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Writing: Past or Present Tense?

Distorted clock faceMost fiction writers will at some point ask themselves in which tense they should be framing their stories. Part of the joy of being an indie author is that the choice is yours. But which to choose?

Here are some pros and cons for each approach to help you decide. These comments were harvested from a recent conversation on the ever-lively ALLi members’ Facebook group – one of the many advantages of joining ALLi, rather than just reading our self-publishing advice blog. Please feel free to join the conversation via the comments box.

Why Use Present Tense?

  • If you want to make your readers feel that the events of the story are happening right now, as they read them.
  • If you love reading books written in the present tense yourself, and find them energising and engaging. Chances are, those qualities will rub off on your own writing too.
  • If you’re writing a very short piece, such as a flash fiction story, where wordcount is strictly rationed, and you want to add punch.

When to Avoid Present Tense

  • If you suspect your readers will find it tiring or irritating to read. Know your readers and listen to their views. You need to either please your readers – or find different readers who will be happier with what you want to write! If you use beta readers or writing buddies, ask them to comment specifically on your chosen tense.
  • If you find it too hard to write or it doesn’t come naturally to you. Your discomfort will make for a less compelling read and your text may read awkwardly.
  • If when you read your story, it sounds as if you’re writing in the present tense for the sake of it – if the tense is more conspicuous than the story itself, your writing will sound affected and self-conscious.

Why Use Past Tense?

  • It’s a more traditional way of writing, more common, and so likely to please more readers.
  • It can make you feel more in control of situations as they are already resolved.
  • If you need to show hindsight, flashbacks, or timeslip, taking the reader back and forth between different timeframes.

When to Avoid Past Tense

  • If your story is a fast-action, and putting it in the past slows it down too much.
  • If you feel it constrains you too much.
  • If you simply find writing in the present tense more enjoyable and fulfilling.

Which Tense Is Right for You?

Cover of Quick Change by Debbie Young

Equal split between past and present in these 20 very short stories

There are no absolute truths here – and if you’re an indie author, there’s no third party publisher dictating what you must do.

What feels right for one book may be all wrong for your next. Trust your own instincts and do what feels right for you. Looking back at my summer collection of flash fiction, Quick Change, I’ve just realised that in the 20 stories included, for exactly half of them I’ve written in the present tense, for the other half in the past. That wasn’t a conscious split: I just wrote what felt right for each episode, and I remember changing the tense in a couple as they felt wrong the way I first drafted them. But the novel I’ve just started writing for NaNoWriMo is very definitely going to be in the past tense. I think…

If it helps you get your words flowing, write your first draft in any tense you choose – and if it feels wrong part way through or when you read it through afterwards, you can always change it. You may be surprised at what a difference it makes.

sundial

Reminiscent of past times

You might even decide that it feels best to write a book using both, alternating between past and present for different scenes or narrators. As a self-published author, the decision is entirely up to you.

The most important thing is: just keep writing! Good luck with your fiction, whichever tense you choose!

Thanks to all those ALLi members who engaged in the original conversation – William Ash, Rasana Atreya, Jessica Bell, Carol Cooper, Jane Davis, Jackie Griffiths, John Lynch, Karen Myers and Linda Riesenberg Fisler.

OVER TO YOU Which tense do you prefer and why? Or do you write in both? Please feel free to join the conversation via the comments box.

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18 Responses to Writing: Past or Present Tense?

  1. John Maki January 29, 2016 at 2:44 am #

    Hi…Just reading this in 2016 to solve a short story problem. For fun I thumbed through the 2015 O. Henry Prize Stories. It’s about 60-40, past to present tense. Just a data point for all you writers out there.

  2. Mike Cate September 6, 2015 at 9:31 pm #

    I find the present tense keeps me rolling with the action. I do not pay particular attention to either one form or another as I seem to get lost in my stories and just let the written wrecking ball swing as it chooses.

  3. Peter L. Abram April 24, 2015 at 12:28 am #

    My first novel was written in the past tense, and once again I’m writing a fictional crime memoir primarily in the past tense. However, when the protagonist gets to the action he’s suddenly in the present tense. It’s the way many criminals recount their exploits. “I was walking down the street and I came to a bar. I was tired. Suddenly, I’m surrounded by youths. I put my fists up. I feel a blow at the back of my head….etc etc.’ Any thoughts?

    • Mike Cate September 6, 2015 at 9:38 pm #

      My preferred style is to just let go and let the characters dictate as they wish. I don’t worry too much initially with regards to tense, either past or present, and if a character must speak in one way then so be it. Perhaps my thinking is skewed by my need to keep everything rolling and rolling quickly. I may be the odd man out but I find the past tense difficult to wright.

  4. Philippa Rees December 31, 2014 at 10:48 am #

    I find long fiction in the present tense really irritating. The sense of being compelled relentlessly to accept the author’s frog march causes recoil. BUT I love what Orna describes, the imaginative leap into either future as imaginative present, or past as present ‘immediate’ gives great vitality.

    I dive from one into the other, and as usual I am sure it is not what should be done! Since time past and time future are both together….T’S’Eliot said it best I am not sure we need to get hung up about staying in one or another. The imagination is never confined and since writing is its vehicle it should be allowed to put anything on the line in the wind…

  5. Robert J Gordon November 14, 2014 at 2:41 pm #

    Writing Past or Present Text was a good article since most authors, at least this author, never thought about the tense the story reflected. I have written in both tenses without consciously making a decision. In retrospect it was simply a reaction to the story. If the novel was a mystery the choice was nearly always past tense since as indicated the tense is best for the purpose of reflecting to the past or changing scenes and character actions.

    Conversely if the piece is a short story with action as the main theme I would automatically chose present tense since as the author I was probably the main character while writing the story. The article is good “food for thought”.

  6. Anna Castle November 10, 2014 at 2:17 pm #

    I find present tense hard to read, or rather, hard to keep reading. It pops me out of the story and I put the book down. That may be because I often do my notes in present tense, in which I’m describing a scene to myself, not writing it. So my perception is that present tense is for sketches about the story, not the story itself. I always write in past tense. That way I have full control over the flow of time.

  7. Orna Ross November 8, 2014 at 6:35 pm #

    Great topic, Debbie. I have used both and in one — challenging — sequence that I”m writing at the moment, future tense, where a character is visualising what she and her intended lover will do, in great detail, over quite a few pages. Won’t be doing that too often but I do often write books where past and present strike fire off each other and changing tense can be a good way to locate the reader, give them a sense of which time period they’re now in. Often I use present tense for the past, to make it more immediate, and past for the present. In short, love playing with tense.

    • Debbie Young November 9, 2014 at 8:40 am #

      Thanks, Orna, and I love the idea of using present for past, and past for present! Looking forward to reading the book you’re working on now to see how you handle the future tense too – sustaining that over a lengthy sequence will be challenging, but I’m sure that if anyone can pull that off, you can!

  8. Yvonne Payne November 6, 2014 at 7:45 pm #

    I just wrote what my characters ‘dictated’. Now I’ll take a long think about it for the next one…

    • Debbie Young November 9, 2014 at 8:43 am #

      I love writing when it feels as if one is just taking dictation, Yvonne! I think if in doubt, keep following your instincts – and trying writing the same passage in both past and present, to see how each turns out, is always helpful.

  9. Julie Day November 6, 2014 at 4:24 pm #

    I always use past tense, too. Even when I write short stories, as some of them are now getting flashbacks which is said above better with past tense.

    • Debbie Young November 9, 2014 at 8:45 am #

      Hi Julie, thanks for your comment. I think a flashback written in the present tense would be disconcerting!

  10. Julia Bell November 6, 2014 at 3:26 pm #

    I always write in the past tense, unless it’s a dream sequence. I feel that dreams need to be dramatic and the present tense works in this case.

    • Debbie Young November 9, 2014 at 8:45 am #

      That’s a really interesting observation, Julia – using the present tense for dream sequences. I see how that would feel much more vivid. I’ve also heard that some authors of historical fiction like to put scenes containing lots of action such as battles into the present tense, for the same reasons, but I haven’t come across one of those yet – though I have read historical novels written entirely in the present tense, which took a bit of getting used to!

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Past Or Present? – Living My Dreams - May 31, 2017

    […] Self Publishing Advice Center: Writing Past Or Present Tense? […]

  2. Who’s Driving This Story? – The Writer's Journal - August 26, 2015

    […] http://selfpublishingadvice.org/writing-tense/ […]

  3. Which Do You Prefer for Reading and Writing – Past or Present Tense? | Debbie Young's Writing Life - November 7, 2014

    […] To be honest, I hadn’t even noticed the 50:50 split until I flicked through Quick Change while researching an article for the Alliance of Independent Authors’ self-publishing advice blog, in which I address the issue in more detail from the author’s viewpoint. Here’s the link if you’d like to read that article: Writing: Past or Present Tense? […]

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