Feb 022014
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About the use of past and present tense in fiction

Think of the last three books you read. Were they written in past tense or present tense? If you are a writer or were reading the book for discussion at a book club, you may have made note of the tense. Otherwise, there is a good chance you didn’t notice and can’t remember. Choice of tense is, however, a big deal for writers.

Past tense depicts events as having already occurred, sometime before the narrative. e.g. I wrote my blog post about tenses. In present tense, the events are described as occurring in real time, in the current moment. e.g. I write my blog post about tenses. Future tense describes an event as occurring sometime in the future. e.g. I will write my blog post about tenses. It is rarely used in fiction and I am not going to discuss it here.

Past tense flows well. It has been used for storytelling across the ages. We are used to it and usually don’t consciously notice the tense as we read. I’ve read that use of past tense with a first person point of view can create a distance between reader and writer, but I haven’t experienced that in my own reading.

Present tense can shorten the distance between reader and writer. It adds immediacy and suspense. The reader experiences the events at the same time as the writer. However, it can be awkward at times. The reader is likely to notice use of tense.

The use of tense gets more complicated when there are flashbacks involved. If writing in present tense, flashbacks written in simple past tense flow easily. When writing in past tense, a flashback in past perfect (e.g. I had written my blog post about tenses) can be awkward to write and difficult to read. A skilled writer may find ways to limit use of past perfect without jarring or confusing the reader, but it is not necessarily an easy or natural task.

I recently finished A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini. The book is written in four parts, the first three parts in past tense. The short fourth part, which covers the last 35 pages of a 367 page book, is written in present tense. When I started the fourth part, I noticed the use of present tense and had to look back to remember how the first three parts were written. I don’t know why the author chose to use present tense for the last part. I suspect it may have been done to give a sense of being in the present. This is life now after the events in the first three parts.

Although I occasionally write fiction in present tense, I gravitate naturally to past tense as a rule. There are exceptions. I once shared a work-in-progress with my writing group. They pointed out I had changed from past tense to present tense at one point in the story. The point where I’d done that was full of action. I had been living in the moment of the story as I wrote it. I pay more attention now to places where I change tense in early drafts to discover what that says about the story and my connection with it.

If you are a writer, how do you use tenses? If you are a reader, do you notice tenses?

  13 Responses to “Writing Tenses: Past and Present”

  1. Hi Donna: As a travel writer, I try hard to write in present tense, so that readers feel they’re right along with me on my travels. I’ve often had readers tell me that they felt they were right there with me, so I suspect I am achieving my goal. I learned that style of writing long ago from editors who said it adds life to the story by writing it in the present in first-person style.

  2. Thanks for encouraging me to think deeper about tenses. So neat that you are in a writing group!

  3. The worst offender is someone who writes about themselves in the third person. It cracks me up to think they might be having an out-of-body experience. Unfortunately, this offender is my sister and I don’t know how to correct this without offending her.

  4. I am always conscious of which tense I use in my writing. I think it makes a huge difference. Thank you for this article.

  5. Tense confusion is s common!!!! I have to admit that it is for me as well…I have to be so careful. But I agree that past tense has been used in story telling for years and centuries and personally I think it flows the best!

  6. Interesting, I was just contemplating this as I was writing a story this week. I was switching back and forth throughout the story, wondering if that was too confusing. Haven’t decided yet, because I think in some cases it adds to the feel of the story. Not sure if I’m doing it well enough to pull it off though!

  7. As a general rule, I will use had once when going into the perfect past during a short flashback in a story. When I am nearing the end of that passage, I’ll use had once again to signal to the reader that I’m returning to simple past tense.

  8. I just finished a Sue Grafton mystery where the title of each chapter was a date to denote switches from the past to the present, but the writing was all in the present tense. For some reason, I found it kind of jarring at the time, but in retrospect, at least I didn’t spend the first few sentences (or pages!) in the wrong time period.

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