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 once 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.

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.


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 on Tenses…

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…

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