When to Use Past Tense

1280px-Stipula_fountain_penLast week, I discussed when and why to use the present tense. This week, let’s take a look at the past tense. What are its strengths and weaknesses, and when should you consider using it?

As with using the present tense, there’s a lot of subjectivity here. Much of the difference lies in the style and tone of your writing; it’s a question of how you want the story to feel. But even though these stylistic differences are subtle, they can have an incredible impact on your book.

Past tense is the most widely used, and for good reason. The past tense is how we naturally tell stories: “So I went to the bookstore the other day, and then…” The narrator is telling the story of what happened, as opposed to telling it as it happens. Where the present tense is immediate, the past tense is reflective. It suggests that the narrator already knows how the story ends.

Let’s look at some examples. Since I used The Hunger Games for the present tense examples, I’ll use some other popular YA novels here. The following is the opening line from Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz:

“One summer night I fell asleep, hoping the world would be different when I woke.”

The use of the past tense immediately establishes a more reflective tone here. This is someone looking back on what’s happened, on “one summer night” that’s already passed.

Let’s see what this line would look like in present tense:

“One summer night I fall asleep, hoping the world will be different when I wake.”

See how clunky the line becomes? It’s the same idea, but it feels different. Where the past tense line felt like a memory, the present tense line adds immediacy. The narrator is falling asleep now, instead of falling asleep then. I don’t think the present tense is as effective here, because the past better captures the reflective feeling of “one summer night.” In this example, I think the most effective choice is clear.

Let’s look at a different example. This line is from The Book Thief by Markus Zusak:

“She was saying goodbye and she didn’t even know it.”

This line demonstrates one of the advantages of the more reflective feel that comes from past tense. This is something that can only be narrated in hindsight—she didn’t know at the time that she was saying goodbye, so she can’t narrate that as it happens. She can’t say “I am saying goodbye” in the present tense if she doesn’t know that yet. But because this is written in the past tense, it can have that reflective feel.

The past tense is also more realistic. It’s much easier for the reader to envision the narrator telling the story after it happened than while it’s happening. As I mentioned in my post on present tense, while in the midst of an action scene, a character shouldn’t be narrating every move to an invisible audience. For this reason, the past tense feels much more natural to readers, and some readers dislike all books written in the present tense.

Another advantage of the past tense is that it works well with any POV. While the present tense can technically be used with any POV, it tends to sound unnatural in the third person, especially for an extended length of time. It’s rare to see a book using third-person present, because it feels so strange to readers. But the past tense has no such limitation; it can work regardless of which tense you’re using.

However, there are several disadvantages to using the past tense. For one thing, the past tense can make it harder to establish a connection with readers. The immediacy of the present tense can make it feel like the reader and character are going through the story together, and that kind of closeness can’t really be achieved with past tense.

Another issue with the past tense is that it lends itself to certain types of telling-instead-of-showing issues. The narrative distance and reflective nature of the past tense makes it a better fit for exposition, which is often overdone. Instead of showing the reader what things were like, some writers end up telling them. Anything happening in the present tense almost always has to be shown, because it’s happening so immediately; but telling sounds so natural in the past tense that some writers don’t realize it’s happening. For example, while describing a scene in the past, an author might write a sentence like “She was upset.” But they’re not likely to write that in the present tense, because it sounds off; instead, they may choose something more evocative, like “Tears burn in her eyes.” If you’re writing in the past tense, just be aware of this tendency and be extra vigilant about eliminating telling sentences. Make them into something more evocative, just like you would in the present tense: “Tears burned in her eyes.”

Ultimately, whichever tense you choose is entirely up to you. Both past and present have strengths and weaknesses. But by being aware of the ways in which these tenses function and their pros and cons, you can select the most effective choice for your story.

What do you think? Do you ever write in past tense? What are some pros and cons that I missed? What are some other good past tense examples? 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:

-When to Use the Present Tense

-Problems with Prologues

-Understanding Point of View: Eliminating Filter Words

-Understanding Point of View: Third Person

-Understanding Point of View: First Person


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