What Tense Should I Write In? It’s a Controversial Question.
“What tense should I write in?”
If you’ve ever asked this question out loud in the presence of another writer, you may have gotten a strong response. Narrative tense is a spicy topic.
There are those for whom past tense is the only acceptable tense.
Past tense, they argue, is the only way one can reveal the inner depths of a character, allowing the author to mine the past, present, and future to reveal the full human experience and illuminate universal themes.
Others see past tense as an archaic style of storytelling, one that feels slow and guarded compared to the urgent intimacy of present tense.
I think everyone can calm down.
Both narrative tenses have the potential to help you build a powerful story if you know how to make the most of their strengths.
Whether you’re here to understand your options better or because you’re hoping I’ll justify the choice you want to make, you’re in the right place.
I’ll lay out the differences between the tenses, the advantages and disadvantages of both, and help you find the best path for your novel.
A Quick Rundown of Narrative Tense
Before we can answer “what tense should I write in?”, we need to make sure we’re all on the same page about narrative tense.
Writing in past tense means that your narrative tells a story that has already happened. You’ll recognize it by the prevalence of past tense verbs, like this:
“The dying actress arrived in his village the only way one could come directly—in a boat that motored into the cove, lurched past the rock jetty, and bumped against the end of the pier.”
In a present tense narrative, the narrator tells the story as it unfolds. You may see some simple past tense and future tense verbs, but mostly it’s a lot of present tense.
“Werner squats in front of the set and tries to calm his nerves.”
–All the Light We Cannot See
We’re not going to worry about future tense in this article. It’s rare, awkward, and almost always gimmicky.
Now that we’re clear on our tenses, let’s talk pros and cons.
Past vs. Present
Back to your original question: Which tense should I write in?
To help you answer this, I’ll break down the pros and cons of each one. As you read, ask yourself which tense is most likely to capture the energy, characters, and themes that are essential to your story.
Also ask yourself which tense will best serve you. Which one do you enjoy more? Are you a stronger writer when you use one tense rather than the other? Do you feel equipped to handle the challenges they present?
Past Tense Advantages
One of the biggest advantages of writing in past tense is a practical one.
Readers are more familiar with past tense. There’s just way more of it out there.
As a result, there is zero risk of the narrative tense distracting readers from the story. Assuming your prose is clear and engaging, they’ll slip right into the plot like an old pair of jeans.
The familiarity of past tense narration also means it’s easier to write. We intuitively understand how to tell a story this way. In fact, storytelling in past tense is so ingrained in many of us that we find ourselves unconsciously slipping into it when we try to write present tense.
Another advantage is that the narrator can tell the story with deeper insight because they’re telling it in retrospect.
Unless you choose to limit your past-tense narrator’s scope (which you totally can), they see the big picture. They can foreshadow disaster, draw attention to fatal flaws, and let the future define the way they discuss the past. Like this:
“...Pasquale Tursi watched the arrival of the woman as if in a dream. Or rather, he would think later, a dream’s opposite: a burst of clarity after a lifetime of sleep.”
Finally, a past tense narrative allows for more experimentation. You can play with non-linear timelines or multiple timelines.
On the whole, past tense is the more flexible option. But that doesn’t necessarily make it the best. Here’s what you lose when you use past tense.
Past Tense Disadvantages
Something about past tense makes writers slip into the habit of telling instead of showing.
Maybe because it’s similar to the way we tell stories in real life. (“I went to Starbucks and that one barista was there and I decided to be brave and wink at him but he thought I had something in my eye so he gave me a napkin.”)
The past tense narrative also allows us to take all the time in the world. We’re not CNN-ing this thing, frantically sharing the story as it happens. It already happened.
And as storytellers, we have full access to not just the event itself, but all the things that happened before and have happened since. We can milk this thing for all its worth. That can be another disadvantage: the potential foot-dragging of past tense.
Now, there are a lot of tools for managing pace, and plenty of heart-stopping page turners are told in retrospect. But that sense of immediacy is not the same in past tense as it is in present.
The emotional highs and lows are not as impactful in past tense narration, either. You can tell a moving story for sure. But time creates emotional distance. If your narrator has that distance, your reader will, too.
Present tense, on the other hand…
Present Tense Advantages
Present tense is a solid option for an author whose number one goal is to make the reader feel like they’re truly there. It’s like a movie. The reader is looking over the protagonist’s shoulder, watching everything unfold in real time.
Done well, the immediacy of this tense can heighten the reader’s emotional experience. Every reveal, disaster, and victory are a surprise even to the narrator. The storyteller feels the shock, so the reader feels the shock.
In this way, present tense can deepen character development.
Some writers make the argument that past tense is a better tool for revealing character because you can access more timelines and narrate from a place of understanding and reflection. I disagree. Both tenses add depth to character development, just not in the same way.
Present tense offers a raw, vulnerable look at the POV character’s journey. Disasters, dilemmas, and decisions land harder because nobody—not even the narrator has any idea if it will all turn out okay.
Finally, on a practical level, shifting tenses is easier in present tense narration. Everything is either happening now or it happened in the past. In past tense, you run into clarity issues when you try explaining something that happened in a past that’s paster than the past that you’re in.
If you catch my drift.
So where does present tense fall short?
Present Tense Disadvantages
Some readers hate present tense. Their brain starts itching three sentences in and they throw the book across the room.
Even those who don’t mind present tense may take a few pages to get used to it. This means they’re thinking about verb tense when you’re trying to hook them with the story.
Another challenge is that many writers struggle to write present tense well, especially when they’re new to it. Surrounded by hella past tense, we get used to the rules and tools of retrospective storytelling. It’s easy to feel under-equipped and a little stumbly with a new narrative tense.
Speaking of tools, your narrator lives in the now, which means they lose a lot of suspense-building techniques, like overt foreshadowing. (“It was a decision she’d come to regret.”)
It also gets tricky to play with time. Your readers will likely find it jarring if your present-tense narrative suddenly leaps ten years into the future.
This makes it a tough fit for a multi-generational family saga, but a great fit for a dystopian adventure like The Hunger Games, where your reader will want to follow the protagonist closely over a matter of a few days.
So… Which Tense Should I Write In?
Only you know what’s best for your story. But in case it helps, here’s a quick guide.
Past tense might be the tense for you if:
- This is your first novel and you want to keep it simple so you can focus on story structure and character development (Psst. Our free e-book can help with those things.)
- You want to be able to explore the “big picture” of your character’s journey
- You’re excited to play with non-linear timelines or multiple timelines
- You’re writing a story that spans months or years
- You prefer past tense
Present tense might be the tense for you if:
- You’re excited by the challenges of present tense
- You want your story to feel urgent and emotionally charged
- When it comes to character development, you’re going for raw emotions over illuminating psychological insight
- Your story takes place within a brief window of time
- You love present tense
Please also note that you can mix the two. You can set one storyline in present tense while adding past tense chapters or sections that relate to the present tense narrative.
If you’re still not sure which tense you should write in, experiment! Pick a tense and see what happens. Then try a few scenes (or the same scenes) in the other tense. You learn best by writing, anyway.
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