Past vs. Present Tense: A 21st Century Dilemma for the Beginner Novelist

Image for postImage by ThePixelman from Pixabay

I’m a great fan of English literature from the 1800s. Thomas Hardy, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, the Brontë sisters, Henry James, Edgar Allan Poe, Mark Twain, Elizabeth Gaskell, Anthony Trollope and others, take pride of place on my bookshelves. I can tell you from first-hand reading experience that if you were a novelist writing 120 years ago or more, you wouldn’t have had to decide whether to tell your story in the past or present tense. You’d have told it in the past tense because that was the rule. Things have changed since then.

Dicken deployed the present tense, but he did so only in short passages and to create particular and unusual effects. It wasn’t until 1918 that James Joyce published Ulysses, the first novel written entirely in the present tense. Then in 1929 came All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque. In 1930, William Faulkner published As I Lay Dying, also written in the present tense. But in their day, critics and the reading public alike considered these books to be outliers, oddities, and experimental.

Times — and tenses — have changed

Since then, writing an entire novel in the present tense has become normal. It’s just one of the creative options available to any novelist with a story to tell. Think of recent bestselling successes such as The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood, and of course, Hilary Mantel’s historical blockbuster, Wolf Hall.

The present tense was an exciting 20th century innovation before it became just one tool in the 21st-century writer’s toolkit. It was exciting then for the same reason it’s popular now. It allows the author, especially when combined with the first person or close third person point of view, access to an immediate and intimate sense of the flow of experience in human consciousness. In short, things happening now may have more impact than things that happened then.

That said, most authors still write in the past tense, as most choose the third person point of view. It’s not that we’ve discovered a better way to tell stories. We’ve simply extended the range of ways available to us as storytellers.

The past tense and the present tense both offer advantages and disadvantages, opportunities and limitations. There is no right or wrong choice per se. It all depends on what you want to achieve with your story. Let’s look at the possibilities and problems you might meet with each of these options, which will help you choose the best tense for the tale you have to tell.

Pros and cons of the past tense

  • The past tense allows the narrator to embed the story in a wider contextual landscape. While the protagonist may only exist in their present moment, the narrator has knowledge not only of their past but also of the future. This temporal distance between narrative voice and protagonist allows you to narrow or broaden the focus as the story needs, to increase tension, and to suggest or show aspects of the plot to the reader which remain unknown to the protagonist.
  • The close third person point of view, or free indirect style — the most popular for all forms of storytelling — works without a hitch in the past tense. In the present tense, it can cause grammatical and syntactical problems.
  • You have huge scope to withhold or reveal information along with tighter control over pacing and rhythm, narrative tension, and dramatic irony.
  • In English you have four forms of the past tense to play with — the simple, continuous, past perfect, and past perfect continuous — while the present tense has only one form.
  • All events in the story are already in the past, so the reader knows the narrator has survived whatever life-threatening troubles they may face in the unfolding story. This may not matter. But it can be problematic in creating anxiety and tension when your narrator is also the protagonist or an internal narrator close to the protagonist.
  • If you choose a third person narrative point of view, you risk too much “psychic distance” between the narrative voice and the protagonist’s experience. You can end up doing too much telling and not enough showing, leaving the reader feeling disengaged from the emotional content of your novel.
  • While the temporal range within the past tense can be a useful narrative device, it can also lead you into clumsy phrasing problems. For example, look at the following sentence: Had he had wanted to do that, he would have had to have prepared sooner. It’s grammatically perfect, but stylistically it’s hell to read.
  • The present tense may have more impact as it grabs the reader’s attention and thrusts them into the immediacy of now. When you use the first-person point of view together with the present tense, there’s an intimacy and urgency in the narrative form that’s difficult to achieve in the past tense.
  • The present tense, again when used with the first person, can be very effective for creating unreliable narrators. The reader is so close to the narrator, so fixed inside their worldview and limited to their immediate experience, they can’t analyse or critique the protagonist’s perception. For certain stories, this could be a powerful device.
  • The present tense may suit your theme if you’re dealing with psychological repression of memories, the impact of emotional disturbance on perception, or deploying stream-of-consciousness narrative techniques.
  • In English, the present tense has only one form. While that may limit you in some respects, it avoids the complex grammatical pitfalls potential in the past tense.
  • Telling your story in the present tense makes altering the rhythm and pacing of the narrative more challenging. You can’t escape from the forward flow of time to reflect, shift perspective, or avoid unnecessary practical details to keep the storytelling “tight”. Time jumping may be an option, but it’s often awkward unless you use the “dear diary” device, which has its own limitations.
  • It’s harder to make the close third person point of view convincing in the present tense.
  • The continuous forward drive of the present tense, especially when you use the first-person point of view, limits the narrator’s opportunities to build context, show the interplay between the past and the present, and avoid clunky info-dumping.

Of course, you’re free to play with how you use tense in your narrative. There’s nothing to stop you switching between past and present tenses if the story and your established style can support the device. Many interesting opportunities might arise from alternating between the two.

How to choose between past and present tense

You’ll have guessed by now that no hard-and-fast rules dictate which tense you should use in your novel. But I hope you see that it must be a conscious choice and the result of careful consideration. It all depends on the story you want to tell.

A powerful technique is to experiment. Why not? Write a scene in the present tense. Experiment with it, see what you can achieve, what opportunities open and which narrative doors close. Then rewrite the same scene using the past tense. Play with that and see where it takes you.

Whichever you choose, the present tense still has a surprising and experimental feel about it. Unlike the past tense, it’s something your readers will notice. That applies if your reader is a literary agent or editor, too. If you use the past tense, no one will question why. If you choose the present tense, you may need to justify your decision.

In practice most genre fiction uses the past tense and present tense appears more often in literary works, short stories, and flash fiction. It’s an important narrative choice which didn’t trouble our 19th century literary forebears but is something worth considering today. My best advice is to experiment in the privacy of your first drafts. The best choice for the story you tell will soon become clear to you.

Before you get into the nitty-gritty of which narrative tense to use, you must make sure you’ve got a compelling story to tell. You might want to read this next:

Go to Source