Past Tense vs Present Tense

I recently read a comment on a Facebook group post that made me wonder if was doing something wrong. Then I sat down and thought about it, did a bit of research, and came to the conclusion that no matter what anyone says, they don’t really have all the answers they claim to have.

Does that mean I’m not doing something wrong? Maybe. Hell, I don’t know. I just write stuff and hope it resonates with someone.

Anyhoo, this was a heated response by an author who said, in no uncertain terms, that she absolutely could not read books that were written in present tense. It apparently causes a visceral reaction and, as a result, she flat-out refuses to read books that aren’t written in the past tense.

Now, stop for a moment and think about the last book you read. Was it in present tense or past tense? Chances are high it was in past tense. I’ve read both styles and not even noticed if a book was written in past or present tense. After I started reading up on the whole past vs present debate, I started paying attention to what I was reading and found the bulk seem to be in past tense.

Guess what. Mine are in present tense. Aiyah.

I’m not entirely certain how this happened. It just seemed more natural for me to write in the present tense. For whatever reason, the present tense just felt more immediate and, for books I’ve described as “in your face entertainment”, immediate seems like a good thing to have.

For those of you scratching your heads and wondering what on Earth I’m prattling on about, past tense vs present tense in fiction deals with when the story happened and how it’s told. Past tense is more traditional. In past tense writing the narrator is recounting something that has already happened. Present tense is less common and the narrator is telling the story as it happens. Take for instance the following snippets:

Past tense: Mighty Cthulhu rose from his dreamless sleep to spark nightmares in the world and consume those who would worship him. His worshipers were the lucky ones; they were eaten quickly and put out of their misery.

Present tense: Mighty Cthulhu rises from his dreamless sleep to spark nightmares in the world and consume those who would worship him. His worshipers will be the lucky ones; they’ll be eaten quickly and put out of their misery.

Which one is better? That depends on who you talk ask. A vast amount of words have been written in praise of writing in the past tense. It’s easier, it’s more traditional, it’s just better. Much less has been written in praise of present tense. In fact, some dismiss it as a just something new writers use to be fashionable and recommend the use of present tense be severely curtailed.

But here’s the problem with that argument: it assumes there are rules that must be adhered to for a book to be considered good. This is fiction. The only rule that matters is whether or not the reader can follow the story. Beyond that it’s all personal choice. Sure, some people will refuse to read anything in the present tense, but there are also people who refuse to read poetry, urban fantasy, horror, science fiction, or any of dozens of other categories of writing.

And – much as I hate to say this – there are people who will refuse to read your book for a variety of reasons. Or they’ll read it and hate and tell all their friends that you’re a horrible writer and quite possibly also responsible for kidnapping the Lindbergh baby and changing the formula for Coke. Don’t fret about those people; you can’t please everyone.

So, forget what the naysayers neigh about. It’s your book. Write it like you want to write it. Past tense, present tense, first person, third person, third person omniscient, etc., etc. These are all just labels and they don’t define your story. Only you can define your story.

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10 thoughts on “Past Tense vs Present Tense

  1. I’ve also heard some heavy criticism of writing in present tense. I started to do it because I thought it would be more of a challenge than writing in past tense. But you’re right–everyone is going to have their own tastes and preferences, so you might as well do your own thing and let the readers who like you for it come.

    1. I wonder sometimes if the criticism isn’t coming from the fact that it’s different. It’s usually traditionalist authors and English majors who complain the loudest about writing in present tense. You’re right, though, it’s a bit more of a challenge than I expected. Writing 1st person present tense was easy at first, but it got harder as the story progressed and got more complicated.

  2. Since the rise of the indie author we seem to have had a rise of those’ in the know.’Rules seemed to have appeared regarding writing styles. I say go with what feels right for you and your story. I never think …oh, this book is written in past tense or hah the author uses first person. It’s the story I want to read and enjoy, not the technicalities of it. Great post!

    1. I wonder how well those ‘in the know’ actually write. I’m sure there are some amazing writers out there, but I’m willing to bet a bunch of them are so stuck on their rules and regulations that they’ve never actually finished that magnum opus that’s been sitting on their hard drive for the past ten years.

  3. you are so right Eric. It’s got to the stage I’m afraid to write a sentence wondering if it is grammatically correct, if the adverbial clauses have the comma in the right place, if I’ve used an unnecessary adverb. Didn’t the great writers break every rule in the book? I’m just going to go for it.

    1. I still firmly believe it’s up to the writers and readers to define what works. Most readers couldn’t tell you what a dangling preposition is and, frankly, they don’t care, either. Grammar has hit this tipping point where you have to be grammar wonk to get all the rules of it. As long as the grammar and format doesn’t interfere with the story it shouldn’t matter as much.

  4. I saw a reader once say she only liked reading first person. That will reduce her choice of books hugely.
    I try to read many genres and styles, and I read, regardless of tense or POV, to enjoy the story!

  5. You can’t please everyone no matter how hard you try. Some people prefer past tense and some prefer present. Even if you used a bit of both in the same book, someone will complain that you switched POV and they just hate it when someone does that 🙂

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