Image source - TheDigitalArtist, Pixabay, edited in GIMP
This post provides a very basic look at "tense" in fiction, such as the difference between writing in present tense and past tense. In a subsequent post, we'll look at the types of tense.
Understanding the Role of Tense in Fiction
Tense can be a challenging subject, especially for emerging writers and those who are writing in English as a second language. The following questions tend to come up:
- Should I write in present tense or past tense?
- If I write in present tense, how do I refer to the past?
- Is it okay to write in both present tense and past tense in the same story?
Examples of present tense and past tense:
- Present tense: I walk to the river under a cloud-speckled sky.
- Past tense: I walked to the river under a cloud-speckled sky.
Let’s explore this topic by talking about each of the above questions.
Should You Write in Present Tense or Past Tense?
This is a matter of personal choice. Present tense is considered more modern. Past tense is considered more traditional. But it really is up to you, and can be something you use for effect, depending on the mood you want to convey with your story.
Here are some ideas for when to choose present tense:
- Consider writing in present tense if you are writing in the “literary fiction” genre.
- Write in present tense when you want a sense of immediacy, and to suggest this is happening right now.
- You could write in present tense to create fear or suspense.
This does not mean that present tense writing is suspenseful, by nature. But present tense could be a good vehicle to support the build-up of suspense. Here’s a short example:
We are running, running, running. The beast chases us further into the forest. I try to take Annie’s hand, but it is slick with sweat and we are both stumbling. The darkness is thick all around us. We can hear the beast breathing now. My lungs ache and I’m certain this is the end.
Try exploring writing in present tense to see if you like it.
Writing in past tense tends to feel more comfortable and familiar for most writers, but it can be fun to write in one or the other, depending on the nature of the story and how the mood strikes you.
If You Write in Present Tense, How Do You Refer to the Past?
If your story is in present tense and you need to refer to the past, you must shift to past tense. I think this is best shown with an example.
The past seems both near and far. She has forgotten so much. And yet she remembers a Sunday morning, as a child, when her mother brushed and styled her hair, as if it was yesterday.
Notice how “The past seems both near and far” and "She has forgotten" are in present tense, but when the story refers to the past, it shifts to past tense, “her mother brushed and styled her hair.”
Next we will discuss other instances where it’s okay to switch between present tense and past tense within one story.
Is It Okay to Write in Both Present Tense and Past Tense in One Story?
In general, the answer is no. You don’t want to mix present tense and past tense. This is something we see in work by emerging writers, and it is an important thing to look for in your own writing.
A great approach to take is to draft your story and set it aside for a little while. Then re-read your work. Take at least one editing pass to improve the writing and the flow, and do at least one more review of your work to fix errors in tense and grammar. You can dramatically improve your writing by taking these small steps.
Having stated that you don’t want to mix present and past tense, there are exceptions. One is the instance I mentioned above, where you are writing in present tense and you need to refer to the past.
Another exception is when you are writing a longer story that has passages that occur in the present and passages that occur in the past. This would be another time when it’s okay to switch between the two.
For example, let’s say you are writing a story told by an old man. You could write a chapter or passage of your story in present tense, in which the old man tells what is happening for him at his current age of 85, and then you could write a chapter or passage in which we see his life as a boy or as a young man, so we learn about past events that contribute to the present day.
I hope this helps you as you navigate tense in your stories.
@jayna, writer and moderator at The Ink Well.
If you're looking to up your fiction game and reach that next level, check out my past writing tips linked below.
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