Writing is in Tense: Past vs. Present Tense in Fiction

I’ve always enjoyed well-written present tense. It’s harder to stop reading because it’s happening in your mind right now as you read. It it’s well-written, you should only notice it’s in present tense because you’re reading critically instead of for pleasure (I read stories several times: the first for pleasure and afterwards critically to learn from how the author wrote).

There’s an immediacy to present tense past tense just doesn’t have. It makes you feel like you’re right there, experiencing events just as the narrator describes them, despite the obvious fact that you’re reading words which were written in the past.

It’s a neat little magic trick, but it only works as long as it doesn’t feel like a trick to the reader.

It seems to me that this is part of that suspension of disbelief we experience when we get lost in a great story.

And speaking of story, have you ever noticed that people with a knack for telling stories do so almost always in the present tense? Often they begin in past tense but quickly switch to present tense as they relive the event in their minds (not just remember it).

Your friend recounts for you something that happened to him that day might say:

“So, I’m standing line at Starbucks, and this guy, this hipster-lumberjack-clothes-wearing, patchy neckbeard fucker starts bleating like a lamb like he’s making some kind ironic observation on how we’re all waiting in line. And he’s looking around and smiling like we’re all supposed to get the joke and smile with him, except nobody is doing that at all. And finally this hot chick in front of him turns around and says, ‘Waiting in line is an indication of civil order and mutual respect for one another.’ Everyone is smiling now, but they’re smiling at her. And the guy blinks for a moment and says, ‘Sorry, I have Tourettes,’ and some other guy behind me says, ‘No you don’t,’ and then he just shuts up but I can see the back of his neck turning red.”

If your friend were to tell that in past tense, it would seem weird. Even though of course it clearly did happen in the past and he’s recounting it for you afterward. That’s because¬†past tense sounds like a story. Present tense sounds like talking. As a writer faced with the choice of what tense to use for my story and why, this point is key for me. It will affect how the story feels and sounds.

But of course there’s a reason past tense is the default. It’s simply easier to both read and write. At the same time, past tense gives you more control, especially if your narrator is moving around in time. Your sins and shortcomings as a writer stand out more in past tense for the simple reason that tense isn’t one of them. Past tense is never wrong, but it may not be the best choice.

I imagine most readers are going to stumble at first over present tense because they don’t encounter it as often. But they should quickly recover. If your writing is good enough to suck them in and prevent them from wanting to put your story down, then that most minor of speed bumps at the start will quickly be forgiven and forgotten.

photo credit: spdorsey via photopin cc

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