Past Tense v Present Tense

Live for now or then?

Why is it that so many fiction writers hate present tense? The battle on tense is one of the big three that repeat in writing forums (along with pantsers v plotters and first POV v third POV).

Why does discussing tense bring out powerful emotions from fiction writers?

In this post we’ll explore this phenomenon: The Tense Hating Game.
Our contestants on The Tense Hating Game:

Nicole — the Past Tenser
MFA in writing
Avid reader
Moderate sales
Works as an editor

Jackson — the Present Tenser
Has a non-writing career
Avid reader
Slight sales

“Hello Jackson. I wondered what type of writer they’d find to defend use of present tense. Now I understand — one who will never be published.”

“It was a good evening Nicole. It was a pleasure to meet you. Nicole and Jackson agreed that communication in past tense sounded awkward.”

“Different mediums have different forms. If you weren’t a hack you’d know that. After all, we don’t paint our blog posts.”

“You might not…”

And this is why non-writers hate listening to writers discuss craft.

A cough comes from the narrator,
“Enough bickering you two. Nicole, in one sentence, explain to Jackson what you dislike about present tense.”

“Reading present tense is like trying to read Chaucer as written in text messages.”

“Wow, that is something I never want to experience. Jackson, in one sentence, explain to Nicole what you dislike about reading past tense.”

“Stories in past tense are like reading giant flashbacks, and we all hate those.”

(Since this is on Writing Wrenches it’s safe to assume that Nicole and Jackson went on to have a torrid affair.)

Wait, what on earth am I rambling about?

We’re talking about the difference between present tense and past tense in fiction writing. Here’s an example:

Present tense (first POV): “I am stuck on a plane leaning into the aisle because the dude in the middle is a monster. I hope I make it through without neck pain from leaning sideways.”

Past tense (first POV): “I was stuck on a plane, forced to lean I to the aisle since the guy in the middle was too big for his seat. It’s a miracle that I didn’t get a neck ache from that flight.”

And yes, since you asked, I did write this while not fitting in my seat because the dude in the middle was at least 300 lbs.  See, there is past tense. Except in this case it’s a ploy since I am writing this while on the plane.
To those who prefer present tense, past tense feels:
1. Outdated
2. Like a giant flashback
3. Lacks immediacy

To those who prefer past tense, present tense feels:
1. Gimmicky
2. Too much like stream of consciousness
3. Too simple

Michael’s reasons for writing in present tense:
1. It creates intimacy. It brings us into the scene with the character. We feel their emotions without the detachment that past tense provides.
2. We think in present tense. Past tense is for memories. I used to be the big sports star (in my memories).
3. The risk to the character is higher. Sure she’s good now, but we don’t know if she makes it through this.

Michael’s reasons for writing in past tense:
1. It’s the safe choice. The vitriol aims stronger at present tense.
2. It affords ability to play with timelines better than present tense.
3. Some types of works lend themselves to past tense: history, stories with old narrators explaining their life, and business writing (and yes, much of that is fiction).

Now we saw the advantages of the methods, but what limitations exist on these methods?

Please note these are guidelines. Of course you can find hundreds of great examples to “prove me wrong”.

Michael’s reasons for not writing in past tense:
1. By nature, it feels passive. After all — it is a flashback.
2. People hate flashbacks in their past tense. (That cracks me up, so I listed it here.)
3. It feels unnatural. (More on this later)
4. It feels old. You know how you feel when you read third person omniscient — that’s how past tense feels to lovers of present tense.

Michael’s reasons for not writing in present tense:
1. It feels gimmicky to lovers of past tense.
2. It’s harder to fudge timelines.
3. Transitions between non-sequential scenes are rough.

The Six million dollar question:
So should I write in present tense or past tense?

This is writing. If there is a rock solid rule it’s that there are no rock solid rules.

Write what you think the story requires.  (If you have doubts write part in both and send it to beta readers and see what they prefer.)

I don’t believe in giving in to aiming at the center mass for most fiction. Not all our characters should be white just because most fiction readers in the US are white (this is conjecture).

What’s more important than writing in choice of present or past tense is that you write well in whatever method you choose.

2 comments on “Past Tense v Present Tense

  1. Great post. So far, my stories have worked as present tense 1st person. I do think that past tense is more difficult to write, but I will be trying out different story lines in the future both ways. I like the tip about writing the same scene in both to see which sounds better.

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