Writers Write is a comprehensive writing resource. In this post, we look at the pros and cons of past and present tense and ask the question: Which one tells a better story?
Different tenses suit different stories, certain genres, and various authors’ styles. The tense you choose should also suit the personality of your main viewpoint character.
The Past Tense And The Present Tense
- The past tells us what happened: I ached. She loved. You needed.
- The present shows us what is happening: I ache. She loves. You need.
The past gives us some distance:
The boy looked up. The girl with the butterfly tattoo on her wrist twisted on the lawn and smiled at him. Her hair spread out like spilt milk on the grass. He knew he loved her and he did not care if she knew. He wanted to carve her name into the clear sky that framed the edges of the park.
If you have a protagonist who thinks about what will happen next, who makes plans and considers risks, who is calculating, and driven by reason, the past tense would a good fit. Writing a story in past tense allows you to manipulate time, to reveal and to conceal events.
Past-tense fiction creates a more subtle kind of suspense where we may know the outcome of the story but we want to know how and why we ended up there. This is good for more cerebral, reflective characters. This example can be used as a memory, layered with knowledge of how the story ends.
Great past-tense fiction allows readers who are more comfortable with the format to experience the story in a nuanced, thoughtful way.
The present is immediate:
The boy looks up. The girl with the butterfly tattoo on her wrist twists on the sun splattered lawn and smiles at him. Her hair spreads out like spilt milk on the grass. He’s lost and he knows she knows, but he doesn’t care. He wants to carve her name into the clear sky that frames the edges of the park.
If you have a protagonist who lives in the moment, who is impulsive, foolhardy/brave, and driven by emotions, the present tense could be the perfect vehicle. The present lets the reader see the character’s world in all its immediacy and allows him or her to experience the character’s growth and dilemmas as they happen.
Present-tense fiction creates a kind of suspense where no one knows the outcome. The second example could be written as a memoir or a coming-of-age story. There is a sense of anticipation and excitement that is not there when we use the past tense.
Great present-tense fiction allows writers to use texture – by truly engaging the senses – and explore possibilities, hopes, and fears in a uniquely present manner.
Common Present Tense Genres
Memoirs, Young Adult, Literary Fiction, and many of the traditional genres are also being written in present tense.
The present tense is edgier. The reader has to agree to live the journey moment by moment with the characters. There is no guarantee that the story will even have an ending. It is easier to use unreliable narrators in the present tense. Many readers are uncomfortable with present tense stories.
Young Adult. It is accepted by younger readers and it is even the norm with many young adult readers. Examples: The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins, the Divergent series by Veronica Roth, and The Maze Runner by James Dashner. This may have something to do with being brought up on a diet of television and film where everything is experienced with the characters.
- Memoirs. It is also effective with memoirs. Readers feel as if they are experiencing the writer’s story in real time. The immediacy and rawness allows the writer to create intense emotional reactions in the reader.
- Literary Fiction. In literary fiction, writers like Hilary Mantel, Emma Donohue, and John Updike have used present tense to great effect. Examples:
Wolf Hall won the Booker prize in 2009. Mantel says that she put the camera behind Cromwell’s eyes, and wrote it as she saw it. Many literary authors have done the same thing (David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, Kevin Barry’s Beatlebone) – writing about the historical past in present tense seems surreal and novel and seems to garner literary acclaim.
Five-year-old Jack from Emma Donoghue’s Room lives, as most young children do, in the present. It would have been difficult to tell the story from his viewpoint in any other way.
In Rabbit, Run, John Updike said, ‘I liked writing in the present tense. You can move between minds, between thoughts and objects and events with a curious ease not available to the past tense. I don’t know if it is clear to the reader as it is to the person writing, but there are kinds of poetry, kinds of music you can strike off in the present tense.’
Common Past Tense Genres
You can use the past tense in any genre. It is the easiest way to tell a story, because it places it in a time frame. It has already happened and it gives the reader a sense of comfort that somebody has lived to tell the tale. Most of us, including many older readers, are happiest with this format.
Typical Genre Fiction. Past tense works well for crime/thriller/suspense novels. Writers can use more than one viewpoint and manipulate time more easily. These novels appeal to a large audience and the majority of readers prefer reading in past tense.
Children’s Fiction. Children younger than 12 are more comfortable when they know that a story has already happened. Younger children find present tense stressful as they cannot separate fiction and reality.
Viewpoint and Tense
Sometimes your choice of viewpoint dictates your choice of tense. Stories can be written in first, second, or third person. Read my post, 10 Ways To Tell A Story – All About Viewpoint, to find out more.