Past Tense vs. Present Tense In Writing

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...

  • The present tense is an acceptable alternative, though it has its drawbacks.
  • And if you insist on using the future tense, use it in a short story only - preferably a very short story, because that it how long it will take to start grating on the readers' nerves.

The past tense is by far the most common tense used in novel writing today. Come to think of it, it is used everywhere: in newspapers, in non-fiction books, in magazines, on the news - you name it.

So am I saying you should use it simply because it is the most common tense? Not exactly, no...

Standing apart from the ordinary and the commonplace is a good thing. But the best way to do it in fiction is through original characters and an original story told in a unique way.

Writing a novel in the future conditional tense, say, might be original (or even unique) but only in a very shallow way.

The reason I believe that most of you reading this should use the past tense is simple: it is what readers expect, and what they therefore feel comfortable with.

The past, paradoxically, feels more rooted in the "here and now" than the present tense does.

Why? I'm really not sure, other than the fact that it is the tense us humans have always used to tell stories (and the reason for that, of course, is that a story is something that is over and done with, that is in the past).

Take a look at this example written in the past tense...

They picked up the motorway 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 teeshirt, Mum!"
   She glanced at him like he was nuts. Justine hadn't even unwrapped 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 motorway 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 is 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 teeshirt, Mum!"She glances at him like he's nuts. Justine hasn't even unwrapped 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 is just a little - stranger, 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 suicidal decision, in terms of your chances of seeing your novel in print.

But 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.

Bottom line?

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

Using the present tense is only a tiny obstacle (but an obstacle nonetheless). Using, I don't know, the second person imperative (or something equally daft) is a huge, huge obstacle, and probably one that readers - and more importantly, publishers - won't be able to overcome.

But using first person or third person point of view in the past tense is "invisible" to readers, because it is what they expect. Readers won't even notice it, meaning they will be able to concentrate instead on what really matters: the story you are telling.