Should you write your novel in past or present tense? If you don’t have a default, “go to” tense that you write in, this is one of the first decisions a writer has to make when starting a new novel. There are certainly advantages and disadvantages to both tenses, but how do you choose? In this post, I explain the pros and cons of the two tenses and why you might choose one over the other.
Quick shout out to Writeditor reader Aimee for this awesome blog post idea!
Past Tense Pro: Tradition/Consider Your Reader
While MG and YA readers may embrace the present tense without distress, adult readers may not do the same. Though I don’t have any official statistics to share, my experience in person and across the web has been that most adults prefer the past tense and many are reluctant to (or flat out won’t) read present tense. So if there’s no good reason to use present tense, sticking to the past may be best.
Caveat: Many adult readers admit that well written present tense is not only enjoyable, but that they don’t even notice the fact that the novel is in the present tense. So if you’re a masterful present tense writer, go for it!
Present Tense Pro: Immediacy
Immediacy and a sense of closeness to the character are usually the two biggest advantages of using the present tense for a novel. When things are happening in the moment, it’s a lot easier to get the reader on the edge of their seat.
Caveat: If your novel does not contain much action, the immediacy of present tense is likely to become tiresome to the reader. The more action, plot twists and turns, and inherently exciting scenes, the more likely present tense will be an advantage.
Past Tense Pro: Moving Around in Time
In the past tense, you can tell your story in any order you want to. You can jump back and forth in time without using flashbacks. You can even start at the end and work backwards if you want to. This can lend a very strategic and artistic form to your story. Skipping time in past tense within a scene or chapter also tends to feel more natural and fluid than in present tense.
Present Tense Pro: A Focus on Voice
If you have a fantastic narrative voice, present tense can really give you the chance to show it off! Combining present tense with a first person point of view can give readers an exciting peek into your character’s psyche through their word choices, emotions, and thought process.
Caveat: This could just as easily be listed as a con. If you do not have an absolutely stellar narrative voice, the present tense can be very dry and tedious. In present tense, voice is more important in keeping the story interesting than it is in past tense.
Past Tense Pro: Less Mistakes
I wrote about this a long time ago, but it’s a vitally important factor to me (as an editor): past tense novels have less mistakes. Whenever a present tense novel lands on my desk, I settle in with my (virtual) red pen, knowing that I’ll be hacking and slashing away at tense errors on nearly every page. Present tense does not seem to come naturally to most writers, which leads them to flip-flop between past and present tense. Other errors are common too, such as flashbacks in present tense (They should be in the past tense since they’re in the past.).
Present Tense Con: Everyday Details
I tried to stay positive by focusing on the pros, but this one makes more sense as a con.
A common disadvantage of using the present tense is getting caught up in the everyday details of the character’s lives. Much more so than past tense, present tense novels tend to waste time explaining what characters are eating, how they made their food, the order of operations of their shower, how they choose their clothes, the process of commuting from one place to another, etc. If you write in present tense, make sure you stick to relevant, interesting information only!
So Which Should You Choose?
Despite the many possible pitfalls and shortcomings of the present tense, when done well, I really enjoy it! But in my opinion and experience, past tense is generally a better choice. That said, if you have a fantastic and unique voice that you really want to show off, some interesting action that is better told with an “in the moment” feel, and a plot that does not need to move around in time, present tense can be interesting and exciting.
The bottom line is that you shouldn’t write in present tense just for the heck of it. It’s a narrative device, not an arbitrary decision. If you’re on the fence (especially if you’re writing for adults), I would go with past tense.
Also, please note that it is a myth that present tense makes your novel stand out. Check out these stats from the recent Pitch Wars contest. It gives you a pretty good indication of the kind of novels that are being shopped around right now. Take note of how many are in the present tense – it’s a lot!
What do you think about past vs. present tense?
If you have any more questions about tense or any ideas for blog topics, just leave a comment!
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