Past vs. Present Tense

by Marissa

Question: I've noticed that people say I switch tenses in my writing sometimes. I think most of the time I'll write my story in one tense but then in a small part switch it to the other. I seem to always write in past tense as if it's happening now. Is that okay? Or is that totally weird? I feel like it's okay because one of my favorite books is in past tense but I felt as if everything was playing out right then. It's like I like I want to write in the present but using past tense. Are there certain types of stories better for past or present tense? I'm mainly a fantasy and sci-fi writer. So would it make sense for my stories to be more in past tense? Do you have any tips on how to stop switching tenses in a story? I think I get confused because I'll be writing in past but as if it's happening right now and then slip into present for a quick second then back into past. It's not okay to use both is it? Because by everyone's comments to stick with one tense it doesn't seem to be okay. But I can't help but think certain scenes are better as past and others as present.

Answer: You have to consider the point of view of your narrator, the entity telling the story.

Most stories are told in past tense because, from the narrator's perspective, the story is about events that have already concluded. In first person, it's as though the main character is sitting down with the reader and telling that person the story of his/her life. In third person, it's as though the narrator is a storyteller relating events that occurred to other people "once upon a time."

Present tense is less common because it presupposes that the events of the story are unfolding now. In first person, it's as though the reader is the main character. Or perhaps it's as though the main character is undergoing hypnosis and reliving past events as if they were in the present. Or maybe as though the main character is a reporter describing what he/she perceives right now. (Hard to find the right metaphor.)

First person present is like stepping into the main character's brain while events are happening. Third person present is like watching a video
feed of events currently taking place.

To some, present tense feels less natural. We are used to people telling stories in person or writing in letters about things that have happened. We are not used to people telling us their life story in present tense as it unfolds. However, present tense does have the advantages of intimacy and immediacy.

The important thing is that you stick to whatever illusion you are creating. If you decide your narrator/storyteller is telling the reader the story of his past, in past tense, then switching to present or future tense would break the illusion. Similarly, if you decide the events are happening in present time, it would break the illusion to switch to past tense.

Try to imagine who your narrator is, when he/she is telling the story, and where he/she is when telling it. If you want an omniscient narrator (in other words, you right now) then stick to that perspective. If your narrator is a character, then decide who they are telling the story to (themselves, the reader, or perhaps another character), and when they are telling the story.

One variation is the epistolary novel, which is written as a series of letters. In that case, the character tells different parts of the story at different times.

As for tips on how to avoid switching tenses, my only advice is don't. Switching tenses is like an actor breaking character or like you're changing narrators mid-story. Once you've chosen a narrative mode (tense, person, perspective) stick to it unless you have a good reason to change narrators (e.g. multiple POV characters). But even then, only change modes at chapter breaks. If you find you've used more than one tense in a chapter or scene, go back and rewrite it.

The same thing is true about jumping from one point-of-view character to another within a scene. It wrecks the illusion; so don't.

P.S. I should have pointed out that sometimes, if the narrator is telling the story in present tense, he/she can use past tense verbs to provide information on what has happened before without breaking the illusion. For example...

"I walk into my room. It's laundry day, so my mother has stripped the bed. She quit work five years ago so she could be a full-time mother. At first I liked her constant presence. Now I'm feeling a little suffocated."

Comments for Past vs. Present Tense

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Jun 03, 2015
The 'continuing' tense
by: Anonymous

Thank you for this article about writing tenses. I too have difficulty with the appropriate tense to use sometimes. For example, if I am writing in past tense and want to describe where someone lives, I might write so and so lived on Main St... but what if they still do live on Main Street at the time of the story telling, isn't it more correct to write 'lives on Main St? I find this helps me to distinguish between conditions which have changed and ones which remain intact after the story/event has been told.

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