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Narrative Tense—Right Now or Way Back Then

January 31, 2012 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified January 31, 2012

One of the first decisions for a writer beginning a new story is the choice of narrative tense—will the story be a look into past events or will it race through the present? That is, will the writer use past or present tense in terms of verbs and the action of the story?

The writer must decide what is the when of story.

I’ve seen plenty of comments and recommendations about narrative tense and a lot of the debate is contentious. Although some readers and writers might have no true preference, most are firmly in one camp or the other.

Either they insist using the simple past is the only way to tell a story or they say present tense has much to offer and is as equally valid as past tense.

I don’t intend to start a debate, but I do want to let you know that you have options. And limitations. And that you face the expectations of readers, readers who include agents and acquisitions editors.

___________________________

What we’re talking about is the manner in which you present the actions of your story world. Do narrator and viewpoint characters see actions and events as happening in the past or do they act as if the events are happening right now?

Do they say—

Marlboro raced through the forest. [Past]

Or

Marlboro races through the forest. [Present]

What about these—

Tilly, aching for one sight of her lover, waited at the abandoned cottage and watched for riders on the old north road.

Tilly, aching for one sight of her lover, waits at the abandoned cottage and watches for riders on the old north road.

_________

I feared the man who was my father; his voice alone demanded respect.

I fear the man who is my father; his voice alone demands respect.

The setup for both is simple; the effects are vastly different.

___________________________

Most stories are told using the simple pastwas, walked, drank, hoped. Stories using the past tense are written the same way stories have been told for years—once upon a time, sometime before the present time, these marvelous characters existed and lived out a fantastic adventure. They did these things, these events are over, and someone can’t resist telling you all about these happenings and adventures.

When I say most stories, I mean the great majority of stories. Oral stories as well as written fiction are told using the past tense. It’s common to readers, it’s common to writers, and it’s been the prevalent format for storytelling for years and years and years.

It’s so common that readers don’t notice it; they simply jump into the story’s adventure.

The present tense—is, walks, drinks, hopes—on the other hand, is rare. Yes, we all know wonderful stories told using present tense. Yet in comparison to the number of novels that use the simple past, present-tense novels are few in number. Present-tense narration is also much more recent a practice.

From what I can tell from a quick survey of Internet articles, readers notice when stories are told using the present tense. I’m not saying, nor are those readers, that there’s anything wrong with the use of present tense. We are saying that its use is noticeable.

And noticeable mechanics may well not be what you’re trying for.

Let me stress that neither choice is right or wrong on principle. You can use either present or past tense for telling your stories.

The present tense is often associated with literary fiction, short stories, students in writing programs and workshops, and first novels. The past tense is used in most genre novels.

Pros and Cons

Familiarity
Since the past tense is familiar to readers, readers don’t have to adjust when they begin a story written using past tense. There might well be an adjustment period for readers of present-tense stories.

Novelty
Stories told using present-tense narration can be enticing because they’re different. Readers may also end up paying closer attention since the format is one unfamiliar to them. They may develop a deeper involvement in the story.

Immediacy
Some writers and readers believe that use of the present tense makes story action and events more immediate. On the other hand, proponents of the past tense may find that verbs used in the past tense make story events seem more immediate. Because there’s no adjustment needed, readers can imagine themselves in the story from page one.

Believability
Readers have to believe that story events written in present tense are happening at the very moment they’re reading. That’s admittedly a stretch for some readers since they know the story events are not happening in the now. After all, a book’s events have to have been completed before the book was written. Yes, readers can get over this incongruity, but reader perception is something to consider when you choose your narrative tense.

While the present tense is not common in fiction, some writing uses present tense as a matter of course—

Scripts and plays

A synopsis

Essays that use the literary present tense (When writing about the events of a story: Alex then demands a declaration from Stella, but she refuses to humor him. When writing about what a writer says: Tinsdale uses this phrase to show his contempt for his critics’ opinions.)

___________________________

No matter your choice for the narrative tense—

Be consistent—don’t switch between past and present

Use compelling and descriptive verbs

Don’t overuse progressive forms—was walking, is talking

You won’t go wrong using the simple past for most of your fiction. Readers expect it and it won’t get in the way of the story.

Try present tense if you want readers to notice the narrative tense or you want to see if you can make story events even more immediate. Keep in mind that readers might have to make adjustments. Weigh the benefits against the costs—are the benefits, whatever they are for your story, enough to compensate for that adjustment period during which readers will not be fully involved in either characters or plot events?

Be prepared to change from present tense to past in order to see your manuscript accepted by a publisher. You might have to do it; would you be willing to make the change if it meant being published? Could you do it?

 *******

Choose the present tense if you’re trying for a unique feel to your fiction, but know the limitations. Know that readers might not accept your choice. Know that publishers might ask you to change your narrative tense.

Choose past tense when you don’t want to distract the reader, when you want to use the common storytelling method.

Don’t let fear hold you back. Use the narrative tense that works for the story, the genre, and your readers. Know what narrative tense can achieve.

Write strong stories.

Write powerful fiction.

***

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74 Responses to “Narrative Tense—Right Now or Way Back Then”

  1. sarah says:

    Interesting perspective, and I agree with you. I used to hate reading stories in the present tense, it seemed pretentious and intrusive to me. On the other hand, I’ve found myself writing in present tense lately simply because so many of the YA novels I’ve been reading are in that tense, and it’s come to feel comfortable. I recently picked up a YA book that was in past tense and it took me a while to adjust. I wonder if it has become trendy?

  2. sarah says:

    Sorry, accidentally clicked submit too soon … by “it” I meant present tense, of course.

  3. Khai says:

    I am currently writing my first novel (gaslamp fantasy) in past tense.

    Last October I wrote in the present tense for a short story competition (500 words). The story had an immediacy to it, and felt the right choice for conveying suspense. Whether that helped my story become selected or not I’ll never know, but the experience was interesting.

  4. I like your comments here, and I think they will be especially helpful to emerging writers who are trying to find their own voices. It’s fun to push the envelope sometimes, writing in second person and/or present tense. There are risks, of course, among them the reader’s potential dissonance. I write in the past tense using a third person restricted POV because that’s what I grew up with. Perhaps as more people risk pushing the envelope, authors will find fewer risks in doing it.

    Malcolm

  5. Sarah, I’ve heard that YA is trending toward present tense. I’m guessing it’s a style that either appeals to teen and young adult readers or that those in the business are using it to make YA fare stand out against other genres, give it a feel that other stories don’t have. It’ll be fun to watch, see how far the trend goes.

  6. Khai, that immediacy is something writers are looking for with present-tense narration. A short story would seem to be the perfect place to try out the present tense. You’ve only got a few pages to make an impact, and present tense can definitely make an impact. Congratulations on being selected.

  7. Malcolm, there is that choice between comfortable/familiar and new/daring. Both choices are appealing, but they lead to different outcomes. It’s good for writers to understand they have choices and know what those choices mean both for story and for the readers. Thanks for the insights.

  8. Chihuahua0 says:

    In the first few drafts of my story, I did a “actions past tense, thoughts present tense” format because I didn’t want to go all the way. I’m doing only past tense now, since the old format was getting too inconsistent.

    But to be honest, one reason I’m not writing in present tense because of the fact that people hate it. I don’t want to prevent someone from reading my story because of such a trivial convection. But yet again, it is trending, but I prefer to be daring with other stuff.

  9. I also notice that there’s a lot of present tense in YA, though not elsewhere. The tense I really hate is anything involving second person. I can’t think of a single instance where it’s felt justified other than as a ‘look at me’ device (and, yes, I’m including Bright Lights Big City in that unbelievably sweeping statement).

  10. Chihuahua, I’ve seen stories that use past tense for one viewpoint character and present for another. I’ve also seen a single character use present tense to relate his current life but revert to past to narrate story events (Here I am sitting in my easy chair, thinking over my life. I’m going to tell you what I’m doing now, but my emphasis will be on the story I’m relating about my youth and the mistakes I made back then.)

    I’m guessing this second practice is similar to what you tried.

    Yet I don’t know how past action and present thought would work. What happens when the character needs to say—He raced through the cemetery, chased by Hell’s hounds. He wonders if he’ll be allowed to escape. This kind of mix probably slaps at the reader each time he comes across it.

    I admire you for trying something daring and for realizing that readers have preferences—these are the twin drivers of much of our writing choices. Good luck with balancing your needs, the story needs, and the expectations of the audience.

    • This was an interesting comment for me — I’m dealing with the same thing in a story I’m editing. The characters’ thoughts are often presented as dialogue; your example above would read this way:

      He raced through the cemetery, chased by Hell’s hounds. He thought, I wonder if I’ll be allowed to escape. He yelled, “I am not very happy about this situation, no sirree bob!”

      OK, maybe not that last part, but I add it to make a point: we are very used to a past-tense envelope around present-tense speech. We wouldn’t write it this way: He yelled “I was not very happy…!” Of course not, because we’re reporting words as they were said at a moment in the past.

      But the thoughts are tricky. The original manuscript contains lots of tense shifts — some scenes are set in the present, some in the past, some are mixed. Thoughts without quotes around them sort of blend in, so they’ve had the same shifts, although quoted speech is always in present tense. Here’s the kicker: I’ve been hired to proofread, not make systemic changes — finding that line is very challenging!

      • Deborah, that line for editing and proofreading is challenging. Do you not say something when you see an error or say something—maybe a lot of somethings—because you can’t let errors slide? Does the writer or publisher expect you to point out certain problems as a matter of course, even if they’re not typically what a proofreader would deal with? And If writer and publisher both say to proofread only and you don’t say something and then readers catch major errors, does everyone wonder why you didn’t catch those errors?

        I’ve decided to not limit myself to only proofread a manuscript for just this reason. I can’t let something go back to the writer with obvious mistakes. And that means I’ll be reading for mistakes of every kind. And that means I’ll be editing, not proofreading.

        Ah, the dilemma.

  11. Gabriel, second person is definitely a device. I know it works for recipes—first you break the eggs and then you stir in the milk—but for fiction? It is a gimmick by its very nature.

    Might that change for readers in the future? Who knows. But it’s accusatory and bossy and seemingly all-knowing. How many readers want to be accused of doing what they haven’t done, told to do something by a character in a book (or by extension, the author), or be accosted by a character who acts as if he knows all about them? It’s a bit like being directed by an invisible director. (You put your right foot in, you take your right foot out . . .)

    Yet, if that’s the intention of the author, then using second person would be quite effective.

    And, please, sweep all you want. Writers are readers first and have no reason to hold back their opinions.

    I’m glad you dropped by.

  12. I too once thought present-tense difficult or pretentious (I still feel that way about second-person), but then I read Neal Stephenson’s SNOW CRASH and was blown away by how immediate and rapid the experience was. However, I didn’t think I would include that style in my writer’s tool kit. I was wrong. Just the other night I finished a novel (not my first by any means) which I had struggled with for years. I’d tried past tense and first person and felt that they were the wrong approach. For this most recent draft, I started over on page one with present tense and was amazed at how fluent the whole manuscript felt to me as I composed it. It was just so natural! The style kept me from fattening up the story and even pushed my main character in a new and more proactive direction. It was tedious converting old but usable passages from past tense or first person into third-person-present-tense, and I honestly hope that editors will not require me to rewrite it all over again. I really do feel that my book has been improved by this choice of style. (By the way, my novel, though fantasy and starring a young protagonist, is not in any way a YA novel–it’s too strange and dark and unconcerned with genre rules to qualify, or at least I suspect as much–although it is heartening to learn from other commenters that YA novels are frequently written in present tense; it gives me hope that editors are opening up to the style.)

  13. One more observation about present-tense: I said that the style seemed to push my main character in a more proactive direction. Now, I’ve lived with this story of mine for decades, knew it and the characters back and forth. Yet writing with the immediacy of present-tense seemed to create new crisis moments, to open new forks in old roads. It made my characters jump where before they only walked. I don’t claim that other, more familiar styles can’t lead to this sort of liveliness or cause characters to change (always a welcome surprise, when a supposedly fictional character goes and does something new and unexpected to the godlike author!), but it did seem to happen more frequently to me while using present-tense. It just, for lack of a better term, feels more alive on the page, and what more could we ask of a good book than that it come alive?

  14. Joshua, having a story come alive is what we all want; I’m glad you found a way to make it happen. And to bring life to a story you’ve been working on for so long is doubly satisfying.

    Having options means we’ve got multiple ways to work a story, which is a help to writers and a benefit for readers.

    Here’s hoping you found the perfect solution for this story. Thanks for letting us know what worked for you.

  15. munarong says:

    I enjoyed reading your blog and the discussion at comments section, very helpful. I’m trying to write articles in English in my blog which is not my native language. So I do more studies how to write it properly. the point of views, all tenses and everything that you guys was discussing is very interesting and helpful. I just don’t want to write articles like a news report. That would be boring. Thank you.

  16. Munarong, I’m so glad you find the articles and discussion helpful. I hope your blog is successful.

  17. latha says:

    no use .pls give a small story

  18. Latha, you’re looking for a short story to show the difference? Hmm . . . How about a very short one?

    Past tense: Ginger wanted a raise, but her boss, Cleo, refused to give her one. So Ginger went to Cleo’s boss and told her about Cleo’s practice of overcharging clients. Annette, Cleo’s boss, fired Cleo and gave her position to Ginger. Ginger overcharged their clients too, but since she shared the money with her new assistant, she got away with it.

    Present tense: Ginger wants a raise, but her boss, Cleo, refuses to give her one. So Ginger goes to Cleo’s boss and tells her about Cleo’s practice of overcharging clients. Annette, Cleo’s boss, fires Cleo and gives her position to Ginger. Ginger overcharges their clients too, but since she shares the money with her new assistant, she gets away with it.

    I hope this helps.

  19. melanie says:

    who can write me a short story using narrative tenses please

  20. Katie says:

    Something you said earlier is the writer must choose a tense and stick to it but on page 1 of The Hunger Games the author switches tense in the same paragraph. I totally see why because of the way it reads.

    The Hunger Games – Page 1 – I prop myself up on one elbow. There’s enough light in the bedroom to see them. My little sister, Prim curled up on her side, cocooned in my mother’s body, their cheeks pressed together. In sleep, my mother looks younger, still worn but not so beaten-down.

    So why did the editor allow the mix tense in the same paragraph? Much less the whole book? Is this a first person vs third person exception?

  21. Katie, let’s look at those sentences, see what’s said and what’s implied.

    I prop myself up on one elbow. There’s enough light in the bedroom to see them. My little sister, Prim, curled up on her side, cocooned in my mother’s body, their cheeks pressed together. In sleep, my mother looks younger, still worn but not so beaten-down.

    That one is actually all present tense. For past we’d have—

    I propped myself up on one elbow. There was enough light in the bedroom to see them. My little sister, Prim, curled up on her side, cocooned in my mother’s body, their cheeks pressed together. In sleep, my mother looked younger, still worn but not so beaten-down.

    Are you looking at curled, cocooned, and pressed, assuming that they’re past tense verbs? They are actually past participles and they have the same form whether paired with verbs in the past, present, or future tense.

    You wouldn’t write the participles this way, but to get an idea for how they’d feel with the different tenses, to see that they don’t change—

    My little sister, Prim, [is] curled up on her side, [is] cocooned
    My little sister, Prim, [was] curled up on her side, [was] cocooned
    My little sister, Prim, [will be] curled up on her side, [will be] cocooned

    They are past participles because their actions are complete. Prim is already curled up; she isn’t engaged in the act of curling up. In the past, she was curled up, not curling up. Even in the future, we can see her curled up, not curling up, as if she were in motion.

    Most past participles have the same form as the simple past, though there are irregular participles as well.

    I hope that was what you were getting at and that this helped. If not, let me know. That was a great question.

  22. Hi there! I just discovered this blog and I’m in love with it! I’m helping a friend edit his short stories and am wondering is it okay to switch tenses between scenes? Can he write one scene in past tense and one scene in present tense or would this be too confusing for his readers?

  23. Marie, while you could change tenses for some reasons in long fiction, a short story is different. You don’t get a lot of time to do what needs to be done, and you don’t have a lot of time to eliminate confusion if readers get confused. Does the story really need different tenses? That is, is the benefit gained from using different tenses worth any possible problems created by its use?

    Your friend can try anything. But if something unusual takes the reader out of the fiction and has him looking at the mechanics, that unusual choice doesn’t work.

    How does the different tense sound to you? Were you distracted by it? Does it only happen once? Does it happen multiple times under certain conditions?

    What’s the purpose for the change? Is it to create a feel different from the rest of the story? Is there another way to create that feel?

    I like the idea of experimenting. But what works works for a reason. If such a change is too disrupting, I would say it doesn’t work.

    I don’t know if that’s any help at all. Let us know what you decide and why, if you get the chance.

  24. grace says:

    Setting

    This story takes place in a pseudo-medieval fantasy world where there are seven kingdoms. The Seven Kingdoms are spread over vast landscapes of forests, mountains and oceans. The names of The Seven Kingdoms names are Lienid, Sunder, Estill, Middlunds, Monseau, Wester and Nander. All through the kingdoms they have spring, summer, winter and fall, their numerous climates are always changing. Katsa comes from one of The Seven Kingdoms called The Middluds. The Middluds was filled with many people that all worked for King Randa, Katsa uncle. One of those people that worked for him was Katsa. She follows the orders of her uncle and as she was graced with killing, she had to kill anyone her uncle didn’t like. The Midlunds to Katsa was a horrible place, she did not like the over controlling uncle that she had. Katsa always wanted to escape from her uncles control. With Katsa being under extreme control by her uncle uncle, it really makes the reader feel her pain and want to help her succeed with escaping Randa’s power.

    The other main character Po lives in Lienid. Lienid was a great place, filled with happy, joyful people that are caring and helpful, this really makes the reader feel welcome. When the King Tealiff was kidnapped their kingdom was not normal. Po travelled across the beautiful seven kingdoms in search of his grandfather. Po arrived in The Middlunds and this was where he met Katsa. The two became great friends, Katsa then showed him where Tealiff was hidden, in the dark scary dungeons.

    Katsa and Po went on the mission to find the kidnapper, after many horrid days they finally succeeded. They found Leck in the never ending green forests of Monseau. Then they continued on their mission to save Bitterblue from Leck’s control and take her to Lienid. When they found Bitterblue, together they all traveled through the forests, over hills, trees, creeks or anything that came in their path to safety. Time in The Seven Kingdoms was not good. Katsa and Po knew that Leck was on the hunt for them and wanted to kill them so he could have his daughter back in his control. Terror, frightfulness and nerves fled though Katsa and Po’s graced eyes. At this point the reader was in suspense and waiting for what the characters would face next in The Seven Kingdoms. Po had to remain behind because of injuries, Katsa and Bitterblue were faced with the surrounding environment. They traveled through a dangerous mountain range called the Grella Pass. The two became weak, but needed to make it across the mountain range to Sunder another kingdom. They arrived in Sunder barely alive, where they met a lovely Sunderan family that brought them into their cozy home and feed them. In the morning they left for the Sunder Ports to sail across the crystal blue waters apart of the continuous ocean to Lienid. When Katsa and Bitterblue would arrive in Lienid, they would be faced with more than terror and happiness. After Leck was killed by Katsa in Prince Po’s castle, business returned to normal all though The Seven Kingdoms, where everyone now was untroubled and delighted. The mood at this point was ecstatic, the reader shared the enjoyment with the characters, Leck was dead, Po’s family was let out of his control and Bitterblue was safe.

  25. L.F Falconer says:

    I prefer to write in present tense if the story allows it, but not all stories can be told that way. I believe, and have had a few of my readers confirm, that it does add immediacy to the narrative. Personally, when I read, I rarely notice what tense the story is relayed in as long as it’s fluid.

    • L. F., you’re right—some stories need past tense, some need present, and some can work with either. I usually notice present tense right away, but that’s probably because most novels I read are past tense. I have to admit I was surprised by at least two books in the last year or so—I was a couple of chapters in before I noticed the present tense.

  26. Rena says:

    This is really interesting and I read all comments and your replies. I have lot of free time now and thinking of writing my experiences in blogs. Recently I came across this problem:
    “Hooray!” shouted Henry, as he quickly climbed up a tall tree..
    Since Henry seems to be shouting while climbing the tree why “climbed” in past tense. Is it not necessary to write in continuous “as he was quickly climbing…” I feel it is a bit odd!

    • Rena, using too much of the past continuous can get annoying and wordy. If you truly need to stress that the action was ongoing at a certain moment, use it. Otherwise, use the simple past most of the time.

      You can use the past continuous as an introduction to a scene and then switch to simple past when you narrow in on the characters and action.

      Also, in the example you used, the word as tells us the action is ongoing. There’s no reason to also use the continuous past for the verb.

  27. Benedict T. says:

    In “Fruit Stall” by Merlinda Bobis, http://ithmlit102.blogspot.com/2008/02/bobis-merlinda-fruit-stall-white-turtle.html

    the present tense was used. I hardly thought of the
    “Readers have to believe that story events written in present tense are happening at the very moment they’re reading. That’s admittedly a stretch for some readers since they know the story events are not happening in the now. After all, a book’s events have to have been completed before the book was written” problem when I read it. But now, I am starting to get confused. by using the present tense, was the protagonist sort of re-living her memories? Or was she writing the story down in real time? Or maybe the story is meant to be viewed in the way that she is looking at herself as if she were a detached entity? Or maybe this story is a “stream of consciousness thing” meaning, she was only talking to herself and not writing or speaking to someone?

  28. This question or confusion have been aching me a lot since I started to write. I wrote stories in present tense and mixed present continues tense too,will surely consider your suggestion to make my literature faultless. Thank You Sir.

  29. The narrative present has a long and noble history, included – amongst others – in the novels of Robert Louis Stevenson and Charles Dickens. It is not a recent fashion! :)

    It is most suitable for short stretches or single scenes because it implies a very short gap between strictly sequenced events –

    “A man walks into a bar. He orders a scotch. It’s terrible.”

    – hence its use in recipes, and why the short paragraph above sounds better in the past tense.

    So, “mixing” it within a novel is fine, perhaps in flashbacks. The idea some people don’t like it baffles me.

    I think a lot of it has to do with people being confused about “the present tense” in English – it doesn’t mean the action is happening right now, it only means that it isn’t happening in the past – which is why we can say “my train leaves tomorrow”. With a fictional story, that essentially only exists in the mind of the reader, the present tense is perfectly appropriate.

  30. These are all thoughtful and thought-provoking comments. I have always preferred the third person past tense for my own fiction and non-fiction. I am one who is forever working on a small handful of novels and numerous short stories but never yet publishing them. However, I love the craft of writing, if for nothing other than a worthwhile hobby. What drove me to this web page was a deliberate search for this specific topic. I just finished reading “Killing Patton” by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard. The whole body is written in a retrospective, third person present tense. As others have indicated in this space, that narrative can be distracting, but it is incredibly smooth and effective in this case. Perhaps it is the “real-time eye of the reporter” reporting from back in time as it happens. I can’t put my finger on the exact mechanism of the tactic, but it makes KP a great read as it moves the reader along briskly within and among numerous fluid events at the same time. Oddly, I admire it, but doubt that I could emulate it. Writers definitely tend to choose sides on this. I am stuck in the past (tense.)

  31. I have a feeling that the present tense in YA novels is an evolution born out of social media. Kids (and many adults I know) are constantly on their phones, updating friends and family with their current whereabouts…all using the present tense. Whether intentional or not on the part of the writers, I think this POV has become more accessible to the teens and Millennials.

    • Michael, I’m guessing that you’re right, that social media may have a lot to do with first person present tense in YA novels. I think the use of present tense probably also reflects a teen’s outlook and interests and developmental stage—their own interests are of great importance, and everything is important right now. Present tense accentuates that feeling of now.

  32. Richard Red says:

    I have read the article and comments with interest as I’ve written a YA story recently and have been wondering about the impact of using the present tense.
    Would it be possible for the main story to be written in the past tense but for dream sections (when the main character is experiencing a dream) to be written in the present tense? The dreams are normally more action packed and unusual than the main story and re-writing them in the present tense from their original past tense has changed their impact. Your thoughts and comments would be very much appreciated.

    • Richard, you can try anything, and your idea would be a valid way to differentiate between dreams and the current events of the story. Definitely try it. Present tense for dreams wouldn’t be unusual.

      I admit, however, that I’m a bit worried when you say that the dreams are more action packed and unusual than the main story. You won’t want your narrative to suffer in comparison to events that aren’t real or that are relayed through dreams or flashbacks. That is, you want the story itself to be compelling.

      I can imagine reasons for making dreams seem otherworldly and emotion-inducing, so that’s not the problem. What I’m getting at is that you don’t want real events to take a back seat to dream events. The events of the plot should capture the reader’s attention too. Just a word of caution.

  33. Hi Beth, I really love this article about narrative past tense vs present tense. I agree that it can be a contentious debate!

    In fact, one of my writing pals and I are conflicted over the use of narrative past tense when the character is talking about something that will happen in the future.

    For example, take a scene of a character who has just stabbed his enemy, and is holding the knife in the body to get the enemy to comply with his orders. The narrative is all in the simple past. But the character is thinking about what he needs to do next.

    Would the sentence be, “As soon as I pull the knife out, the resulting clatter of him hitting the ground will alert the other guards. But it has to be done.”

    Or, would we say, “As soon as I pulled the knife out, the resulting clatter of him hitting the ground would alert the other guards. But it had to be done.”

    Our confusion stems from the fact the events have not happened yet, so how can we write them in the simple past? Any advice you have would be greatly appreciated!

    • Kate, think future for this. Even in past tense we use the future a lot. Conditionals too.

      But there are a couple of other issues to consider as well.

      Is this first-person POV, or are you only using first person in the character’s thoughts?

      A couple of options, depending on your POV and the way you want to portray the character’s thoughts ( I edited a bit)—

      Jax pushed the blade deep. He watched as Mason’s face went white.

      When he pulls the knife out, Mason’s body hitting the ground will alert the other guards. Still, it has to be done.

      OR

      Jax pushed the blade deep. He watched as Mason’s face went white.

      When I pull the knife out, Jax thought, Mason’s body hitting the ground will alert the other guards. Still, it has to be done.

      OR

      I pushed the blade deep, watching as Mason’s face went white.

      When I pull the knife out, Mason’s body hitting the ground will alert the other guards. Still, it has to be done.

      ————-

      I hope that one of those examples fits your conditions. If not, let me know.

    • The first one is correct, as it was current when he thought it.

  34. Darien says:

    Hi Beth,

    This is exactly the topic I was looking for. I’m working on something new, with multiple characters heading chapters in first person. I’m using a LOT of inner dialogue, along with narration, and as was stated above, I don’t see that it would make sense to put that inner dialogue in past tense, therefore, for consistency, would you recommend just using present tense throughout, or setting off the dialogue with italics? It would be a lot of italics, which I know you don’t recommend.

    Thanks as always!

    Darien

  35. Darien, if I understand what you’re saying, you have multiple first-person narrators. For first person, you don’t need to do anything special for thoughts. That is, readers know that anything that’s not dialogue is coming from the first-person narrator, whoever that is for the chapter/scene. And those thoughts would typically match the tense of the rest of the story.

    An example—

    past tense

    “Tom did it,” I told Stella.

    “Tom? But why?” She squeezed her eyes shut. “But I thought my sister had done it.”

    Stella got that look on her face, the one that proclaimed she was guilty, guilty, guilty. And for once I was happy to have put it there. She deserved a few seconds of guilt for what she’d put her sister through.

    present tense

    “Tom did it,” I tell Stella.

    “Tom? But why?” She squeezes her eyes shut. “But I thought my sister had done it.”

    Stella gets that look on her face, the one that proclaims she is guilty, guilty, guilty. And for once I’m happy to put it there. She deserves a few seconds of guilt for what she put her sister through.

    —————–

    There’s no need for changing tenses or using italics or anything special for the narrator’s thoughts.

    If I misunderstood or didn’t get to the heart of your question, let me know.

    • Darien says:

      Thanks Beth. I’m using your advice and proceeding with past tense, but the one thing that confuses me would be as follows:

      What a jerk. He was always saying things like that.

      Does “What a jerk” need “I thought” after it, or is the “I thought” implied. I really like the intimacy of occasional phrases like that, but they confuse me as they seem present tense like dialogue. I could also say “He was such a jerk” in this case, but sometimes that seems to dilute it.

      Always love your site and advice! Thanks so much! I’ve been working with the past tense to see where the problem arises, hence the delay in responding!

      Many, many thanks!

      • Darien, you definitely don’t need to include thought tags (I thought) with first-person narration. Omitting such words keeps the reader very close to the character, as if the reader is hearing the thoughts as they play out. Using thought tags in first-person narration can make the reader feel as if the character is aware of him, as if the character is narrating to the reader.

        If you want that feeling of narration, you can include the thought tags, but you certainly don’t need them.

        —————

        Are you liking the change to past tense? Can you feel a difference to the story?

        ————

        I think I still owe you an answer to another question—I’ve got to go back through my comments and find what else you asked.

        • Darien says:

          Thanks Beth! You’re always awesome, and I’m thrilled I can skip the–I thoughts! (that was a terrible example–PS) I had a beta correct many of those, or comment, and again, I felt the weakening of the moment. I’m doing a final look at my manuscript and I’ll keep that–and commas!–in mind!

          I did really like the immediacy of the present. It’s a thriller kind of story, and that lent itself to it, but I am way more comfortable in past, and had awkward, habit-shifts in tense–as you mentioned in your book, lol! I don’t like “says” as opposed to “said”–weird, right!? But yes, I’m happy with past tense. I realized I was actually using past on most inner thoughts, it was things like the example above I wasn’t sure of.

          I think the lagging comment may be on the movie blog. Though I did remove all lyrics from my book, I still have a few quotes from movies that characters imitate. They’re really known quotes, and almost cliche’, and since it’s from the 80’s, I hope the movie makers love the plug! LOL! For example: “The power of Christ compels you,” and, “I hate snakes.”

          I’m loving your book!!!! I feel I’m in the right place, at least with attitude–who doesn’t know you need to re-write–but then, I’ve channeled your advice to a few beta reads, and heck, they don’t always see that . . . .

          The timing of your book for me has been perfect already. I’m working on a first draft, and I’m approaching just as you suggest–rough and dirty! Having ripped my other story apart, using your advice, I knew that was the way to go, because, it WILL all change in the end. And the fleshing out of scenes . . . I already know I need to cut a few, so it’s way less painful.

          My “finished” book has been getting great feed-back, from friends and betas, and I owe it all to you and your site, and now your book!

          I’m eternally grateful!!! Thank you for all your help!

          Darien

  36. Thomas Grady says:

    Great blog and outstanding thoughtful comments. I write in present tense. I wrote a novel in past tense and then converted it to present tense for fun. The novel untangled itself when I converted to present tense. Everything became crisp and clean. Garbage words are noticed and eliminated. Present and past can be mixed but the technique requires careful thought. It seems to me we think in both past and present tense. We should be able to write that way.

    I think readers have a difficult time with present tense,because we speak in past tense most of the time. Writing in past tense is part of American culture and is expected. Shakespeare has no problem with present tense. That’s good enough for me.
    One nice discovery is you can convert back from present to past with a cleaner manuscript. Like everything in writing tense is an option. Pick one and then practice until a style becomes second nature. For me past tense seems odd and clumsy.

    • Thomas, thanks for sharing your thoughts and your experience with switching between tenses.

      I think part of your cleanup came from paying careful attention when you had to switch tenses—you had to make sure everything was right and you were able to examine every story component and word. The great thing about what you did is that it probably opened your eyes not only to issues with verb tenses, but to other issues as well. And now you’ll be at least a few steps ahead when you begin your next manuscript.

      ——–

      Tense is indeed an option, one that deserves some thought and maybe a little experimentation. Changing tenses—or verifying you’ve used the right tense all along—is worth a few hours of trial and error.

  37. Dawoos says:

    Wonderful blog!
    Thanks for being such a help. Switching between tenses and POV’s can only work if you are a master of the craft. Like Haruki Murakami did with kafka on the shore. He uses first person, present tense and then switches to third person, past tense in the story. There are a few passages in 2nd person POV as well. Created the perfect dreamlike feeling. Could someone please do a critique on it.

  38. Dawood says:

    “I Accelrated as soon as the traffic cleared up. but then – damn it!-a truck came out of nowhere, I swerved to the right, and, well, it was inevitable: I crashed into a wall.I’m feeling a little woozy now. Where am I? better keep still, try to figure out what’s going on. Seems I’ve hit my head on something. Oh, that’s right! Samiha has run away. A bunch of nosy kids were already coming towards the van, enjoying the scene…i’d hit my head on the rearview mirror, and my forehead was bleeding, but i reversed the van and then sped off again after them”

    This is an excerpt form ‘A strangeness in my mind’. Doesn’t the author slip between tenses in the above passage. I would be really grateful if yu could ellaborate.

    • Dawood, the author does indeed change tenses, but for most of the switches, that’s not a problem.

      This sounds like a present-tense narration with a past-tense recounting of something that has just happened. So those changes in tense would be okay. Yet in that case, were coming, reversed and sped off should be in the present tense.

      The author is trying to show confusion, of course, but not at the risk of the reader getting too lost. We don’t want to lose our readers or make them read the same lines again and again.

      Since I don’t have the rest of the story to go by, I’m not sure what the author’s plan was. Is most of the story in one tense?

  39. Jon says:

    God save us from the YA rubbish being published today. I hope this is just a trend. I personally go to the internet to read blogs and use my smartphone to read and write texts. I do not want to see any version of that nonsense in a novel.

  40. Jon, do you mean present tense? The present tense is used in other genres as well.

    I’m glad for the variety in writing—the styles, the genres, the approaches. I love that readers of every kind can find something that appeals to them.

    And I certainly don’t always want to read the same kind of novel. I have my favorite genres, but I definitely like a mix in my reading material.

    The propensity for writing first-person present-tense novels may change into something else in a few years. Or maybe the next big change will take longer. But I’m sure there will be a change.

    In the meantime, I’m glad that there’s plenty to read for all of us.

  41. Iminozmy says:

    This might sound silly, but since I’m still a new writer, this is really something I need your help with.

    Currently I’m trying to write my first fantasy story in English (which is not my native language). My story will have multi-main-characters and I intend to tell each character’s past time experience as a background and present-events (separate events from other characters), one by one. I want to do that to build the story nicely. Those characters will also involve with each other in the most part of the story.

    The effect I want to give to my readers is that the readers would feel as if they are experiencing the story them self, at that very moment they read the story.

    But I still can’t decide, which narative tense is better. I’m using a third person narative style. Please help me to decide. Thank you in advance for your advice.

    • I have found that when one is writing in past tense, third person is better, and when one is writing in the present tense, first person is better. If you are going to be omnipresent in the novel, try to take J.K. Rowling (Harry Potter) and Frank Herbert (Dune)’s approach when describing the different characters’ thoughts.

  42. Kerry says:

    This blog has answered so many of my questions. I’m now realizing that I need to commit myself, at least for my current novel/series, to write consistently in the simple past. But it just hit me that I’m attempting to write a story, which takes place several decades in the future, in the simple past. Is this allowed? I mean it is fiction, so maybe one could say that anything goes with regard to timelines, but what advice would you give to me about writing about the complete life of a character who exists in a future era? Several chapters will recount past events from the perspective of older characters in the story (their past events =~= this present time period).

    Also, I really like writing the main character’s thoughts in italics, so that they sound like the present, but this is probably going against consistency I’m guessing. And I don’t want to always be adding “he thought” on either end, because I fear it would become dull and repetitious for readers. Ah, why do I crave using the best of both worlds (tenses)?

    Thank you,

    Kerry

  43. carmi says:

    Hi there! I love this article. This topic is exactly what I was looking for. Since your discussions mostly tackle fiction, I’m just wondering if this will also apply when you tell the story that really happened (like in interviews). I notice that TV interviews of politicians and celebrities use present tense when they narrate personal experiences. I also notice it with some talk show hosts. Can we use present tense when we narrate real life happenings?
    Thank you,
    Carmi

  44. Carmi, you mean you might be giving an interview and you’re wondering how to tell a story?

    You could use a normal past tense—I ran up the hill and then hid in the trees.

    Or you could use the historical present tense, using present tense for events that have already happened–And then I run up the hill, looking for a place to hide. I find a couple of large trees and crouch behind them.

    Either can work, but you might be able to make the present tense more involving or exciting for your listener or audience. When you hear a child tell a dream to his mother after he wakes up? The child often uses the historical present because he’s reliving the dream’s events as he speaks.

    If I’m not getting at your question, let me know.

  45. Stephanie says:

    I think I am a little slow on this, but I’m not sure I got the answer to Darien’s question earlier when he was asking if your first person narrator can switch from past tense to present when using thoughts.

    His comments:
    “What a jerk. He was always saying things like that.

    Does “What a jerk” need “I thought” after it, or is the “I thought” implied. I really like the intimacy of occasional phrases like that, but they confuse me as they seem present tense like dialogue. I could also say “He was such a jerk” in this case, but sometimes that seems to dilute it.”

    I am currently having the same issues writing a first person past tense novel. This paragraph illustrates how I am changing/mixing tenses. I think I may be wrong, but I feel like it loses impact if all her thoughts are past tense:

    I backed away flustered. “I’m sorry,” I mumbled and continued down the hall, my heart racing. What just happened? I’ve never reacted that way to anyone before. Ruefully, I thought how ironic it was my traitorous body responded to a complete jerk.

  46. Goddebby says:

    The post and comments have really enlightened me. I’m presently working on a short story which my friend just called to my notice the mixing of my tenses. Thanks Editor

  47. Pablo says:

    Thanks for sharing this article. It was just what I was looking for to explain my students why tense choice is significant and meaningful when writing.

  48. Monika says:

    I am just half way through a story wherein I am using past tense plus my thoughts as the story progresses. It is almost a narrative where I have used broken sentences,too, so as to make the reader feel that I am actually telling a story. Do you think it is good way to write and can it click with the younger generation?

  49. Emmie says:

    I’m currently editing my trilogy, which has already been finished in present tense. While reading this article, it came to me, why I chose present tense (it wasn’t a conscious decision; I just started writing in present tense).

    My story spans forty years, and the years are locked, as I provide specific dates for every scene. It starts in 1996, and the last scene (epilogue) is in the 2030s. Past tense would’ve sounded ridiculous, even if most of the story develops in past years. And since I want the story to be timeless (its actions are locked in time, readers should be able to relate and enjoy whether they read it tomorrow or in twenty years), I can’t very well pick a year and switch to start writing in present!

    I understand what you meant about readers being able to buy the present tense while reading something that surely happened in the past. In my case, I think, it could read as if the narrator (it’s third person) just happened to write the events as they were happening. If a reader can suspend belief and accept that an unnamed person is reading the character’s thoughts and recounting them, I think they can also believe that the events were compiled as they were happening, making present tense believable and understandable.

    I think my story is one of those rare ones that could’ve never been told in past tense.

    Your article was definitely very interesting!

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  1. […] How To: Narrative Tense—Right Now or Way Back Then, by Beth Hill – “One of the first decisions for a writer beginning a new story is the […]

  2. […] The Editor’s Blog has a good discussion on the pros and cons of both the past and present tenses as they apply to longer narratives (such as novels). […]

  3. […] three story components are point of view, narrative tense, and genre. I’ve covered all three topics before, but not in this context. We’re not […]

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  5. […] far the most common among those styles is the past tense/third person (omniscient or limited) point of view, the workhorse of contemporary popular fiction. […]

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