Past Tense or Present Tense?

Why the past tense is almost always better than the present.

If you aren't sure whether to write your novel in the past tense or the present tense, or if you have no strong feelings either way, take my advice and stick with the past.

Why do I say that? Two reasons...

1. Past Tense Is Invisible

And, yes, invisible is good!

The past tense is by far the most common tense used in novel writing today, at least if you exclude the kind of literary fiction that doesn't sell in meaningful numbers. Come to think of it, the past tense is used everywhere – non-fiction, newspapers, magazines, the broadcast media... you name it.

Am I saying that you should use the past tense simply because it's the most common tense? Not exactly, no...

In many ways, standing above the ordinary and the commonplace is a good thing – it's what gets you noticed. But the best way to do it in fiction is through original characters and an original story or concept.

Writing a novel in the second person future tense, say...

You will meet a tall dark stranger...

... might be original (or even unique) but only in a very shallow way. If the characters and the events are nothing out of the ordinary, it's all sizzle and no steak.

Bottom line? If you want to stand out from the crowd (and you should), stand out through the characters you create and the stories you tell.

You can also stand out with your style of writing. But understand that choosing a less common tense (or even a completely offbeat one), just for the sake of being different, doesn't make you a stylish writer or an original writer so much as a writer who makes odd, difficult-to-read choices.

Another bottom line? The past tense is what readers expect, and what they therefore feel comfortable with. To illustrate, take a look at this example I made up. It's written in the past tense...

They picked up the main road a little after ten o'clock. The sky had clouded over now and the little warmth there had been in the January sun had all gone. But inside the Volvo it was like summer. Twice now Ben had turned down the heating when his mother wasn't looking, and twice Justine had cranked it right back up.

"Strip off if you're hot," she told him.

"I'm already down to my tee-shirt!"

Justine looked at him like he was nuts. She hadn't even taken off her scarf yet. "Look at my fingers," she said.

Ben looked at them.

"When they're no longer blue, we'll talk about the heating."

Now compare it to the present tense version...

They pick up the main road a little after ten o'clock. The sky has clouded over now and the little warmth there was in the January sun has all gone. But inside the Volvo it's like summer. Twice now Ben has turned down the heating when his mother wasn't looking, and twice Justine has cranked it right back up.

"Strip off if you're hot," she tells him.

"I'm already down to my tee-shirt!"

Justine looks at him like he's nuts. She hasn't even taken off her scarf yet. "Look at my fingers," she says.

Ben looks at them.

"When they're no longer blue, we'll talk about the heating."

Now, the second version isn't bad. As a matter of fact, it's a perfectly acceptable piece of writing. It's just a little... weirder, right? Takes a little more getting used to.

Of course, there are plenty of novels out there written in the present tense (more so in literary and mainstream fiction than genre fiction), so choosing it for your own novel is hardly a fatal decision.

But like I've said (and as I'll continue to say), if you have no good reason to use the present tense – if it doesn't somehow add something to the story you are telling – stick with the past tense.

Think of it this way: Doing anything unexpected or out of the ordinary in novel writing represents an obstacle your readers will have to get over...

  • Using the second person imperative (or something equally offbeat) is a huge, huge obstacle – one that 99.9% of potential readers will never overcome.
  • Using the present tense is a tiny obstacle in comparison – but an obstacle nonetheless.
  • Using the past tense is "invisible" to readers, and therefore not an obstacle at all. They won't even notice it because it's what they expect, meaning they can concentrate instead on what really counts – the characters and the story and the skill of the writer in bringing those things to life.

Here's something else to keep in mind...

The past tense, paradoxically, feels more natural, more rooted in the "here and now" than the present tense does. In other words, when we're lost in a scene written in the past tense, it feels like the action is happening right here, right now, right in front of our eyes.

Logically, it shouldn't feel that way. The past, by definition, is over and done with, so scenes written in the past tense shouldn't feel like they're happening right now. But they do.

Literary commentators have all sorts of fancy theories for why that should be – stuff about past events playing out in the reader's present.

Personally, I think it's much simpler. The job of the storyteller is to bring the past to life, to make it seem like it's happening here and now by getting the reader emotionally involved. That's the magic of drama...

  • A dry, non-dramatic account of something that happened in the past is precisely that – dry. It may be interesting. It may be well written. But it doesn't feel like it's playing out in front of your eyes.
  • A dramatized account, on the other hand, evokes our five senses, allows us to hear the character's thoughts, feel their pain, and so on. And it's those things that bring the scene to life, like it's happening right here and right now.

The present tense feels rooted in the "here and now," too – more so, arguably. But because it's less natural, less what we're used to, more dreamlike, it's more difficult as a reader to "lose yourself" in a scene than if it were written in the past tense.

So that's the first reason to stick to the past tense – it's invisible, and therefore not a barrier for the reader. Here's the second reason...

2. Past Tense Is More Flexible

How so? In the way it allows you to skip forward through time. Telling a story is about making choices – you show the reader the exciting parts and skip through the rest. It's like the film director Alfred Hitchcock said...

What is drama but life with the dull bits cut out?

So if you're writing in the past tense, you can write something like this...

Jane had a quick breakfast and ran out to her car. The traffic was gridlocked as usual, but she managed to make it to the meeting with thirty seconds to spare.

Nothing exciting happens while the character eats breakfast and drives to her meeting, so you don't want to bore the reader with unnecessary details. Instead, you get Jane out of the house and across town in a couple of sentences, then slow things down to "normal speed" when the dramatic meeting starts.

In present tense, this skipping forward through time doesn't quite work...

Jane has a quick breakfast and runs out to her car. The traffic is gridlocked as usual, but she manages to make it to the meeting with thirty seconds to spare.

The reason it doesn't work is because the present always plays out in "real time."

When you look back at what happened yesterday, you do have this ability to fast-forward through the dull bits and slow down for the interesting bits. But when you think about what is happening right now, as you read this, you don't have an ability to manipulate time. The next sixty seconds will last for precisely sixty seconds, no more and no less.

For present tense writing to be convincing, therefore, you have to give the impression that events are playing out in real time.

So if the character is driving though heavy traffic, you need to describe what she sees and hears and the thoughts running through her head. If you don't want to do that, you need to begin the scene later, when she walks into her meeting. Then the scene after that needs to begin at the next exciting moment in the story.

Confused? Then I'll try to make things clearer...

There are three ways to handle the passage of time in a novel. You can...

  1. Let events play out in real time. You'll do this for the bulk of the novel, for the most exciting parts of the story – the scenes.
  2. Skip chunks of time. If nothing important or interesting happens for a week, start a new chapter with "One week later..." The reader will understand that nothing worth mentioning happened during this period.
  3. Fast-forward through time. This is how you add pace to your novel. So if two characters are dining at a restaurant, for example, and the only interesting bits happen during the starter then during the dessert, you can fast-forward through the main course in a few sentences, like this...

John had roast beef for the main course and Mary had the chicken. As he chewed on the tough meat, he tried to work up the nerve to say he was leaving her. It wasn't until the dessert arrived – cheesecake for him, lemon tart for her – that he finally found the courage.

"There's something I've got to tell you, Mary."

And there you are, back in another "real time" scene with the uneventful main course dispensed with in a short paragraph.

Now for the important part...

  • In past tense, you can use all three techniques – real time, skipping time altogether and fast-forwarding through time.
  • In present tense, you're limited to the first two techniques – real time and skipping time altogether. You can't fast-forward through time because, like I said, the present tense sounds all wrong if you try to speed it up...

John has roast beef for the main course and Mary has the chicken. As he chews on the tough meat, he tries to work up the nerve to say he's leaving her. It isn't until the dessert arrives – cheesecake for him, lemon tart for her – that he finally finds the courage.

"There's something I've got to tell you, Mary."

The only way around this, if you write in the present tense, is to turn the restaurant scene into two scenes. First the interesting conversation during the starter, then a new scene that begins thirty minutes later, once they've finished the main course and dessert has arrived.

In the second scene (the one where he tells Mary he's leaving her), you could, if you wish, cover what happened during the main course with a past-tense flashback. (For clarity, I've bolded the flashback)...

The dessert arrives at nine o'clock. The soft cheesecake is a relief after the tough roast beef. He'd had to chew each mouthful of meat twenty times, and even then it had been a struggle to swallow. The words he needed to say had caught in his throat, too. Every time he'd opened his mouth to tell Mary he was leaving her, he'd quickly changed his mind and said nothing. It's only now, as he watches Mary take her first bite of lemon tart, that he finally finds the courage.

"There's something I've got to tell you, Mary."

Present tense isn't totally inflexible, then. You could deliberately design your novel as a series of real-time chapters, with the "dull bits" omitted in between the chapters. And you can use flashbacks, as in the example immediately above, to increase your storytelling options. But the fact still stands...

You can't fast-forward through time in the present tense. And that means that everything must play out in real time, until you end the chapter and start a new one (skipping over time in between the two). And when everything must play out in real time, there's a danger of writing about stuff that is neither important nor interesting. As David Jauss said in On Writing Fiction...

The use of present tense encourages us to include trivial events that serve no plot function simply because such events would naturally happen in the naturalist sequence of time.

I'm not saying that these limitations of present tense are a deal breaker (many novels use it). But they are a strong reason to stick with past tense unless you have a good reason not to.

So When Is Present Tense the Best Choice?

I said above that past tense is by far the most common tense. The exception is literary fiction, particularly on the more "experimental" end of the spectrum.

Present tense presumably became the tense of choice in literary fiction because it was different. It will be interesting to see if it falls out of favor again, now that it's become the rule rather than the exception (and is therefore no longer different). But here's the point...

If literary fiction is your thing, your target audience won't be put off by the present tense at all. So you can disregard everything I said above about present tense acting as an obstacle between your reader and your story.

Another reason to use present tense is to give your novel a cinematic feel.

What do I mean by that? In movies, there's no such thing as fast-forwarding through time. A movie is a string of scenes, all of which play out in real time. The only way to move from the evening to the next morning, say, is to end one scene in the dark and begin a new one with the character eating breakfast in the daylight.

In a past tense novel, you could fast-forward through that missing chunk of time by writing something like this...

Harold went to bed and had his usual bad night. He had to go to the bathroom twice and was woken up three times by the neighborhood cats fighting.

There's simply no way to film something like that in a movie, except perhaps with a sequence of vignettes (each of which would be a mini real-time scene in its own right). And there's no way to write it in a present tense novel, either. Hence the reason why reading a present tense novel can feel like watching a movie.

(And incidentally, present tense is the tense of screenplays.)

Bottom line?

If you want your novel to have that cinematic feeling of scene-after-scene-after-scene, with no novelesque narration in between the scenes, great – choose the present tense!

Or maybe present tense would be perfectly suited to your character. Maybe the character lives purely in the moment and has little concern for the future or the past or of hurrying through her day. In that case, present tense would make a great choice.

Or...?

Maybe the story you have in mind would benefit from a present tense treatment in some other way. If that's the case, go for it.

Otherwise, stick to the past tense. It's invisible. It's the most flexible. And nine times out of ten, it's a no-brainer.

One Last Thought...

Choosing between past and present tense isn't necessarily an either/or choice. You could use both!

Using both would be an option in a dual timeframe story, where the main action happens in the present day, say, but you also have a lot of scenes set in the past, when your leading character was a child.

The obvious thing to do is use present tense for the scenes set in the present day and past tense for the scenes set in the past. Oddly, though, doing it the other way around is more effective...

  • Use present tense for the scenes set in the past. Yes, the present tense sounds a little weird, at least when you first start reading it, but it can work perfectly for conveying memories or what it feels like to be a child again, living totally in the moment.
  • Use past tense for the present day scenes. As we've been discussing, past tense is solid and invisible and feels natural to readers when they start to read.