The language of present tense is also simpler. For a story that demands sparser prose and great distance between reader and protagonist, present tense may be a good choice.

Increases power of setting and other situational details

If your setting and current events play a huge role in your story, you might prefer to tell it in present tense. The reduced backstory and flashbacks leave more room to describe the action and setting in rich detail.

Present tense: the cons

Reduces emotional and character complexity

Past tense is much more than the flip side of present tense. It gives you access to your story’s — and your protagonist’s — past, present, and future. You can use down time, when your character is performing mundane tasks or going from one place to another, to insert flashbacks and inner monologues. These interludes not only provide character development, they give you more control over your story’s pace.

This manipulation of time feels far less natural in present tense — when it’s even possible.

Makes the writing style more noticeable to the reader

These effects on pacing and character development often make the writing itself more noticeable. Despite present tense’s current popularity, it hasn’t become the default. Your present-tense story may feel different from most other fiction your readers have encountered.

This may be desirable for a style-focused piece. However, most writers try to avoid drawing attention to the mechanics of their prose. This can feel distracting to readers and pull them out of the so-called fictive dream. Any time you break this spell you create distance between your readers and your story world.

Gives less access to important backstory details, more access to current trivia

Present tense leaves a lot of room for immediate situational detail but discourages flashbacks and other backstory. Instead of a fluid boundary between past and present you only have the current moment. This can be used to interesting effect but it also makes it difficult to pick and choose which details you share on the page.

Whichever tense you choose, use it well and wisely

In the first-draft phase, before any beta reader or critique feedback, you’ll have to trust your instincts on which tense is right for your story. Whichever you choose, use it consistently and wisely.

First and foremost, don’t switch tenses throughout  your story. Pick one and stick with it. Tense conflicts distract the reader at best and make you look like a careless writer at worst.

Also, know your genre. Past tense is the default for most fiction. If you choose to deviate from the style of most books in your genre, have a good reason for doing so. Don’t do it just to create a stylistically interesting book. Tense, like point of view, lays the foundation for how readers will experience your story. It should be an intentional choice based on the story you want to tell. 

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About Author

Jaclyn Paul is a fiction writer and blogger based in Baltimore. You might know her from The ADHD Homestead, where she writes about building a good life and a peaceful home with adult ADHD. She's also a staff blogger for Inkitt and author of the book Order from Chaos – The Everyday Grind of Staying Organized with Adult ADHD. Her writing has appeared online in Offbeat Families, The Write Life, ADDResources, Better Novel Project, and ADHD Roller Coaster and in print in Houston Family Magazine.

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