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?
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.
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.