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.