Getting tense about tenses


I have realised over the past few weeks of trying to write that I get really muddled with tenses. What tense to write in was something I hadn’t really thought about until a lovely fellow blogger kindly pointed out my flash fiction piece started off in past and then switched to future.

Now on the short 100-200 word pieces I think I am ok now (amazing what you pick up when you actually read your work back)! I am appreciative of all the advice I have received and feel my writing has progressed.

The beginning of my novel is a complete mess though. Partly because I can’t decide what tense to write in and writing in one tense doesn’t come automatically to me (yet).

I started writing in present tense because that seemed to flow nicely until a fellow writer told me a shouldn’t do that, books should always be in past tense I was told.  Ummm ok. Queue lots of frantic googling and the reading of many blog posts on why you shouldn’t use present tense. I was shocked to find comments from readers stating they wouldn’t even buy a book if it was in present tense. I have never really taken much notice of what I read, I either engage with a book or don’t. I tried to switch to past tense but rereading what I wrote yesterday I am now flipping between the two.

I intend to tidy it up today. So I would be interested in any opinions on past vs present.



16 thoughts on “Getting tense about tenses

  1. Tense has always been a problem for me. I guess it’s that thing where if you don’t learn it properly the first time, it doesn’t stick. It’s not the kind of thing I like to be tied down with while writing, either. So normally I just bang it out and then go back and correct my tense while editing.

  2. Hi Louise! Tenses can be tricky to control. Good advice here from Giorge – don’t worry about it too much on a first draft. In fact it may be beneficial to try out different tenses in your first draft, as sometimes the story and characters will dictate which tense is going to work best for this particular story. There are no “rules” concerning your choice of tense, apart from be consistent with it. So if your story is told in past tense ” I walked to the shop. It was closed” you couldn’t then switch to “The shop is closed. I decide to try another”. Hope this helps!

  3. The person who told you books should always be in the past tense is an idiot. The only universal rule when it comes to writing is ignore anything that sounds like a universal rule about writing.

    Writing a novel in present tense is unusual, as in, not many people do it. Because of that most readers aren’t used to it. But I’ve read excellent novels told from both first and third-person POVs that use the present tense. It is a risk (as you experienced yourself some readers will bluntly refuse to read something based only on that), but done right it can bring a sense of immediacy that works especially well with thrillers. Just be careful that it doesn’t come across as pretentious.

    And as Louise said, be consistent. Pick a tense and stick to it. But even that one is flexible. For example, you can write the main narrative in the past tense and flashback scenes in the present, or vice versa. So be consistent within a scene, but be creative.

    Now if you really want to see people get upset, try searching articles about novels in the second-person POV.

      • I follow a handful of good writing blogs by experienced authors and editors whose advice I take to heart (most of the time). Others who dispense advice, I merely take note and only keep what makes sense.

        What you should do, I think, is invest in a good style guide and some books on writing in general and in the genre you’re writing specifically. Make sure they’re not by someone who has only self-published one book (the one on writing/publishing), but by someone who actually knows what they’re talking about. Those resources can teach you much more reliably than all the experts on the interwebs.

  4. As far as I’m concerned writing a book in the present tense isn’t a complete no-no, but it does put a different slant on it – it sounds more dialogue-y and “in the now” as if the narrator is telling it as he/she goes along – and in my opinion it’s much harder to do consistently. I’m not sure I could handle reading an entire novel written in the present tense!

  5. I think there is only one rule – there are no rules. Something works, or it doesn’t. I like to think about the effect my choice of tense has on the story. Present tense makes the reader feel as if they’re right there in the moment watching the action unfold in real time. It can be intense and intimate but that might be just what your story calls for. Or you might want to step back into recent past and let the story narrate something that has happened because that’s the best way to say what you want to say. Neither is right or wrong. But I do think people who refuse to read anything in present tense, and I know a few, are missing out on some amazing books. The opening chapter of Jonathon Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close wouldn’t be anywhere near as powerful and engaging if written in the past tense.

    • Thanks for the feedback Karen. I have been pulling books off my bookshelf today and quite a few of my favourites are present tense. I never take much notice when I read I get so lost in the story but you’re right, it either works or it doesn’t.

  6. There is a debate raging on one of the Linked-In groups on this very subject. There seem to be as many different opinions as there are contributors (and certainly more opinions than there are tenses.) I recommend you check out Margaret Atwood, still one of the best writers around. She does present tense well.
    Whatever you do, I think it’s important (first and foremost) for the piece to feel right FOR YOU.

Constructive criticism appreciated

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