Past or present tense?

by slowdancejournal

rome paintingPast or present? This question didn’t used to come up. Stories were told in the past tense. Period.

Why? One answer is like that famous parental response, “Because I told you so.”

We write in past tense because it has always been thus.

But more and more stories are now being narrated in present tense, especially in middle grade and YA fiction.

So, what are the qualities of each, and how do you decide which suits your story?

A narration in past tense is cooler in tone, as if we are observing from a slight distance. It has the contained feel of a picture in a frame, the story we are hearing already complete.

The tone of present tense is urgent, almost breathless, which is why it is showing up more and more often in fiction for young readers who typically live in the flaming, full-tilt now.

In present tense, the “now” of the story is as big as the period at the end of this sentence, which is both a strength and a weakness. Staying so sharply in the moment can get wearing. like listening to the 1812 Overture without end. All adrenalin all the time.

The experience of reading a present tense novel is similar to watching a movie. Frame by frame the story happens right before your eyes.

A mechanical advantage of present tense is that backstory can be related in simple past tense, not fall into the more cumbersome past perfect of a story already set in the past: He had gone to the doctor about the lump on his nose before.

Can you use both in one story? Yes. The easy one is dropping the past tense into a present tense story. Anything that happened before the “now” of the story will be in past tense.

But what about using present tense in a past tense story? Sure, you have my permission. But be judicious and consistent.

A work can accustom a reader to conventions set up by the writer, for example, all dream sequences will be in present tense, or intense memories will be related in present tense. In limited doses present tense provides a welcome jolt.

I still think past tense should be your default setting, the decision to go with present tense made for reasons you can defend.

That said, I’ve written two books in present tense, and here’s why. Both were the first person narrations of young characters under pressure. The moment at hand was all they could handle as “now” breathed on their necks. The slight discomfort of a present tense narration served these stories.

Still, when in doubt go with past tense.

The storytelling convention readers are most used to goes like this: once upon a time there was…