Past Or Present Tense? Which One Will You Use?


The Past And The Present

  1. The past tells us what happened: I ached. She loved. You needed.
  2. 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.

  1.  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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

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This article has 6 comments

  1. Prakhar

    This is a great post! The juxtaposition of tenses with the qualities of a protagonist is something that I never realised till I read this; and now it feels almost obvious.

    You guys have been so helpful to so many of us

  2. Anonymous

    I am sure that your article will be helpful for all the writers who cannot determine what tense is better to use in their stories! Thanks for sharing such an interesting information and all the example you shared through your post! As for me , I used to write stories in past tense, because I found it easier for me! Once I was trying to use present tense in my writing, but unfortunately I got absolutely confused about using it.

  3. peter

    Can you write in the present tense for one character and the past for others. But not in same chapter of course.

  4. Writers Write

    Yes, you can. Lauren Oliver did this in her novel, ‘Rooms’.

  5. Simon

    Sorry, but I think “I ache” is equally as tell-not-show as “I ached”. Writing in present tense isn’t a short cut to elevating your writing into something more profound. If a sentence sounds tell-y and clunky in past tense, it will probably sound equally so in present tense. The writer still has to put the work in, whichever tense they choose.

  6. Christopher Coleman

    You bring up a number of very valid points and in general I am in agreement with you. However, whenever I deal with editors–and those few literary agents who actually read my sample chapters–I universally get negative feedback about using the present tense. Third person past tense is not only the norm currently, it is something of an ironclad dogma, despite the numerous examples of bestselling authors you cite who have used the present tense. I have tried to use the present tense particularly for action scenes, where I feel it best conveys the immediacy of what is going on to a reader, and hopefully draws them into the action; but apparently most editors are not in agreement with me (or you) on this.

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