Past or Present? Using Tense Effectively in Fiction

Past or Present? Using Tense Effectively in Fiction

For the main narrative voice of your story, you need to choose a verb tense. Once you do, consistency within the narrative is essential. I stopped reading one self-published book after less than a chapter because the author couldn’t make up her mind about verb tense. The constant switching between past and present was confusing and made it impossible for me to become engrossed in the story.

There are exceptions, such as dialogue and flashback, when you can switch tenses, but for the most part, you need to pick a tense and stick to it.

Which Tense Should You Use?

The most common tenses for narrating a story are past and present. Historically, the past tense seems to have the upper hand, but the use of the present tense has recently become more common, especially with the rise of young adult fiction.

The present tense lets an author tell the story as it is happening.

Jill stares down at the bed with its mussed sheets. The faint scent of perfume tickles her nose. It’s not her perfume. Her stomach twists into a tight knot.

The past tense tells a story as if in reflection. The narrator can be speaking of something that happened five minutes ago or five hundred years ago.

Jill stared down at the bed with its mussed sheets. The faint scent of perfume tickled her nose. It was not her perfume. Her stomach twisted into a tight knot.

tense, verb tense, fiction, writing fictionSome argue that present tense lends a sense of immediacy to the story and to the action. I’ve read too many novels, however, written in the past tense with plenty of action and immediacy to accept this argument at face value. Nonetheless, the present tense has its place, especially in modern literature, and I have no problem with it when it’s used well.

In the end, the choice is stylistic. Choose whichever tense feels best for you and your story. In any case, be deliberate in your choice, and consider your audience. Many readers have a preference for one over the other.

In a sense, your choice of tense is like your choice of point of view.

How do you want the story to feel? How close and intimate do you want it to be? Do you want your narrator to be immersed only in the immediacy of events, for which the present tense would work well, or do you want him to be able to reflect on the choices that he has made as the reader is learning about them (e.g., “That ended up being the worst mistake I’d made since I’d started working the case.”)?

You may choose the present because popular writers in your genre are writing in the present tense and you feel that is the tense that readers expect.

You may choose the past tense because it is the one that you are used to and the tense in which you are most comfortable writing.

If you’re unsure about which to use, try writing the same scene in each tense and comparing them in terms of both your comfort level and their overall readability. Maybe even have someone else read them as well. Which one prompts the emotional response from the reader that you are looking for?

When Is It Okay to Switch Tenses?

Whether you use past or present tense, there will be times when you can switch tenses. You shouldn’t change tense on a whim, but under specific circumstances, it is okay and even expected. Here are a few common examples.

Dialogue

Of course, characters may speak in whatever tense is appropriate.

“What is Jane doing?” (present)

“I was just trying to fix the faucet!” (past progressive)

“She told me about the murder.” (simple past)

“They will blow up the state capitol!” (simple future)

Flashback

If your main narrative is in the present tense, flashbacks can be written in the simple past tense. For example, the previous story about Jill might continue like this, with the past tense making the flashback clear and the present tense bringing the reader back to the immediate situation:

Her stomach twists into a tight knot.

This morning, Jack kissed her in this very bed. He touched her skin with his gentle hands. He said she was the only woman for him.

Her rage boils up like fire in her belly. She is going to kill him.

tense, verb tense, flashback, fiction, writing fictionIf your main narrative is in the past tense, however, short flashbacks can be written in the past perfect tense:

Her stomach twisted into a tight knot.

That morning, Jack had kissed her in this very bed. He had touched her skin with his gentle hands. He had said she was the only woman for him.

Her rage boiled up like fire in her belly. She was going to kill him.

If your narrative flashback is longer, you can frame your flashback with several verbs in the past perfect tense before switching to simple past. Then, use at least one past perfect verb to signal the end of the flashback before coming back to the present. For example

Her stomach twisted into a tight knot.

That morning, Jack had kissed her in this very bed. He had touched her skin with his gentle hands. They laid in bed long past the alarm and talked about their wedding plans. She wanted a three-tiered vanilla cake with white icing, and he said that was perfect. Whatever made her happy. The only thing he cared about was that she would be the one walking down the aisle. He had said she was the only woman for him.

Her rage boiled up like fire in her belly. She was going to kill him.

Note how the paragraph breaks in these examples also serve to separate the flashbacks from the immediate story.

Adverbs and Tense

Some folks flag words such as such as now or phrases such as “This morning” as being in the present tense. However, these are not verbs and, therefore, don’t have a tense.

In fact, now has several meanings, all of which indicate the immediacy of the present moment but cover its use in both the past and present tenses. According to Merriam-Webster Online, now means both “at the present time or moment” and “at the time referred to.”

Phrases such as “last night” and “this morning” are relative terms and can be used in both past and present tense narrations:

Jill thought about last night. Where had Jack been until 11 p.m.?

Some writers prefer to use phrases such as “the previous night” to prevent confusion, but both are correct.

Which tense is your favorite, past or present? Why do you prefer it?

Resources

Garner’s Modern American Usage, Bryan A. Garner

“Present Tense Books,” Mignon Fogarty, QuickAndDirtyTips.com

“The Pros and Cons of Writing a Novel in Present Tense,” David Jauss, Writers Digest, excerpted from On Writing Fiction

Writing: Past or Present Tense?,” Debbie Young, Self Publishing Advice Center

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