Should You Write in Past or Present Tense?
Many stylistic choices go into a new project. Who will your main character be? Will it be in first or third person? What is your setting? But one you may not have considered is whether your story will be in past or present tense. This is partly because as we start writing, our words automatically fall into one tense or the other as we find the character’s voice.
There’s nothing wrong with either one. But it’s important to know that a story in present tense and one in past tense have very different flavors. By thinking about it beforehand, you can approach your use of tense choice as a powerful tool.
In this post, we’ll weigh the benefits and challenges of both past and present tense.
How are they different?
A story in past tense describes the action as if it’s already happened:
Dean opened his door. The aroma of moist soil and pine trees flooded the truck. He put his notebook down and joined his cousin outside.
A story in present tense describes the action as if it’s happening right now:
Dean opens his door. The aroma of moist soil and pine trees floods the truck. He puts his notebook down and joins his cousin outside.
Although we only changed the endings of our verbs in this short passage, you’ll find that choosing one of these two tenses has more implications than you’d think. Let’s dive deeper into the pros and cons of each one.
Writing in past tense is more accessible. This means the reader is more likely to become instantly immersed in the story without being aware of the words. This may be because a majority of fiction is in past tense and readers are used to it. It could also be because when someone relates a real-life story, it’s natural to use past tense, since it happened in the past. Many readers hate books in present tense because they are too conscious of the words to lose themselves in the story. While this is widely subjective, it’s good to know that writing in past tense gives you one less hurdle to jump to snag new readers.
Time manipulations are another benefit of past tense. Since present tense feels so “in the moment”—everything is happening now—it’s easier in past tense to have a story that takes place over a longer period of time, and to paint a full picture of the less-eventful scenes between the significant ones.
Take this passage from page 59 of R.F. Kuang’s The Poppy War:
Classes only escalated in difficulty as the weeks progressed. Their mornings were devoted to Combat, Medicine, History, and Strategy. On most days Rin’s head was reeling by noon, crammed with names of theorums she’d never heard and titles of books she needed to finish by the end of the week.
Although this passage isn’t impossible in present tense, you’d have to choose between making your verbs present simple tense (“Classes only escalate in difficulty as the weeks progress”) or present perfect tense (“Classes have only escalated in difficulty as the weeks have progressed”). Neither has quite the same feeling of time transitioning, since present tense lends itself to immediacy.
Another example of time manipulation is foreshadowing. Foreshadowing is when you add a passage to hint at something happening later on in the book. It’s often utilized by a narrator sharing a story that’s already happened, and saying in hindsight that they didn’t know something foreboding was coming. Foreshadowing is almost impossible in present tense, since the narrator is sharing things happening now, rather than looking back from a future time.
Kindred, by Octavia Butler, opens on page 9 with these lines:
I lost an arm on my last trip home. My left arm. And I lost about a year of my life and much of the comfort and security I had not valued until it was gone.
The entire novel which follows is the protagonist sharing the story that led her here. By adding foreshadowing at the beginning, it creates a mounting sense of horror as you read, knowing things will get worse before the end.
Because the events of a book written in past tense have already happened, it can be easier to fall into introspection. A character looking back through time may have insight into either what happened or on their own state of mind that a character in present tense wouldn’t.
As you write in past tense, make sure you use moments of introspection sparingly, because it stops the forward momentum of the book and can become frustrating for a reader.
Certain genres and styles are more likely to be written in present tense than others. For example, present tense is more common in young adult books and short stories. It is also substantially more common in books with a first-person narrator. Sometimes high-action thrillers are written in present tense as well.
One common aspect of these formats is that they’re fast-paced. Present tense feels more immediate, because everything is happening now, instead of being related from a future time. And by using a first-person narrator (“I” instead of “he or she”), you get deeper into the protagonist’s head, which creates less distance between the reader and the narrator—a good consideration when writing in a tense that many people already feel a distance from.
Consider this passage from page 11 of Rebecca Roanhorse’s Trail of Lightning:
I take off after him, struggling to get the small knife tucked in my moccasins. I throw the obsidian blade fast as lightning, smooth and spinless in an underhanded release. Grim satisfaction as it flies true and hits him in the back of the knee. He roars and stumbles. But he keeps on going. Faster than he should be with a knife in his leg. Quickly disappearing into the dark woods. So I do the only thing I can do. I chase.
The present tense fully engages us in this action-packed scene. It creates more urgency than past tense, because it feels like it’s happening right now.
Another benefit of present tense is the flipside of the time manipulation above: because your narrator doesn’t know what’s going to happen, it allows the reader to experience the story alongside them for the first time. This can create a sense of camaraderie with the protagonist, because the story feels more real-time—almost like watching a movie unfold.
Take this scene from page 86 of Casey McQuiston’s Red, White, and Royal Blue:
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Alex says.
“You really don’t?”
“I really, really don’t.”
Henry’s whole face grimaces in frustration, his eyes casting skyward like they’re searching for help. “Christ, you are as thick as it gets,” he says, and grabs Alex’s face in both hands and kisses him.
Alex is frozen, registering the press of Henry’s lips and the wool cuffs of his coat grazing his jaw. The world fuzzes into static, and his brain is swimming hard to keep up, adding up the equation of teenage grudges and two a.m. texts and not understanding the variable that got him here, except it’s…well, surprisingly, he doesn’t mind. Like, at all.
Because the reader is in Alex’s head in present tense, they only know what Alex knows, so there hasn’t been any foreshadowing that Henry has feelings for him. Since Alex hasn’t picked up any clues, the kiss is as unexpected to the reader as it is to the character.
As we mentioned earlier, many readers are averse to present tense. A reader or agent will instantly pick up on it, and you’ll need a strong command of it right off the bat to convince them it’s the right tense for the book.
It can also make telling backstories harder, since stopping the plot’s forward momentum to relate a memory or flashback is more noticeable in present tense than it is in past tense, where time manipulation is more fluid.
Get out of your comfort zone
As writers progress, they often fall into a rut with the same language patterns. So try challenging yourself by writing in a new tense. You’ll find that changing from past to present tense (or vice versa) can give you a whole new voice and perspective.
Write a scene first in past tense, then in present tense. How do the scenes feel different? Do you know different things about your character in one scene versus the other? If you continue forward, do you feel the two scenes would lead the story in different directions?
By trying out both forms, you’ll find where your own strengths lie—and with the tips in this post, you’ll have a headstart on knowing your benefits and challenges with each one.