How to Choose the RIGHT Tense for Your Novel
*Future tense is certainly technically possible, but it’s used so rarely in fiction we’re going to skip it here.
What’s the Difference Between Present and Past Tense?
In fiction, a story in past tense is about events that happened in the past. For example:
From the safety of his pickup truck, John watched as his beloved house burned to the ground. With a blank face, he drove away.
Present tense, on the other hand, sets the narration directly into the moment of the events:
From the safety of his pickup truck, John watches as his beloved house burns to the ground. With a blank face, he drives away.
This is a short example, but what do you think? How are they different? Which version do you prefer?
Choose Between Past and Present Tense BEFORE You Start Writing Your Novel
New writers are notorious for switching back and forth between past and present tense within their books. It’s one of the most common mistake people make when they are writing fiction for the first time.
On top of that, I often talk to writers who are halfway finished with their first drafts, or even all the way finished, and are now questioning which tense they should be using.
Unfortunately, the more you’ve written of your novel, the harder it is to change tenses, and if you do end up deciding to change tenses, it can take many hours of hard work.
That’s why it’s so important to choose between past and present tense before you start writing your novel
With that in mind, make sure to save this guide, so you can have it as a resource when you begin your next novel.
Both Past Tense and Present Tense Are Fine
Past tense is by far the most common tense, whether you’re writing a fictional novel or a nonfiction newspaper article. If you can’t decide which tense you should use in your novel, you should probably write it in past tense.
There are many reasons past tense is the standard for novels. One main reason is simply that it’s the convention. Reading stories in past tense is so normal that reading present tense narratives can feel jarring and annoying to many readers. Some readers, in fact, won’t read past the few pages if your book is in present tense.
That being said, from a technical perspective, present tense is perfectly acceptable. There’s nothing wrong with it, even if it does annoy some readers. It has been used in fiction for hundreds of years, and there’s no reason you can’t use it if you want to.
Keep in mind, there are drawbacks though.
The Hunger Games and Other Examples of Present Tense Novels
I was talking with a writer friend today who used to have strong feelings against present tense. If she saw the author using it in the first paragraph of a novel, she would often put the book back on the bookstore shelf.
Then, she read The Hunger Games, one of the most popular recent examples of a present tense novel (along with All the Light We Cannot See), and when she realized well into the book that the novel was in present tense, all those negative opinions about it were turned on their heads.
Many of the biggest present-tense opponents (like Philip Pullman) use caveats like this. Some of them even blame The Hunger Games for later, less well-written present tense novels. “Hunger Games was fine,” they say, “but now every other novel is in present tense.”
However, the reality is that it has a long tradition. Here are a several notable examples of present tense novels:
The Bleak House by Charles Dickens
While present tense was frequently used as an aside from the author to the reader before this, Charles Dickens’ novel The Bleak House, first published in serial form in 1852, is the first novel that I could find written mostly in it. The story is narrated in third-person present tense, but it also includes sections narrated by one of the main characters in the past tense.
Rabbit, Run by John Updike
Rabbit, Run was John Updike’s second novel. Now a classic of American literature, it surprised readers with its use of present tense. Updike said he used it intentionally because it was the perfect fit for his jumpy, unstable protagonist.
Rabbit, Run is sometimes praised for being the first book to be written entirely in present tense. But while it may have been the first prominent American novel in present tense, it was hardly the first in the world.
Ulysses by James Joyce
James Joyce, the great Irish novelist, has a reputation for literary experimentation, and his novel Ulysses was one of the first to be written entirely in present tense. Ulysses was first published serially in 1918.
All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque
This 1929 novel about World War I uses present tense to give a heightened visualization of the horrors of war.
Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk
“This is your life and it’s ending one moment at a time.”
Like several of Chuck’s novels, Fight Club, published in 1999, is written in present tense.
Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney
Bright Lights, Big City is notable both for being written in present tense and second-person. While it’s not necessarily something you should use as an example in your own writing, it is an interesting case.
Other Notable Novels
Here are several other notable present tense novels
- All the Light We Cannot Seeby Anthony Doerr
- Bird Box: A Novel by Josh Malerman (I’m reading this right now, and it’s great!)
- The White Queen by Philippa Gregory (the basis for the BBC TV Series)
- Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood
- Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
There are dozens of other notable and bestselling novels written in present tense. However, comic books are another example of popular present-tense writing, which use dialogue bubbles and descriptions almost universally in present tense.
5 Advantages of Present Tense
Present tense, like past tense, has its benefits and drawbacks. Here are five reasons why you might choose to use it in your writing:
1. Present Tense Feels Like a Movie
One reason authors have used present tense more often in the last century is that it feels most film-like.
Perhaps writers think they can get their book adapted into a movie easier if they use present tense, or perhaps they just want to mimic the action and suspense found in film, but whether film is the inspiration or the goal, its increasing use owes much to film.
John Updike himself credits film for his use of present tense, as he said in his interview with the Paris Review:
Rabbit, Run was subtitled originally, ‘A Movie.’ The present tense was in part meant to be an equivalent of the cinematic mode of narration…. This doesn’t mean, though, that I really wanted to write for the movies. It meant I wanted to make a movie. I could come closer by writing it in my own book than by attempting to get through to Hollywood.
Christopher Bram, author of Father of Frankenstein, says much the same, “I realized I was using it because it’s the tense of screenplays.”
2. Present Tense Intensifies the Emotions
Present tense gives the reader a feeling like, “We are all in this together.” Since the reader knows only as much as the narrator does, it can draw the reader more deeply into the suspense of the story, heightening the emotion.
3. Present Tense Works Well With Deep Point of View
Deep point of view, or deep POV, is a style of narrative popular right now in which the third person point of view is deeply embedded into the consciousness of the character.
Deep POV is like first person narrative, and has a similar level of closeness, but it’s written in third person. By some accounts, deep POV accounts for fifty percent of adult novels and seventy percent of YA novels.
Present tense pairs especially well with a deep point of view because both serve to bring the narrative closer to the reader.
4. Present Tense Works Best In Short-Time-Frame Stories With Constant Action
Present tense works well in stories told in a very short time frame—twenty-four hours, for example—because everything is told in real time, and it’s difficult to make too many transitions and jumps in time.
5. Present Tense Lends Itself Well To Unreliable Narrators
Since the narrative is so close to the action in present tense stories, it lends well to unreliable narrators. An unreliable narrator is a narrator who tells a story incorrectly or leaves out key details. It’s a fun technique because the reader naturally develops a closeness with the narrator, so when you find out they’re secretly a monster, for example, it creates a big dramatic reversal.
Since present tense draws you even closer to the narrator, it makes that reversal even more dramatic.
5 Drawbacks of Present Tense
As useful as present tense can be in the right situation, there are reasons to avoid it. Here are five reasons to choose past tense over present tense:
1. Some Readers Hate Present Tense
The main reason to avoid present tense, in my opinion, is that some people hate it. Philip Pullman, the bestselling author of the Golden Compass series, says:
What I dislike about the present-tense narrative is its limited range of expressiveness. I feel claustrophobic, always pressed up against the immediate.
Writer beware: right or wrong, if you write in present tense, some people will throw your book down in disgust. Past tense is a much safer choice.
2. Present Tense Less Flexible, Time Shifts Can Be Awkward
The disadvantage of present tense is that since you’re so focused on into events as they happen, it can be hard to disengage from the ever-pressing moment and shift to events in the future or past.
I want all the young present-tense storytellers (the old ones have won prizes and are incorrigible) to allow themselves to stand back and show me a wider temporal perspective. I want them to feel able to say what happened, what usually happened, what sometimes happened, what had happened before something else happened, what might happen later, what actually did happen later, and so on: to use the full range of English tenses.
Since you’re locked into the present, you’re limited in your ability to move through time freely. For more flexibility when it comes to navigating time, choose past tense.
3. Present Tense Harder to Pull Off
Since present tense is so much less flexible that past tense, it’s much more difficult to use it well. As Editorial Ass. says:
Let me say that present tense is not a reason I categorically reject a novel submission. But it often becomes a contributing reason, because successful present tense novel writing is much, much more difficult to execute than past tense novel writing. Most writers, no matter how good they are, are not quite up to the task.
Elibeth McCraken continues this theme:
I think a lot of writers choose the present tense as a form of cowardice. They think the present tense is really entirely about the present moment, as though the past and future do not actually exist. But a good present tense is really about texture, not time, and should be as rich and complicated and full of possibilities as the past tense. They too often choose the present tense because they think they can avoid thinking about time, when really it’s all about time.
If you’re new to writing fiction, or if you’re looking for an easier tense to manage, choose past tense.
4. No or Little Narration
While present tense does indeed mimic film, that can be more of a disadvantage than an advantage. Writers have many more narrative tricks available to them than filmmakers. Writers can enter the heads of their characters, jump freely through time, speak directly to the reader, and more. However, present tense removes many of those options out of your bag of tricks. As Emma Darwin says:
The thing is, though, that film can’t narrate: it can only build narrative by a sequence of in-the-present images of action.
To get the widest range of options in your narrative, use past tense.
5. Present Tense Is More Limited
As Writer’s Digest says, with present tense you only have access to four verb tenses, simple present, present progressing, simple future, and occasionally simple past. However, with past tense, you have access to all twelve verb tenses English contains.
In other words, you limit yourself to one-third of your choices if you use present tense.
How to Combine Present and Past Tense Correctly
While you should be very careful about switching tenses within the narrative, there is one situation in which present tense can be combined within a novel:
Breaking the Fourth Wall is a term from theater that describes when an actor or actors address the audience directly. A good example of this is from Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream:
If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber’d here
While these visions did appear.
So, good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.
As with theater, novels have broken the fourth wall for hundreds of years, addressing the reader directly and doing so in present tense.
Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie
A great example of breaking the wall is from Midnight’s Children, the Best of the Bookers winning novel by Salman Rushdie, in which Saleem narrates from the present tense, speaking directly to the reader, but describes events that happened in the past, sometimes more than a hundred years before.
I am the sum total of everything that went before me, of all I have been seen done, of everything done-to-me. I am everyone everything whose being-in-the-world affected was affected by mine. I am anything that happens after I’m gone which would not have happened if I had not come.
― Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children
A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
Dickens’ novel, A Tale of Two Cities, also uses this technique of breaking the fourth wall and addressing the reader directly. Here’s a quote from the novel:
A solemn consideration, when I enter a great city by night, that every one of those darkly clustered houses encloses its own secret; that every room in every one of them encloses its own secret; that every beating heart in the hundreds of thousands of breasts there, is, in some of its imaginings, a secret to the heart nearest it!
Which Tense is Right For Your Book, Past Tense or Present Tense?
As you can see present tense has its advantages and disadvantages.
If you’re writing a film-like, deep POV novel with an unreliable narrator in which the story takes place in just few days, present tense could be a perfect choice.
On the other hand, if your story takes place over several years, follows many point of view characters, and places a greater emphasis on narration, past tense is almost certainly your best bet.
Whatever you do, though, DON’T change tenses within your novel (unless you’re breaking the fourth wall).
How about you? Which tense do you prefer, past or present tense? Why? Let us know in the comments section.
More Present and Past Tense Resources:
by Alexandra Chee , The Guardian by Editorial Ass. , Wikipedia , Wikipedia by Beth Hill
Practice writing in both present and past tense.
Write a scene about a young man or woman walking through London. First, spend ten minutes writing your scene in present tense. Then, spend ten minutes rewriting your scene in past tense.
When your time is up, post your practice in both tenses in the comments section.
Verb Tense, Flashbacks, and Fiction: The Past of the Past in Creative Writing
Today, I want to explore one of the trickier aspects of writing mechanics: verb tense and the past, especially where flashback scenes are concerned. I was asked by one of the blog’s followers to write this, and I thought it was a great idea!
Levels of Temporality
The first thing to keep in mind is that there are levels of temporality, or time, within your average text. Assuming you’re writing a standard text using past tense verbs instead of the present tense, you have:
- THE PRESENT. This is the level where your narrator is located, looking back at past events.
- PAST 1. This is the basic level of your action, where the major events of your plot occur and where your characters are. As this level is in the past in comparison to the narration, the basic past tense of verbs is used. Said, yelled, ran, broke down, screamed, etc.
- PAST 2. When your characters, in PAST 1, or your narrator, refers to something that happened in the past where PAST 1 is concerned, you get PAST 2. Past two uses the pluperfect tense.
I just love the pluperfect, for its name. In Spanish it’s called “el pluscuamperfecto,” and in French “le plus-que-parfait.” How fun is that.
Anyway: the pluperfect means your “had” verbs. “Had walked.” “Had talked.” “Had eaten.” “Had taken.”
As I said above, one of its uses is to demonstrate that an action took place in a more distant past in comparison to a second past action. For example:
- When I arrived, the show had already finished. (The show ended before I arrived.)
- How was I supposed to he’d cooked dinner? (He had already cooked dinner before I did something I wouldn’t have done, if I’d realized that at the time.)
- The reason I didn’t come was that they‘d said he wouldn’t be there. (They told me, before an event, that he wouldn’t be there, so when the event happened, I didn’t go.)
This layering of events in the past is the exact situation that occurs in fiction when you have characters, during a passage narrated in the past, remembering events that occurred previously.
In other words: a flashback.
A quick note on dialogue
Don’t forget that you’re narrator’s PAST 1 is your character’s PRESENT. So when you consider dialogue in contrast to narration, your verb tenses might shift a level. In fact, unless your characters are discussing hypothetical situations, they probably will shift. This might sound complicated, but it’s really not that difficult. In fact, it’s probably something you do instinctively. For instance:
- Jane said he‘d brought her flowers at work and given her a box of chocolates the day before.
- Jane said, “He brought me flowers at work and gave me a box of chocolates yesterday.”
- Jamie knew Larry hadn’t taken the train.
- Jamie said, “Larry didn’t take the train.”
- Arthur didn’t believe June had stolen the necklace.
- Arthur said, “I don’t believe June stole the necklace.”
So, one way to avoid the pluperfect for a long passage dealing with a past within the past, is to convert the scene to dialogue or to a character’s direct thoughts. Your character’s thoughts would be on the same temporal plane as dialogue, allowing you to talk about PAST 2 events using PAST 1 verbs, or the simple past.
Using a Pure Flashback
There are various ways to handle a flashback. A common one–and my preferred method–is to make it clear that a flashback is occurring, then separate the text of the flashback some way. I usually space an empty line or two, or insert this:
This is an effective strategy. Because the preceding section and the textual division establish that the passage to follow occurred further in the past, and isn’t chronological with the rest of the book’s action, I can then narrate it as I narrate the rest of the book–using the simple past–without confusing anybody or forcing the flashback events into a dialogue or a progression of thought.
The reason I love this strategy so much is that is helps me avoid an overuse of the pluperfect, because all those “had”s can get tedious to deal with!
I wouldn’t do this more than two or three times in the course of a book, because it’s so marked a strategy that your reader will notice it and remember it. You don’t want to abuse how useful it is. But it’s great!
Tense in English can be a bit more fluid than in other languages.
Another thing to remember, talking about tense, is that tense in English can be fluid. Sometimes you can find yourself in a situation where either one choice or another would be appropriate.
One great example comes from above. I wrote:
- The reason I didn’t come was that they‘d said he wouldn’t be there.
Well, putting that pluperfect verb in the simple past would work too.
- The reason I didn’t come was that they said he wouldn’t be there.
You could get away with using the simple past there, for sure.
If nothing else, tense in English is less rigid than in Spanish or French. For instance, in English we could always say, “Oh, yeah, I knew him as a kid. His name is Jack.”
Yes, I knew Jack in the past. But his name’s still Jack. So I can put that verb in the present tense. In fact, if I put it in the past, I might give the impression that Jack’s not alive anymore. In either case, the tense of that second verb isn’t dependent on the tense of the first one.
In Spanish, that’s not the case. In Spanish, you would have to say, “His name was Jack” to use standard style. (“Se llamaba Jack.”) And everyone would know the man’s name is still Jack in the present. You’re just talking about Jack in the past, so you use a past tense verb. It’s a much more rigid system. Everything has to match up and flow together.
This means that in English, upon occasion, we can get away with sometimes NOT using the pluperfect, especially if it sounds better not to and it’s clear the action took place in a more distant past.
In fact, talking with some writers I know from college, I’ve heard them mention that tense is one of the things they play around with most during editing. They’ll change things, and then change them back. And then maybe change them again.
So if tense issues and the pluperfect drive you nuts, because you’re not sure if you need it or not, you’re definitely not alone.
Past Versus Present: Which Tense Is Best in Creative Writing
The smaller-seeming decisions about your story can have a big impact on your reader’s experience. Which tense you choose is one of those decisions. As authors, we usually start writing and whichever tense – past or present – comes out is what we stick with, but if you want to avoid an entire rewrite, you should give your tense some thought when you first begin.
What Is Tense in Creative Writing
Tense in creative writing refers to the ending of a verb that conveys when that action took place. Is the action happening right now? Has it already happened? Or will it happen in the future?
Past tense is when the action has already occurred.
Present tense is when the action is happening right now.
Future tense is when the action hasn’t happened yet.
Eva will jump over the creek.
In creative writing, future tense is rarely used, so we will focus on past and present tenses. There are subcategories of these tenses such as past perfect. A good, quick definition and example of those can be found at A Guide to Verb Tenses: 5 Tips for Using Tenses Correctly.
Regardless of which tense you choose, you need to be consistent. You shouldn’t be switching between tenses unless you’re switching points of view or pulling the story into the present. Even then, switching tenses can confuse a reader, so make sure you’re clear and consistent once you make the switch. If changing tenses is a tendency of yours, you might need to read through your manuscript only to correct your verb tense.
How Present Tense Affects Your Story
When you write in present tense, readers notice. Maybe it’s because past tense is the traditional and most used tense or maybe it’s because present tense means the author or character is telling the story to the reader as it is happening. This is not typically how people tell stories. Usually we tell them after the events. However, sometimes we do relate a story as it happens. Think of those Twitter threads where people tweet out a dramatic event in real time or announcers who describe a live sports event for listeners. In these cases, present tense adds to the urgency and tension and increases the story’s pace.
Present tense works best in first or second person narratives. Sometimes you create a character who is so narcissistic, self-centered, or flustered that they are telling the reader what’s happening as it occurs. Or the events of the story need to be shown in real time. In that case, first person present tense might be the best choice. This is the case for Shooter by Caroline Pignat. Here’s an excerpt:
Nerd Girl finally shuts up, but she’s still swaying a bit as she backs up to the door. “So, uh, I’m gonna go now,” she mutters. “I really should get to class . . .”
“What are you talking about?” Izzy looks at her like she’s crazy. “Hello? We’re in a lockdown.”
“Lockdown?” Nerd Girl frowns. I guess she hit her head harder than I thought (8).
Shooter is a Breakfast Club meets a school shooting book. By using first person present tense, the reader is experiencing the lockdown in real time with the characters and doesn’t know who will make it out alive and who won’t. This is a frantic, urgent event, and the use of present tense mimics how the characters are feeling.
Second person works ever better than first person in present tense because the reader is the character. It’s the only point of view that uses present tense more often than past tense. In second person, you’re telling the reader what they’re “doing” as they do it instead of what they have already done. Here’s how Lezly Harrison uses present tense in “With a Cherry on Top” from Flight: A 30th Street Fiction Anthology:
You’re perched at the top of your contraption, your steely roundness nestled in a small hole carved into a disposable wooden ice cream spoon. The drone of the crowd echoes around you. The girl told you the gymnasium would be big, bigger than the barn you practice in, and she warned you the room would be full of people. Still, you weren’t prepared for the rows and rows of strangers – in different sizes like the Russian dolls the girls play with . . . (107)
In this story, the reader gets to experience what it’s like to be an object in a competition. Second person means the reader is that object, and present tense means they get to “live” the race as it happens. Both the point of view and events require present tense in “With a Cherry on Top.”
Present tense is the most effective when you have a reason for using it. So ask yourself why you’ve chosen present tense? What aspect of your story requires it? If you don’t have a good reason, do you really want your reader to notice your tense or do your want your tense to fade into the background, so other parts of your story can be featured? Again, readers notice present tense.
How Past Tense Affects Your Story
Past tense is the conventional, fallback tense because we usually tell stories after they’ve happened, not during. But it’s also because past tense disappears. Readers don’t notice it in the same way they don’t notice the word “said.” They register the meaning of past tense without focusing on it. This allows them to concentrate on the other aspects of your story like your characters and plot.
Third person and omniscient points of view are written almost exclusively in past tense. Like anything in creative writing, there are exceptions, but most of the time these points of view look really funny in present tense. Stick with past tense here unless you have a good reason to use present. Here’s an example of third person past tense from Denver City Justice by J.v.L. Bell:
Total mayhem followed the sheriff’s announcement. Men bounded to their feet, knocking over chairs as they pushed and shoved toward the food table. Mr. Poor collided with Old Shakespeare and the short shopkeeper stumbled and landed in Widow Farris’ lap (113).
Denver City Justice is a murder mystery set in 1800’s Colorado. Bell would rather have her readers focus on the mystery and relationship between her characters, not which tense she used. That’s why past tense works best for her. Also notice this paragraph still has urgency and tension and a fast pace despite being in past tense.
First person is also usually in past tense. When a character narrates their own story, they are telling that story to someone. They might be writing it down, being interviewed, or speaking directly to the reader. Either way, they are not usually telling it as it happens. Most people (and personalities) relate their story after the fact like M.H. Boroson’s protagonist in The Girl with Ghost Eyes. Here’s an example:
I took it slow. Moving back into my body, the twelve pulses would grow quicker, the breath would grow deeper. I relaxed into myself again, feeling the cords of my spirit realign with muscles and sinews. It was a wonderful feeling, a homecoming (49).
When it comes to tenses, using the conventional frees you up as an author to highlight and play with other aspects of your story. So if you are playing with form or structure to experiment with writing, use past tense to highlight the other parts of your text.
An Editor and Author’s Suggestions for Choosing Your Tense
The other reason you need to think about your tense is because it can be the difference between getting published and not. A few years ago, people suddenly started writing in first person present tense A LOT. Most of these authors were new writers pitching debut novels. That means first person present tense came to be the mark of an amateur author. While this stigma has lessened overtime, it is still there. So if you’re a new author hoping to traditionally publish, using present tense won’t give you the best chance at landing an agent or publisher.
The thing you have to ask yourself when picking your story’s tense is “Is this really the hill I want to die on?” I know changing the tense or doing a complete read through cleaning up that one writing mechanic is a lot of work and it’s not necessarily the fun part of revision. I’ve done it in my own work and with clients. However, your tense has a huge effect on your reader’s experience. Is that really where you want to get stubborn? Is that really where you’re going to stop revising?
I’ve seen too many authors get weirdly stubborn about this part of the story, and it’s usually because they don’t want to do the work. In this case, it is so worth it. Readers notice. Bad reviews can come from tense, so make sure you choose past or present tense because it is the best choice for your story to Ignite Your Ink.
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