Past vs Present tense

This is a post about tense. There’s a rising prevalence of first person, present tense stories, and I wanted to see if it was just my perception or if more people were writing in present tense. So, on Mastodon, I started a poll – the thread that followed was also very informative.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The poll shows that nearly 6 in 10 writers write pretty much all the time in past tense. About 1 in 10 write present tense. About 1 in 3 write in both, many explaining it “depends on the story.”

Which one is harder?

For those who expressed trying both, they almost universally found present tense much harder to maintain. They’d slip into past tense describing something the character had done before, or the character’s dialogue explaining what had happened before to another character, and come back out to the narrative, continuing to write in past tense. They’d have to go back and fix it.

There’s actually a pretty simple explanation for this. Writing present tense is like narrating everything in real time. Maybe those who constantly text, snapchat and make selfie videos can do it easily, but most of us tend to tell people about what happens in our lives after the fact, even if it’s just the next hour or next day, or even the next minute:

Present tense: English class can’t talk

Past tense: Sorry, I didn’t answer your text. My English teacher confiscates phones so I couldn’t talk.

There is another element to writing in past tense that helps with storytelling – the ability to add context and reflection/judgement or convey feelings with a little perspective. It allows the writer to show character and even relationship status or development. Time is great for perspective.

In the above example, you can already see this effect at work. The present tense tension of texting while in English class is so brief and abrupt it gives a sense of terseness, maybe even would be perceived by the recipient as the person is angry or at the very least frustrated. In the past tense, the storyteller is characterized as a person who won’t break the rules (didn’t answer the text), but also caring enough to know that probably their friend would be angry about that and so they need to explain how much of a pain their English teacher is.

Abrupt and breathless is also useful, so present tense does have a place. You can use it in a mostly past tense story — as direct thoughts.

Jason heard the beep of his phone and typed blindly hoping what he typed would make sense to Miguel. Then he threw the phone into his bag, covering the action by pulling out his notebook. So glad Mrs. Z’s back is turned.

I am comfortable editing in present tense, but as a reader I definitely have a preference for past tense. I feel like I learn more about the characters. What’s your take?

~ Lara

Published by Lara Zielinsky

I have been writing and publishing for 20 years. I have been an editor of fiction for 15+ years. I am married, live in Florida and work from home full time as an editor.

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