Past or Present Tense?


Image by J. Paxon Reyes via Flickr

After my morning writing session, I took a moment to wonder, would this story be stronger told in the past tense?

Of course, being the person that I am, that was probably the worst question to ask myself.

I don’t really dwell on little things like past or present tense as I’m writing a first draft. I usually just write the story as I see it or experience it, and then go back and make it stronger with each reading. But, considering how much work revising WIP1 was/is, I have to wonder, should I make the change now?

Only my alpha readers have gotten a glimpse of WIP2 in this drafting stage, so really, they would be the only ones who can realistically help me in my specific case. But, here are just a few things I’ve been considering since my morning writing session.

I started writing this story in the first person present because the MC experiences the most change and encounters a lot of newness as the world builds. I like the immediacy that present tense expresses when MC uncovers new things and needs to filter those discoveries against past context/teaching. The story has a lot of action sequences (at least, that’s the plan!), which, I thought, would be very effectiveย  in the present tense because then the reader experiences whatever the MC experiences in that moment. Plus, when the idea of WIP2 first came to me in January, I hand wrote the first two chapters in a wave of inspiration, all in the present tense.

When I finally sat down to really work on WIP2 in the last few weeks of July (after months of trying to work on revising WIP1) I easily wrote and expanded on WIP2’s world, reaching sixty pages without even thinking about it.

Now, after this morning’s writing session, after two weeks of barely adding to the story and reading lots and lots of books written in the past tense, I’m questioning my previous decisions and reasons. Maybe I should revise now into the past tense. After all, the books I’ve LOVED these past two weeks were ALL written in the past tense (and were most certainly action-packed!). (Plus, I naturally write in the past tense…thanks to my alpha readers for pointing out my slips, heeehee).

Or, maybe I’m just getting in my own way, and grasping at any reason to be distracted from making more progress on WIP2.

What do you think? Should I plunge into the past tense? Forge ahead in the present? Or stop asking myself these silly questions and just write the story and worry about specifics later?




19 thoughts on “Past or Present Tense?

  1. David Powers King says:

    I’ve always enjoyed stories that feel like they’ve already happened. Past tense for me. I’m also a third person writer. I’m in your campaign group. Looking forward to the awesomeness. ๐Ÿ™‚

  2. Carolina Valdez Miller says:

    I do that too–let books I’m reading (that I love) make me question some of my own writing decisions. But it sounds like you chose present tense for a reason, and until that reason isn’t justifiable anymore, maybe consider keeping it as is? I almost always write 1st person present tense, but reading DAUGHTER OF SMOKE AND BONE made me seriously consider writing 3rd person past…

  3. J.C says:

    I’ve written both, and enjoy both – I think it really depends on the story. Trust your readers ๐Ÿ™‚ Or as Melissa said, rewrite just one chapter, or even one scene in past tense and see how it feels. I’m currently trying to work out whether I want to stick to 1st person, or move to 3rd for my new novel. Both have their upsides. I think I’ll be working in other pov’s though, so 3rd is probably the way to go…

    • Liza Kane says:

      Yes, agreed! If a story is well-executed, I don’t even notice things like past versus present tense…so, it all definitely depends on the story.
      Ooh, the change of perspective was something I dealt with for my WIP1. I started rewriting it in first person, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that third person served the scope of the story better. I definitely need to keep that story shelved for now, since it will need a complete rewrite.
      Thanks for stopping by, and happy writing to you!!

  4. Elizabeth Twist says:

    I am occasionally tempted to write a story in present tense, and I always end up changing it to past tense. As a reader, I usually experience present tense as an attempt to build a false sense of urgency into the narrative. “This is happening NOW!” “It’s really IMPORTANT!” I always feel like the writer is standing beside me as I read and punching me in the arm with each and every sentence. Ouch.

    • Liza Kane says:

      Hi Elizabeth! Thanks for stopping by, and throwing in your two cents! ^_^ I definitely don’t want to punch my readers in the arm! That would be *ouch* for sure! I’ll definitely experiment, because I don’t want to annoy my readers nor create a weak story!

  5. Melissa says:

    Ha! I got into my email and went, “Huh. Two emails about it, eh?” ๐Ÿ˜‰

    I like the present tense – and you do it well. There are the occasional slip ups, but it wasn’t until THEN that I noticed the present tense. Which is a REALLY GOOD THING.

    I say keep it. Or, try rewriting ONE chapter as past tense and see how it feels. It may surprise us all. But until then – I am in the Present Tense Stays! camp.

  6. Michele Shaw says:

    I find present tense tricky to write, and only enjoy reading it in certain books, but if it’s flowing that way, go with it! If you got that far before it even occurred to you, that’s a sign!

  7. bethmorey says:

    I used to write in the past tense, but now I MUCH prefer the present (and prefer to read in the present tense, as well). I was unsure about switching to the present tense, but Margaret Atwood’s books convinced me! ๐Ÿ™‚

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