Writing in Present or Past Tense?

Writing: Should I use Present or Past Tense?

When you’re writing a story, choosing either past or present tense influences your reader’s experience. Just as your story’s Point of View character has a unique perspective, using past or present tense lends a distinct flavor to your work.

Writing Tip for Today: How does past or present tense influence a reader’s experience?

I Am Here

With the rise in popularity of First Person POV novels, writers who use the present tense have also multiplied. The main advantage to a present-tense story hooked to a First Person POV character is that the camera comes even closer than with simple past tense. Today’s readers crave intimacy with the story character—that is, readers often imagine that they are the POV character. Adding present tense to a First person or Third Limited POV heightens the excitement of a story unfolding word by word. Readers get the feeling that even the narrator doesn’t know what will happen next.

The immediacy of writing in the present tense can add to the story’s tension and keep readers turning pages. Present tense also eliminates the need for Past Perfect tense (those hads) in back story. Present tense also highlights a character’s inner life, making it a good choice for character-driven stories.

She Was There

Writing in present tense may elevate tension and create an intimate and immediate experience, but some readers dislike the idea and prefer stories in simple past tense. Their preference may relate to age-old storytelling around campfires, where a story from the past (even a minute ago is past) was told again and again as part of oral history. Third Person Limited POV in simple past tense is the go-to format for many genre books. In back story, past tense requires an initial “had” to denote its place in the timeline (the past perfect tense), as well as another “had” as you exit the flashback.

Action and plot-driven novels typically shine when written in Third Limited POV and past tense. The camera stays at a comfortable distance—far away enough to capture all the action, not close enough to become overly tangled in a character’s inner problems.

We Are Consistent

Choosing to write in present or past tense usually attracts certain readers. Present tense (I sing, Jane sees) concentrates readers’ attention on the character’s inner workings. Past tense (I sang, Jane saw) can help readers focus on the action. The most important thing to remember when you decide on present or past is to be consistent. Changing tenses is risky—it increases the chances of reader confusion. Be sure you understand the correct forms of words and watch out for tricky words such as lie and lay. Before you decide on present tense or past tense, try out each on a short scene and then read it out loud. Then, make your decision based upon the type of story you’re writing, which Point of View your character takes and which sounds more natural to your ear.

About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

9 comments on “Writing in Present or Past Tense?

  1. I was just dealing with this question. What a timely post. I have always wanted to write in present tense, because of the energy and pacing, but I realized I’m more comfortable in past tense. Hopefully what feels natural to me will prove the right choice in the end. Thank you for your article.

    • Celaine,
      Great that you found the post useful! I do think some writers feel more confident when they have figured out what comes more naturally–past or present tense. Let me know how it goes and KEEP WRITING!

  2. Hi Linda! Would it be possible for you to add a PS to this article? I’d love to see your recommendation of authors who you feel excel in these categories. 🙂

  3. Patrick,
    Great idea! I’ll try to think of some favorites. One wonderful story I’m reading currently, written in present tense, is Lisa Wingate’s Before We Were Yours (it’s on the NYT bestseller list).
    Keep Writing!

    • Bryan,
      I highly doubt you will be one-dimensional. I’d go with what you’re drawn to–taking into consideration how close you want the camera, your audience’s expectations and if there are things you need the reader to know that the 1st person POV can’t know.
      Experiment a little!
      Keep Writing,

  4. Excellent post, Linda. You have shed some light and removed some of the mystery. Thank you.
    If you would be interested in extra exposure for this post I can offer you a guest author spot on my website. I think this will help a lot of authors. I average over 350 unique viewers daily, on my website.

  5. Hi Mark,
    Sure I’ll guest on your site. Send me what you need for posting and let me know when it goes live.
    Oh and do KEEP WRITING!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *