Should I write my story in present or past tense?

Verb tense is one of the important elements that defines your prose, and the choices you make about tense can determine your writing’s reception.

Commentators on verb tense and consistency point to manuscripts with the problem of verbs leaping from one tense to another without a sound reason; for instance, from the past to the present – an issue we discussed in the previous post. Joe Bunting of The Write Practice claims that switching back and forth between present and past tense is one of the most common errors people make in fiction when they are new to writing. This may be true of first-time writers in other genres as well.

The rule is simple for sentences and for paragraphs and for entire manuscripts: maintain verb tense consistency unless the timing of an action demands a change. As J. M. Waldron writes, Tenses shouldn’t be mixed like alcohol in a punch bowl at a frat party. When writing a scene for a novel, pick a verb tense and stick with it.” If a scene in a novel is written in one tense, that tense should be maintained from sentence to sentence within paragraphs unless there’s a time change because switching tenses without a reason can disrupt the reader.

Although some writers shift between the present and the past to indicate different threads of a story, as in Bleak House by Charles Dickens (who also uses the change of tense to indicate a different narrator), the advice for beginning writers is to decide if possible which tense you’ll use before you start writing. This will save time and trouble. If you change your mind about your narrative’s tense after beginning, you’ll have to revise whole sections, if not the whole manuscript.

The past is the most common convention in the use of tense for fiction writing, which makes it the most familiar narrative tense for readers. Sometimes this familiarity works against authors who chose to compose their narrative in the present—some readers are dismiss those texts outright. Yet, works written in the present have been around for a long time – including parts of Charles Dickens’ works, parts of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and other novels, as well as other classics like James Joyce’s Ulysses (1918) and Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1929), so there are examples out there.

Still there is often heated debate about the use of present tense for narrative, with some people claiming that its use has been the demise of good fiction. In his book on the craft of fiction, David Jauss refers to two commentators in 1987 who called it “the most frequent cliché of technique in the new fiction.”  This downfall always starts with a particular novel, such as Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City (1984). Later commentators have lamented the influence of Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games (2008), one of the most popular recent examples of a present tense novel (along with Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See [2014].) With these successes, subsequent novels written in the present tense seemed to proliferate, as Jauss says, to become “common as to be commonplace.”

In her blog post, “Getting Tense (about Tense in Fiction),” Camilla Nelson adds a humorous take on this issue: “When did past simple tense become passé, I ask myself.”

As noted above, the use of present tense has been an option chosen over the years for different reasons by various authors, such as the nineteenth and twentieth century ones listed. In the contemporary period, McInerney and Collins are preceded by many writers, including John Updike who composed his whole Rabbit series in present tense, beginning with Rabbit Run in 1960. Updike has been quoted as saying that he chose the present tense to “be an equivalent of the cinematic mode of narration,” and indeed the original subtitle for the book was “A Movie.” The concept of narrative as cinema has been explored by other writers; for example, the only time Christopher Bram (author of Gods and Monster) used present tense was in his book Father of Frankenstein (1995), about the film director James Whale, because “it’s the tense of screenplays.”

Thus, one of the advantages of present tense is that it can feel like a movie, it creates a sense of immediacy, intensifying emotions and contributing to characterization, at times going deep into the consciousness of the narrator (sometimes called deep point of view). It also works well with unreliable narrators and with short time frames that consist of constant action because it can create the feeling that the story is happening now.

This immediacy, though, has limiting factors. If the action is occurring in the present, then narration is limited, as well as the use of flashbacks and other techniques employed to build characters. Using present tense also limits a writer’s ability to move through time. Writing in the present tense restricts the available English verb tenses. While past tense narratives can use all 12 English verb tenses, present tense narratives can use only four: usually simple present and progressive present, with some simple past and simple future.

As discussed in the previous post, verbs are the way writers create a relationship of the reader to time, and having the use of all twelve tenses allows us to convey the complexity of time relationships. Of course, as Marshall Moore asserts, writers – even native speakers of English –need to understand what the present and other tenses are for and what their strengths are just on a grammatical level, so that they “can better inform their choices as fiction writers.” (Marshall teaches grammar, one of the most popular graduate classes at Columbia University’s MFA program.)

For example, the difference between the simple past and the past perfect as we saw in the verb tense post is becoming problematic. Perfect tenses show more complex time relations, expressing action that was or will be completed by the time of another action. With the past perfect tense, we are able to discuss an action which was completed before another past action, so that its use signals to the reader that the narrator is referring to an earlier time. Here’s an example from the previous post: I had finished my work before my parents went to bed. (First I finished my work, then my parents went to bed.)

With the use of the past perfect becoming less common even among usage experts, an author who uses the past perfect tense, despite being grammatically correct, runs the risk of distracting or indeed annoying readers, their attention drawn to the repeated use of the had (combined with the past participle). Some current writing advice books recommend using this tense in flashbacks and to write just one or two establishing sentences in past perfect and then to switch to simple past. In this way, the author moves the story to an earlier time and does not need to keep signaling this move by continuing the past perfect tense form with its annoying had.

In choosing the tense for your narrative, recognize that while some readers (and even editors) dislike the present tense, it’s your prose that will be defined by the tense you select. Follow the advice of Elizabeth McCracken: “All narrative decisions are more interesting when you think about the mobility they grant you instead of the mobility they restrict.” Decide what the story you are telling and which tense or tenses help you tell it in the most effective way. Just be sure when you find yourself switching tenses in the narrative, that the construction of the story (as with Dickens) or the timing of the action demands a change in tense.

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