Monday, October 31, 2011

Past Tense vs. Present Tense: How To Choose Which Works Best

So. Many of you are gearing up for NaNoWriMo tomorrow, which I think is awesome. I, however, am sitting this NaNo out. I do have a WIP, and I'll continue to work on it throughout November, but I'm taking it a little slow. One reason for this is because I'm editing as I go.

Then there's my other reason: I couldn't decide which tense to write in

As such, today I'm going to discuss... wait for it... verb tenses!! *dances the Macarena* First, let me share what the Free Merriam-Webster dictionary has to say:

Past Tense
1) a verb tense expressing action or state in or as if in the past
2) a verb tense expressive of elapsed time.

Present Tense
the tense of a verb that expresses action or state in the present time and is used of what occurs or is true at the time of speaking and of what is habitual or characteristic or is always necessarily true, that is sometimes used to refer to action in the past, and that is sometimes used for future events.

The go-to book I always use when considering tense is The Hunger Games. Suzanne Collins chose present tense for her narrative. The story unfolds in real time, and since it's a gladiator-style fight to the death, choosing past tense would've automatically suggested that Katniss survives the competition.  For this book, present tense added lots and lots of tension--readers feel like whatever happens to Katniss is actually happening as they read, which makes them feel like they're right there with her, going through the same hardships. 

Past tense, however, seems to be the norm. Some writers/readers despise present tense and may believe it's nothing more than a trend. With past tense, I find that I can jump into the story without going, "Oh! It's in past tense." I'm so used to reading it that it doesn't jump out at me. Present tense does, though, since it's rarer for me. 

Now. How do you choose which works best for your WIP? 

Consider the following:
  • Who is the narrator? 
    • their goals/advantages/disadvantages
  • Where is the story set? 
    • time and place
  • What's the story about? 
    • if your story is in the mystery/horror/thriller/postapocalyptic genres, I think present tense will increase the tension and make readers turn pages faster.
    • if your story is in any other genre, though, it can still be present tense. You just have to make sure it's the right fit for your narrator and plot.
  • What kind of ending do you have in mind? 
    • does your narrator die/disappear without a trace?
    • is your world under threat of destruction, or is it moving along just fine?

Other than that, I only have one more thing to add: go with your gut. You can always switch between tenses as you write, or even after you've finished your first draft. As long as you feel comfortable, and it makes sense for your story, you're good to go.

Now tell me: which tense do you prefer? Which books do you think exemplify them best?

And remember! Tomorrow is our Mystery Agent contest!! Come back with your Twitter pitches and first 500 words!!


  1. I usually don't notice if a book is in present tense. I'm used to it, mainly because that's the tense I write in.

    For me it makes sense because there's always an element of suspense and danger in my novels. Like you said, Amparo. If the story is in past tense, then you know the individual survives, unless the last chapter takes place in heaven, I guess.

  2. I've never tried using past tense in my own writing, but whichever tense the author chooses, I think it has to almost disappear so that the reader isn't conscious of what tense it is.

  3. My books are always in past tense. My poetry, however, tends to be in present tense which I actually didn't notice until I started writing a partial verse novel and realized the tenses didn't match. Meshing the two has been interesting :D but I kind of like how it's turning out :D

  4. I was at a retreat a couple year ago with the editor of The Hunger Games. She said that at first it was written in a different tense. They changed it to add to the tension.

    Sometimes I'll play with tenses before I choose which one to go with.

    I'm doing NaNo this year, but I'm doing it different. I found that writing my actual novel really fast doesn't work well for me. I end up with a mess at the end that I don't know how to fix. So, this year I'm starting a new novel and I have decided to NaNo the backstory and character sketches for NaNo. I hope to have a really good grasp of my novel before I really get into the meat of it.

    Good luck with your latest!


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