Write well. Write often. Edit wisely.
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]
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 past—was, 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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.