Sunday, March 18, 2018

Past or Present Tense – The Pros and Cons


When creating any new piece of writing, selecting the tense in which to write is often something an author struggles with. Not long ago writing in the past tense was strongly favoured, and particularly with works of fiction it was very rare to find a novel written in the present tense.
In recent years however this has changed, and we have seen a shift to the present tense, with some writers believing that writing using the past tense makes the work itself seem old fashioned. 
What has made the past tense increasingly unpopular, and the present tense now the tense of choice?
It seems for most seasoned writers it is an instinctive and natural decision. However for many novice writers, this is just another choice to fret over. So it is important to understand what the advantages and disadvantages of each might be. Here we have broken these down so authors can make an informed choice when deciding which tense to write in.

Present tense creates immediacy in a way that the past tense cannot, it allows the reader to experience changes in the story and changes to its characters as they happen. This creates a bond between the reader and characters as they experience things together, simultaneously, therefore tension, suspense and drama can be more easily conveyed. Characters become more lifelike, tangible and real, and selecting the present tense when describing a character truly reflects their nature, drawing the reader closer to them.
The use of the present tense also reflects the overall theme of the book. If your book tells a story of events that happened to your main character in the past, but he or she tells them in the present tense, the effect can be very powerful. Simply by telling the events in this way, the author is hinting at a past that is very much part of the narrators present, and perhaps will always be so.

Using the present tense in your work also simplifies how we use the other tenses in the story. When writing in the past tense, it is likely that a writer will dip in and out of the other 12 tenses that we use in the English language. However using the present tense restricts our use of the others, with the majority of stories written in the present tense only using the simple present, the present progressive, and occasionally the simple past and simple future. Even then the majority of the writing is likely to be kept in the simple present. This simplicity can be used cleverly to the writers advantage, conveying clear ideas and allowing the reader to fully immerse themselves in the story, with no confusion about when the events took place.

PRESENT TENSE - the cons
If employing the present tense in our writing we become restricted with how we can describe time. Trying to manipulate a sequence of events or change the chronological order will be difficult and potentially confusing to the reader. The point of the present tense is to tell a series of events as they unfold. If you don’t want to evoke the feeling that what you are writing is happening 'now', then the present tense is not a good choice. 
Building multi-layered characters is more of a challenge if you use the present tense. Because you can no longer influence the order of events or the duration, it is difficult to put across the characters own personal experience of time, how they understand the past, and how it has influenced them. The more context we have for a character, the more we are able to understand them, and their motivations for why they are a certain way now. Without the kind of context flashbacks into the past give the reader, there is a risk of the characters coming across as tediously uncomplicated.
Suspense is harder to convey with a story written in the present tense. The protagonists of a present tense story don’t have any idea what is going to happen to them from one moment to the next, and subsequently, neither does the reader. Tension and suspense come from having that knowledge, knowing that something is about to happen, whether the protagonist is aware of it or not.
Finally, if we are not careful, use of the present tense can cause us to be sloppy. While the past tense allows us to write selectively, and only include, necessary, plot advancing details in the work. Using the present tense more naturally encourages inclusion of mundane, irrelevant details, because such events would happen in a natural sequence of time.
Before beginning any work it is worth thinking about which tense will best suit your story. Each have their own advantages which, if used cleverly, could enhance your work. Whatever you do, make sure you pick wisely as it is certainly not an easy job to go back and change when you are half way through!

I've always been compelled to write in the past tense, since many books I have read have been written as such. Nearly every book I read as a child is in the past tense and when I felt like writing a story myself then, it just seemed natural to write in the past tense. Writing in past tense just seems to come naturally to me and likely to many writers.

Since I'm writing a memoir, it only seemed natural to write in past tense since much of which is being written about was in fact in the past 🙂  One has to be careful though when including information something that is or might still be true today--that portion must be written in the present. From my story:
This was my earliest memory of learning generic and trade names of medications that contain the letters X, Y or Z somewhere in their name. Generic names with more syllables in their names than their trade name counterparts have in theirs. ...
All the facts mentioned are still true. When editing this part for who knows how many times, I noticed that I had written "contained"  instead of "contain." Things like this need to be watched out for.

I still have not been compelled to write in the present tense, as writing in the past still seems to come naturally. Things get to be habits, and this has become one for me. 

When I began writing a diary novel, I wasn't sure whether to write past or present, though writing in past just happened out of habit. It's still in the preliminary stages, so deciding whether to use present or past tense is still in the air.

Perhaps attempting to write in present tense at last once will be one way to get me out of my writing comfort zone. Everyone will always feel compelled to write in the tense that they prefer or that they do out of habit. It's all a matter of preference.


  1. I do feel present tense brings an immediacy that past can't, but as this article points out, it does come with problems.

  2. There are, as you noted, pluses and minuses to both. I hope that you find one which works for your memoir, noting that a different approach may be necessary for the diary.

  3. I use both. It really depends on which lends itself better to a particular story.

  4. Hope your week is productive and pleasant, Jamie.