Tense in writing isn’t something that every author thinks about. Often I feel like people write their stories a certain way because it’s what they’re used to reading, and they don’t consider what changing up the style a little might do for the piece. This isn’t terrible, as stories can be told in many ways, and this won’t likely hurt the writing, but I’d say putting some thought into or experimenting with different tenses can be worth doing. In this article I’m going to break down past and present tense, the strengths of each one, and how they pair with different points of view found in fiction writing.
Past tense is probably the more commonly chosen tense, and the majority of stories are written this way. If you think about it, this makes sense, since the way we as people tell stories to our friends (even when it’s just some funny thing that happened at work) is almost always in past tense because we’re relating things that happened to us. For that reason past tense is very familiar to most readers, so it can make a story more accessible. It feels very natural for a story to be related that way, so people don’t think about it too much.
Present tense, on the other hand, is slightly less common and can be kind of jarring. People don’t relate events like this in real life because it would sound like you’re narrating your own life, so this is usually a more stylistic option. However, writing in present tense does have some unique advantages. For one thing, I find that it is very good for stories that include a lot of reminiscing or flashback passages because you can drop into past tense and easily distinguish between the two timelines without any other indicator. I think present tense can also allow for more organic unexpected endings because by its very nature the story isn’t finished yet. This is especially true for stories told in first person. I think first person past indicates that the narrator is alive, while first person present doesn’t reveal whether or not the narrator will be living at the end of the tale, as an example.
So, how does tense intersect with point of view?
Well, as I said in my POV article, third person is generally the most popular way to write, so we’ll start there. Third person past is one of the most popular ways to tell stories, especially in genre fiction. For fantasy in particular it can provide the feel of an old myth that’s being retold.
Third person present, as with all present tense stories, is a bit more stylized. It reads as if you’re watching someone’s life unfold right before your eyes, so as a reader it brings you into the immediacy of the story. I think this works very well for certain kinds of stories, particularly stylized genres like cyberpunk. That being said, using this in genres where it isn’t expected, like epic fantasy, could be a great way to mix things up and give your story a unique voice.
First person past is maybe the most natural way to tell a story. It is, as I mentioned, the way that we tell stories in real life, so it will feel very comfortable to your readers. As with third person past, I think any story can be easily told this way, and so it will come down to what you think your writing strength is or how you think the story should be told, but choosing one of the past tense approaches is always safe.
First person present makes the reader feel like he or she is tagging along on the action. It generates an immediacy to what’s happening that can be more thrilling than a story that’s being told to you.
Second person and present tense are a natural pairing. Both create an immediacy for the reader, and both generate a more stylized version of storytelling. I don’t think I’ve ever actually read a second person story that’s written in the past tense, and I’m not sure how it would work, but if anyone has second person past stories to share, I’d be happy to read them.
Like I said in the opening, what tense you happen to be using probably won’t break your story. But I would argue that it could make it. If you already have a strong idea of how you want your story to sound, then go with it. But if you’re still trying to figure some things out, maybe try changing the tense your using (perhaps along with the POV) and see where that takes you.
I hope this article was helpful. If you have any thoughts, please feel free to comment or share them with me on social media. Thanks for reading!