When to Use the Present Tense

1280px-Stipula_fountain_penRecently, while brainstorming a new novel idea, I’ve been thinking about whether to write in the present or past tense. This is a question I ask at the start of every novel, but the answer is more obvious in some cases than in others. For my middle grade WIP, I knew right away that my protagonist’s voice really required the immediacy of the present tense. For this new book idea, I’ve found that the main character’s more reflective tone works best in the past tense. But the difference between them isn’t always clear-cut, so I thought it might be helpful to write a post discussing the pros and cons of each. This will be incredibly long if I try to tackle both, so this post will focus on the present tense, and next week I’ll take a look at past. 

Stylistically, the differences between past and present tense are subtle, but they can have an incredible impact on the tone. It used to be quite rare to see fiction written in the present tense, but it’s becoming more and more popular today, especially in categories like YA that lend themselves well to first-person voices, fast pacing, and immediacy; The Hunger Games is a great example. However, there are also many categories and genres where the past tense is still the norm. Ultimately, it comes down to which tense works best for the style and tone of your book.

So, why choose one over the other? How does the present tense affect tone? Let’s break down the pros and cons and look at some examples.

First, an advantage: immediacy. For obvious reasons, the present tense makes scenes feel like they’re happening now, as opposed to something that’s already happened. It creates the feeling that the reader is experiencing the events at the same time as the narrator, and they are going through the plot together. The present tense removes some of the distance between the reader and the character.

This is why the present lends itself to action-packed, fast-paced novels, and why I think it worked so well in The Hunger Games. For example:

I spread out my fingers, and the dark berries glisten in the sun. I give Peeta’s hand one last squeeze as a signal, as a good-bye, and we begin counting. “One.” Maybe I’m wrong. “Two.” Maybe they don’t care if we both die. “Three!”

See how much more immediate this countdown feels in the present tense? How much tension it lends to Katniss’s internal narration? She doesn’t know if they’ll survive, and so neither does the reader.

Imagine trying to rewrite this in the past tense:

I spread out my fingers, and the dark berries glistened in the sun. I gave Peeta’s hand one last squeeze as a signal, as a good-bye, and we began counting. “One.” Maybe I was wrong. “Two.” Maybe they didn’t care if we both died. “Three!”

It doesn’t work as well, does it? The change is subtle, but it makes a difference. Not only is the immediacy lost, but so is some of the tension.

Something else to consider is the dramatic weight that different tenses can lend to certain phrases. Let’s look at another Hunger Games quote:

“Destroying things is much easier than making them.”

In the present tense, this is a powerful quote even out of context. Because it’s in the present tense, it seems to be a statement that is always true. If it were written in the past tense, it would seem to refer to only a specific time or place in which that statement were true. In other words, the present tense actually gives it more weight.

Now, all of this is not to say that the past tense can’t achieve some of the same effects; next week, I’ll take a closer look at the advantages of the past tense. And, like every tense, there are weaknesses to writing in the present that you should be aware of.

First, many readers find the present tense difficult to read, especially if it’s in the first person. The immersive nature of the present tense is both its strength and its weakness—while readers can better connect to your narrator, they must exert extra effort in order to adjust to that character’s perspective. For some readers, the present tense is disorienting.

It can also be challenging to write in the present tense convincingly. The past tense is one that we naturally use for storytelling all the time—“So I was in line at the grocery store today, and you’ll never believe what happened…” But present tense? No one narrates everything that they’re doing and thinking while they’re doing and thinking it. While in the midst of an action scene, a character shouldn’t be narrating every move to an invisible audience. Therefore, when writing in the present tense, your voice must be strong enough to help the reader overlook the logistics and become immersed in the narrator’s perspective.

However, if it’s done well, the present tense can be an incredibly effective stylistic choice. In general, I often recommend present tense to writers who are working with fast-paced, first-person novels, especially if they’re YA or NA. For third person, and in general for MG and adult fiction, I usually recommend past tense. But this certainly isn’t a rule—my MG book is in first person present, and wouldn’t work any other way! Ultimately, it’s up to the writer to determine which tense functions best for their story.

What do you think? Do you ever write in present tense? What are some pros and cons that I missed? What are some other books that use present tense well? Let me know in the comments!

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This post is part of my Writing Craft seriesFor more info about planning, writing, and revising your work, check out the other posts in the series here, and follow the blog to see future posts!

Related Links:

-Understanding Point of View: Third Person

-Understanding Point of View: First Person

-7 Tips for Choosing the Right Book Title

-7 Tips for Writing Multiple Points of View

 

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10 thoughts on “When to Use the Present Tense

  1. ameliemurphy says:

    I think it’s more personal preference than one sounding better than the other.
    I personally believe present tense sounds better when it’s written in first person. I’ve chosen to write my novel in third person. I don’t want anyone to think my main character is me.She is a fictional person.I naturally found myself writing in past tense without really giving it any real thought, because I’m telling as a narrator what Chloe did. Does that make sense?

    I also think genre makes a difference. If a story is set in present day or the future ( fantasy) , it will need a different tense than a war story or a ‘my school days’ type of story.

    Like

    • ceciliajlewis says:

      Great points! Genre and POV are definitely important factors. Present tense lends itself well to first person, but often sounds jarring with third. Different genres and POVs require different stylistic choices, and one tense or another will be the most effective choice for that particular style.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Aeryn Rudel says:

    I like the present tense, and I use it often. I particularly like it for flash fiction, because, as you mention in your post, it injects the story with a sense of immediacy, which I believe works very well for that length of story.

    Liked by 2 people

      • Ellie P. says:

        Cécilia, your blog has some excellent info, but much of it pertains to fiction. Do you have any info and/or experience with non-fiction? Any words of wisdom re the memoir genre, for instance? Thanks!

        Liked by 1 person

      • ceciliajlewis says:

        Most of my experience is with fiction, though I have edited some narrative non-fiction, including memoirs, in the past. My biggest tip for writing memoirs–and perhaps you already know this–is to narrow your focus. A memoir, unlike an autobiography, does not cover the span of one’s entire life. Instead, it focuses on a much more narrow experience and relates that experience to the reader in the form of a narrative, much like in fiction. When it comes to structuring a memoir, it may be helpful to think of it in terms of a story, and give it the same kind of narrative drive as you would in fiction.

        Hm, perhaps I will write a post about memoirs and narrative nonfiction in the future! Thanks for your comment. :)

        Liked by 1 person

      • Ellie P. says:

        Thanks for the quick response! I’m happy to see I’m on the right track – I’ve focused on a specific type of (unusual) work I was doing during the 90s. So: yay! 😄 And I’ll remember to input narrative drive, too! Thanks again. Also, I really appreciate all the links to resources you provide here. Soooo helpful! Bye for now.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Iridescence says:

    I’m writing my first YA now. I’m writing in present tense but I have multiple POVs, two to be exact. The chapters keep getting switched between the two and I’m using first person to show the scene from both their sides. I sometimes find myself reverting back to past tense but quickly change because present tense sounds better for events happening NOW.

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