Hi, welcome to Write Better Now, a podcast of quick, weekly writing tips meant to help you become a better writer. We’re your hosts with NYT bestselling author Carrie Jones and copyeditor extraordinaire Shaun Farrar. Thank you for joining us.
This week we’re going to give a quick rundown of the pros and cons of present and past tense. For some books, you just write in one of these bad boys and it’s all good. But sometimes it’s not so easy and you waffle back and forth trying to choose which one to write in. Each has some good points and bad points.
As Peter Selgin says
Apart from its ubiquity, there are good reasons to be wary of the present tense. Unlike the past tense, which allows narrators unrestricted movement between the past and the present, the present tense locks us into each moment, allowing for little if any reflection. And while the past tense lets us expand, compress, or bypass events according to their dramatic import, since in the present tense everything is happening here and now, it tends to treat all moments equally, however important or not, so a headache gets as much attention as an earthquake.
He goes on to say:
Since bringing the past into the present is crucial when it comes to evoking them, the present tense also greatly constricts the complexity of our characters, who must be evoked mainly if not strictly through their present actions. The present tense likewise restricts descriptions of settings and characters, limiting them to fleeting impressions.
So, it’s harder to write in the present tense because we are confined a bit more. And hoity-toity writers tend to think of it as a fad though Dickens did it (and others going back to the Ancient Greeks, but whatever . . .
Oh, quick primer.
Present tense – I eat. She is eating.
Past tense – I ate.
So here are some advantages of the present tense:
- It’s way more immediate because it is indeed in the moment. We are there as things happen.
- The immediacy raises the stakes.
- It can reflect the type of protagonist you have. Is your main character someone who lives in the moment and doesn’t spend a lot of time with their brain in the past or the future? Are they a bit rush-in as a human? This can reflect that character trait.
- It can also show the theme of the work. So, if you are writing a ground-hog-day style story, using the present tense can reflect that there is only this one present at the moment while all the other ones were experienced before and can be changed.
- It makes life easier when it comes to grammar. There are 12 tenses in our language. Present tense stories only have four usually.
- It’s easier to make unreliable narrators.
- It feels more cinematic.
Things that suck about present tense:
- That restriction, compression of time and our ability as authors to use more than four tenses and hop around.
- Sometimes it’s hard to show the complexity of the main character because they are indeed in the moment most of the times. The characters often feel more simple.
- It’s harder to foreshadow the things that are going to happen because the character doesn’t know that they are going to happen yet.
- It sometimes makes us writers meander into tangent and too much internal thought.
- Sometimes adult readers get snobby about it.
POSITIVES ABOUT PAST TENSE
- It’s a tradition in western literature that people are into.
- You can move around in time more easily.
- It’s easier to insert the details of life.
- You can take a wider focus if it’s not third-person limited past or first-person past.
- It’s easier to build suspense.
CONS ABOUT PAST TENSE
- You lose some immediacy.
- Less of a focus on voice.
- It’s sometimes harder to connect with the character.
- It’s not as cinematic.
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