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Issue 61

Present vs. Past Tense – When to Use It

By Sumaya Bouadi


Copyright © 2011, Sumaya Bouadi, All Rights Reserved


One of the most ignored questions as a writer is: 'what tense will I write in?' We usually just jump in without thinking. After all, past tense seems obvious. Nearly every book is written in past tense. It flows the easiest and feels the most natural. But, depending on what you're writing, the various tense options can be worth another look.

Present Tense:

Present tense often pulls the reader in faster and more violently than past tense. When you write in past tense, everything has already happened, and there is nothing the reader can do about it. Writing in present tense helps lessen the reader's sense of security. In a past-tense novel written in first person, the reader assumes the narrator can't die -- a fact Burgess addresses in A Clockwork Orange when he says, "If I had snuffed it, I would not be here to write…"

 

More than once while reading a book, I've reminded myself that the narrator can't die, because it's in past tense. For a thriller writer, that sense of security can definitely hurt the suspense of the book.  When you write in present tense, however, the reader can be immediately drawn in because the readers are part of the world you created with all the events happening around them. They're more than just readers; they're bystanders. They have no crutch; anything can happen at any time. For a fast-paced thriller, present tense adds a sense of urgency that past tense may not provide. 'The story is happening around the reader. Bullets are flying, heroes are bleeding, and villains are threatening.

Take these excerpts from Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk for example:

 

"Tyler gets me a job as a waiter, after that Tyler's pushing a gun in my mouth and saying, the first step to eternal life is that you have to die. For a long time though, Tyler and I were best friends. People are always asking, did I know about Tyler Durden.

 

The barrel of the gun pressed against my throat, Tyler says, "We really won't die."

 

Now, let's turn it into past tense:

"Tyler got me a job as a waiter, after that Tyler pushed a gun in my mouth and said, the first step to eternal life is that you have to die. For a long time though, Tyler and I were best friends. People were always asking, did I know about Tyler Durden.

 

The barrel of the gun pressed against my throat, Tyler said, "We really won't die."

 

Can you hear the difference? It's subtle, but the first version of Fight Club is definitely more gripping for some readers.

 

Past tense can sometimes trap you in a history book feel, and lets the reader withdraw a bit from the novel as the events are unfolding in a mysterious or historical place, far away with no affect on them. This is less true for present tense. A present tense novel can be more successful at making readers look at their world differently because the world of the novel feels like their world.

 

Just because it's written in present tense convinces the reader on some level that these events are actually happening. And if the book is set in a time period at the very least similar to our own, this tool can be used effectively to draw attention to current problems, or just to create a gripping thriller. When you write in present tense, it makes actions more dramatic as everything is happening right before the reader's (and character's) eyes. Present tense limits the "friends telling stories around a fireside" feel of some fiction, and plunges you deeply into a dramatic, emotional world. 

Past Tense:

But, you say, then why are most books written in past tense? Well, because past tense is actually quite useful. The best writers of past tense embrace the limitations and benefits of it. Past tense makes the reader accept events as already having occurred, and therefore inevitable. There is nothing that can be done to change it. For darker novels and satire, this works very well. For tragedies and satires, this sense of hopelessness is priceless. You can bring your reader to tears as they see a character or a world destroy itself, knowing there is nothing that can be done about it. And hey, that "stories around a fireside" feel? That can create amazing openings to books, such as the opening to Cat's Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut:

 

"Listen: When I was a younger man – two wives ago, 250,000 cigarettes ago, 3,000 quarts of booze ago…

 

When I was a much younger man, I began to collect material for a book to be called The Day the World Ended.

 

This book was to be factual.

 

This book was to be an account of what important Americans had done on the day when the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan.

 

It was to be a Christian book. I was a Christian then."

 

The eerie, surreal opening of this book simply cannot be recreated in present tense. In a few lines, you get a great insight into a character, a surreal sense of horror, and are immediately drawn in. Vonnegut takes full advantage of the "friends telling stories" feel to make you wonder about the narrator's past (the subject of the story). This type of introduction is the easiest to do, and the hardest to do well. When done well, however, it is one of the most intriguing openings to a novel, and only possible in past tense.

 

Furthermore, in past tense, you can create your own history and have the reader fall into it more easily. Past tense establishes a world with a past and a future, completely engrossing the reader into a new world as though it were ancient, an added bonus for any science fiction writer. When you write about futuristic events in the past tense, the story's history becomes the reader's history. Even though the events haven't happened yet, writing in past tense makes them happen in the reader's mind. The reader becomes a part of the futuristic world more easily than they would if you wrote in present tense. The same applies for fantasy.

 

Applying past tense to a futuristic or fantastic scene gives it a sense of credibility that pulls us into your world and makes us feel as if it's ours. In world building, it allows us to see an old, established world, instead of a new one that's being formed as we read. New worlds presented in past tense have more credibility, and make us believe in them more. For science fiction, this can be particularly helpful, especially if you go far out into the future.

 

The Choice:

So when do you use each one? Well, in the end, that depends on what you're more comfortable with as an author. Present tense can be useful for books set in the present day. You don't need to create a universe and convince us of the reality of your universe, because it's real. If you're writing a present-day thriller, it's even more useful. However, if you're writing historical, fantasy, or science fiction, past tense can be more helpful because it helps pull readers in and convinces them that your world is real.

In the end, use the tense you feel the most comfortable with, but don't be afraid to experiment. Who knows, you might find that a little tense change goes a long way.

 

Fight Club, Chuck Palahniuk: Holt Paperbacks 978-0393327342

Cat's Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut: Dell Publishing 978-0385333481