Do your Characters Live in the Past or the Present?

Following my post about POV, I wanted to follow up with a look at tenses and how past or present can help or hurt your story. Tradition encourages past over present. Some magazines and publishers share an explicit preference for past tense over present tense, but I think the landscape’s shifting. Here’s how past and present differ.

Past tense tells the story as if it already happened. The past tense narrative gives the impression that someone’s recounting history rather than an in-the-moment tale. Lessons were learned, battles were fought, and people died. One important thing to keep in mind when writing past tense will be to use strong verbs. Avoid the passive voice, which applies to most writing, but in past tense especially, you want to involve the reader as well as you can. Past tense  narratives sometimes put too much space between the reader and the story.

Writing past tense allows easier leaps across time because the narrative happens in the past, not in the here and now. Distance through time gives the narrative an advantage, but also makes showing instead of telling more difficult. It’s easy to slip out of the actual events and into reverie or navel gazing when writing past tense. Avoiding passive voice will help keep the verbs active and present, which involves the reader deeper in the narrative. Let the past tense come from the active verb rather than a ‘was’ or ‘were’ modifier. Here’s two examples:

Active – Janie’s hands shook as she fired the laser cannon.

Passive – The laser cannon was fired by Janie as tremors shook her hands.

Present tense gets less use than past in fiction. For this reason present can read awkwardly because of unfamiliarity. Most famous books are written in past tense. That said, I believe reader’s tastes are changing in this regard. YA exposed the next generation of readers to the present tense. Our world becomes more attuned to instant gratification with every passing day, so should it surprise anyone as present tense becomes more popular? Present tense lends itself to immediacy in action and instant involvement in the narrative.

A present tense story draws readers close to the narrative by design. The reader experiences plot as it unfolds. Present tense assists in the execution of surprising twists because the character doesn’t know the twist is coming. In a past tense narrative, the reader may feel betrayed if the character never mentions the twist they should know is coming, as they presumably already know the outcome.

The reader will often assume the protagonist survives in a past tense narrative. This assumption makes sense. If the story’s being told in past tense, the main character must have survived the plot to tell their tale. In present tense there’s no such promise. As such, present sense works better in a story where the main character dies at the end, but not always. Some readers ask: who’s writing the story if a present tense narrator dies at the end? This argument makes some sense, but not everyone holds this complaint.

Remember to dig beneath the surface in present tense. If everything happens on the surface, as a series of actions, the prose will run the risk of reading like a list.

Both tenses have their advantages but ultimately I think the decision to use past or present comes down to immediacy. If I’m writing a story that operates mostly on the surface, with action and exterior conflict, I’ll use present tense. A story which delves deep into character, thought, and memory I will use past tense.

Note: I skipped future tense for this post simply because it’s rarely used and I don’t know much about it. Future tense tells the story as a series of events which will happen.

Do you prefer past or present tense? Let’s talk, drop in the comments. Like this post if you enjoyed reading and follow for more advice form a daily discovery writer. More tools and tips here.

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