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Narrative Tense—Right Now or Way Back Then

on January 31st, 2012 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill and last modified on 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.)

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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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29 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.

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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). [...]

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