Present vs. past tense: Which to use in your writing

Over the past few years, I have noticed that more and more writers are using the present tense rather than the past tense to tell their stories. I think this trend started in young adult fiction, but now writers of all genres are employing the technique. Some readers don’t like this and will refuse to read books written in present tense.

The present tense is not a grating style choice for me as a reader, unlike the recent trend of not using quotation marks. (That trend, thankfully, seems to be fading away.) I hated it when authors chose not to use quotation marks because it almost always threw me out of the story. I had to keep stopping to figure out whether someone was talking or not. It got to be so common that I wouldn’t even read a book that didn’t have quotation marks. This rule could be broken successfully, though. Cormac McCarthy famously doesn’t use quotation marks, and his writing is so good that there never is any question about what is dialogue and what isn’t. I broke my own rule as well, because I have read and enjoyed several of his novels.

Employing present tense is different, I think, because when done well, it can help draw the reader into the story. It is harder to write effectively in present tense than in past tense (for reasons that I’ll get into), but it’s not Cormac McCarthy-hard. Even more importantly, using present tense is quite often the right choice for the story being told.

To read a story is to be told a story. The storyteller differs from book to book, but someone is telling it, whether it’s a character, a disembodied narrator, or even the writer. Most stories are written in past tense because we are being told a story that has already happened.

This used to be a much more overt conceit. Many stories used to have a frame that related how the storyteller was telling the story and why. The storyteller might be writing the story down in a letter or diary, for instance. Readers needed this conceit for believability. As novels became more common, the conceit was mostly dropped, although it is still used from time to time.

A story told in present tense, though, is happening now. The reader experiences the events along with the storyteller. This makes the story feel more immediate and dramatic, almost cinematic. It’s like watching a movie: We believe we are watching events unfold as they happen.

The downside is that the present-tense narrator cannot know the future. In stories written in past tense, the narrator has the benefit of hindsight, which can be used to heighten suspense. Stephen King employs this technique quite often when he lets slip a character’s fate: “This was the last time he’d ever…” Hindsight also provides the opportunity to layer in meaning and character development, to interpret past events in terms of what came afterward.

A present-tense narrator is, like all of us, stuck in the here and now. A slip in this regard can derail the reading experience. I recently received a copy of Blake Crouch’s novel Dark Matter for early review. It’s written in the present tense, but early on, the first-person narrator reveals that he knows his own future. I won’t say this is the only reason I chose not to review the book–I really didn’t care for the writing style–but it was one of the reasons. Perhaps it wasn’t a mistake–perhaps the author had a good rationale for this–but I hadn’t gotten far enough in the story to trust the author on that.

Another problem with present tense is that it relates events as they happen, both the exciting and the mundane. For this reason, present tense is often a better choice for novels with lots of action. We don’t want to read about narrators brushing their teeth or sitting through work meetings. Even this limitation can be gotten around. I recently reviewed an indie book that employed the simple but effective technique of “fast forwarding” through the boring bits, again like a movie.

Authors should not choose present tense because it’s trendy, though, or because everyone seems to be doing it. They should choose the tense that works for the story they are writing. Present tense doesn’t seem like a good choice for historical novels, for instance, because they are presumed to have taken place in the past. Then again, Hilary Mantel uses it for her Wolf Hall novels, which I haven’t read, but who am I to argue with books that have received so many accolades?

Present and past tense can even be mixed, if done with purpose. Kristin Hannah does this in The Nightingale: The contemporary sections are written in present tense, and the historical sections are written in past tense. Things are happening to the narrator as she is telling the story, and the choice of tense helps convey that. (Take care when mixing tenses, though; incorrectly used verb tenses will trip up the reader.)

Present tense is another tool in the author’s toolkit. When chosen purposefully and employed skillfully, it can be an effective way to tell a story.

Writing advice, distilled…

Every writer must eventually write a book about writing. It’s some sort of unspoken rule. Due to my lifelong interest in the writing process, I’ve read a fair number of these advice manuals. (Two of my favorites are Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel by Jane Smiley and Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose, because both of these books say quite a lot about reading and understanding what you read, in addition to writing.) No question that books about how to write remain popular. I guess a lot of people want to be writers, and they think these books contain the secret, that one highly guarded piece of knowledge that will finally transform the person reading the book into a by-gosh for-real writer.

Here’s the real secret: All books on writing say pretty much the same things. They use a lot of words and pages to say it, too, when all the writing advice ever given can be distilled to just a few simple rules. Hang on, I’m going to tell you what they are in just a minute.

If I had to recommend just one writing book, it would be Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. It’s not that she imparts any great secrets either; her book says pretty much the same thing all the other writing books do. But she says it with a lot of humor and reveals a great deal of herself in the process. Her book is really more useful for providing emotional support to writers, rather than showing them how to write. I take my copy out and read random sections from it whenever I need a little boost.

Now, on to the writing secrets. These are the three rules you need to know about writing, distilled from every writing advice book ever:

  1. If you want to be a writer, you have to write every day. You can’t wait to be in the mood or to have a great idea. Showing up is key, but the urge to procrastinate can be very powerful. Successful writers usually build a routine around this just to get their butts in front of the computer (or typewriter or notebook or what have you).
  2. If you want to be a good writer, first you have to be a bad writer. The initial struggle is just to get words on paper. Those words will never be as good as you want them to be. Once the words are there, you can work with them, revise, shape, cut, rearrange, to make them better. This rule also means that your writing, like most things you do, will get better the more you practice doing it.
  3. Writers read. I will never understand why someone who doesn’t read books would want to write books. All good writers read, a lot. They read obsessively. They read widely. Reading is how you learn to write. It’s how you figure out structure, character and plot. It’s how you find ideas and techniques to “borrow,” to play with and make your own. It’s how you realize what works and what doesn’t.

By the way, these rules also apply to pretty much any creative endeavor. Just substitute the word writer for the artistic pursuit of your choice: painter, musician, dancer, cook, whatever it is.

And that’s all you really, truly need to know. I’ve just saved you a lot of money buying all those books about writing you don’t really need. No need to thank me–just promise that when you become a successful writer, you won’t write yet another book about writing.

A note to writers: Maybe you aren’t ready…

One benefit of traditional publishing, which is lost when writers choose to self-publish, is that publishers can tell writers that their books just aren’t ready for publication.

Publishers don’t usually say this in so many words. Often the message comes in the form of a standard rejection letter or, even worse, silence. But the message is there, all the same: “Your book isn’t ready yet.”

Certainly, this can be a tough message to hear. No one wants to put so much effort into making something only to be told that they have to work still more. Still, that is the difficult truth that all writers have to accept. Perhaps writing talent is a gene that you are born with; I’m willing to buy that. But writing is also a craft, one that gets better only with diligent effort and regular practice.

Look at it this way. If you were just learning to cook, you wouldn’t expect to turn out a gourmet three-course meal worthy of serving in a fine restaurant right away. If you take up playing the piano, you don’t imagine you’re going to be performing in Carnegie Hall after only a few lessons. Good writers work at it, and their first efforts generally aren’t worthy of publication. This isn’t to say that they won’t be publishable someday, just that they need to work more.

Time to get personal now. When I was younger, I wrote a novel. It’s now languishing on floppy disks in my safety deposit box, not so much because I ever want to go back to working on it, but more as an artifact that I can look at and say, “Yes, I did that.” However, when I was finished, I knew in my heart it wasn’t ready for publication. I had what I thought was a unique premise, characters, a plot, a beginning, middle and end. My manuscript had no grammar or spelling errors. But I was honest with myself and knew it wasn’t good enough.

I could have continued working on it, and I am reasonably sure that if I did, eventually that novel or some other one would have been ready. It might have taken years, though, and to be honest, I just didn’t want to put in that kind of work. I didn’t have the drive to tell stories that would keep me going. Instead, I worked on my writing in many other ways, and every time I practiced, I got better at it.

Are you willing to be that honest with yourself? Or even better, are you willing to hear that truth from someone else: a member of a critique group, a mentor or a reviewer like me? Yes, it’s a lot of work, and yes, it can hurt, but this is what you chose for yourself when you chose to be a writer.

Because I don’t think you want to put your writing out there for the public to judge, even though you can, if it isn’t absolutely ready. A critique group, a mentor, a professional reviewer will likely give you another chance. The public probably won’t.

You’re not alone in this. Every writer, even the best ones, goes through a period of not being ready for publication. Here’s how they get to ready: they are honest with themselves about the quality of their work, they listen to feedback and use that criticism to make their work better and, most importantly, they persist. They keep writing until they get good enough.

So, before you self-publish that novel, ask yourself: Is it ready?

Read: Ira Glass’s advice for beginners (Zen Pencils version)