How to Choose Between Past or Present Tense
I’ve listened in and been a part of many conversations about choosing the past or present tense in storytelling, and the most common advice I hear from one writer to another is some version of, “Do what feels right.”
Friend, there is better advice out there and I’m going to give you some right now. First, imagine a nurse asking a doctor, “Scissors or scalpel?” and the doctor saying, “I don’t care. You choose.” Or, to lower the stakes, a quarterback asking the coach whether they’re going to kick a field goal or go for a touchdown and the coach saying, “Just do what feels right.”
Scissors, scalpels, field goals, and touchdowns can all be right, but they aren’t equivalent and choosing them depends on context and strategy. I do need to say up front that some readers just hate the present tense (you’ll see why in a sec), and you should know that. But that doesn’t mean it’s not the right choice for your story.
The easiest way to examine your choices is to look at the advantages and disadvantages of choosing the past or present tense so you can make a more informed decision rather than just relying on your gut.
Past Tense: Advantages
- The past tense has traditionally been the most common way to write stories. Readers are used to it.
- It’s the way we tell stories to each other in our everyday lives—“So this is what happened…”
- Characterization is easier. Our minds naturally move back and forth from the past to the present. This allows us great scope and context in our thoughts. When you allow your character the same freedom, they can reflect upon what is happening in the moment, and the reader will have access to more of your character’s emotional nuance.
- It’s easier to jump around in time, so flashbacks and backstory are easier to integrate.
- Slowing down the pacing is easier using the past tense. We sometimes think that quick pacing is always best, but being able to regulate the pacing is essential.
- You have the ability to hint (or tell outright) future happenings. This can be a great source of suspense.
Phillip Pullman says this about his preference for the past tense:
“I want them to feel able to say what happened, what usually happened, what sometimes happened, what had happened before something else happened, what might happen later, what actually did happen later, and so on: to use the full range of English tenses.”
Past Tense: Disadvantages
- There’s potentially more to include so choosing what to include can be trickier.
- There can be a tendency to have the narrator do more telling than showing. This can result in a more distant narrative style, where the reader doesn’t feel they’re getting to experience what’s happening in the moment.
Present Tense: Advantages
- The reader and narrator are experiencing the now together. Since neither of them know what’s going to happen, this can contribute to a sense of intimacy.
- The present tense has become very popular in certain genres, including YA and romance. You’d potentially have readers already warmed up to this style if you’re writing for a specific audience.
- There are a seemingly gazillion past tense verb forms and only four in the present tense, so it can be easier to keep them consistent. A flashback, for instance, would just require the simple past tense.
- The present tense suits an exploratory story style. The action is in real time, like a handheld movie camera, and unfolds moment-by-moment. This is the tense of eyewitness narration and on-the-scene reporters.
Here’s some input from writer Ursula K. LeGuin:
“…narration in the present tense sets up a kind of permanent artificial emergency, which can be exactly the right tone for fast-paced action.”
Present Tense: Disadvantages
- The tight focus on the *now* can sometimes lack a needed wider context, and this can leave the reader craving some interpretation from the character/narrator as events happen. Readers can find the experience of being pressed up against the immediate to be a little stifling.
- The present tense limits the ability to add the kind of suspense you could add if the narrator had knowledge of what’s going to happen in the future.
- The more limited options for backstory can tempt a writer to “hide out” from it. But the backstory does exist and the writer has to find ways to incorporate it in a natural way.
- If not well-utilized, the present tense can lack believability. The potential lack of perspective may cause readers to wonder why you chose it. You need to justify in the telling why you want the reader to embrace this narrower option with you.
I thought this tweet from Mark A. Henry was relevant here:
To me, present tense lays bare the illusion of storytelling:
Book: “I am riding a dragon.” Me: “You clearly are not.”
Book: “I rode a dragon.” Me: “Sounds plausible.”
I don’t mean to talk you out of the present tense, but you do need to be aware of the drawback and make sure you’re choosing it deliberately, not just following a fad. Both options have advantages and you want to make sure you’re employing strategy when deciding whether to choose past or present tense.
I recommend you be aware of the disadvantages and then prioritize what on the advantages list is most important to you. Then write some test scenes. See which choice helps you best execute on your vision. Do you feel more confident when working in one or the other? How does each one affect the vibe or mood?
If you noticed, I used a lot of provisional language in my explanations. The words “potentially”, “to some extent”, “sometimes”, and “can” all appear. That’s because the success or failure of using the past or present tense is in the hands of the author. The advantages can be capitalized on and the disadvantages overcome with purposeful strategy and smart technique.