There seem to be unwritten rules about writing, particularly with regard to things like point of view and tense. I’ve had people tell me that stories should be written in the past tense instead of the present tense (or the future, for that matter), and I’ve even seen it in submission guidelines for some publications. I know writers who have received rejections because stories were written in present tense. A Google search online for “past vs present tense” will find hundreds of postings, most of which recommend using past tense.
I used to write everything in past tense, and even today it’s my “default” tense when I start writing something. More often now, however, I think about what tense I want to write in before I start, and in some cases, when I feel I’ve chosen poorly, I’ll switch tenses in mid-writing. Chosing the right tense is important, and something I think many aspiring writers don’t think enough about. Tense does matter.
I find that a story’s tense affects the way I perceive the story. Stories in the present tense feel more urgent and immediate to me—I feel like I’m there with the characters, instead of listening to the story after-the-fact, while sitting in the cozy comfort of a coffee shop. In contrast, the temporal distance that comes with past tense removes this immediacy, but past tense is more conducive to reflection, as if the narrator has had a chance to digest what has happened to him or her prior to telling me.
In an interesting editorial in the Guardian, Philip Pullman offered his assessment of present versus past tense: “Like any other literary effect, the present tense is an expressive device; but expression works by contrast….if every sound you emit is a scream, a scream has no expressive value. What I dislike about the present-tense narrative is its limited range of expressiveness. I feel claustrophobic, always pressed up against the immediate.” He goes on to say that writers should use the entire expressive range of the language, including tense, noting that past tense narratives gain additional depth with present tense dialogue.
Mr. Pullman’s argument is interesting, although I disagree with his assessment that using present tense is “an abdication of narrative responsibility.” (Michael Nye, Managing Editor at The Missouri Review, echoes this sentiment when he writes, “[p]resent-tense seems to be a default mode for someone who isn’t carefully considering the style choices being made.”) Tense, like other story elements, should be chosen deliberately to enhance the story. What tense to use depends on the story’s point of view, the identity of narrator or focal character, the genre, and even the atmosphere the writer wishes to convey.
Finally, people have argued that present tense can make a story harder to sell. While this might be true for some publication or in some genres, my experience doesn’t support this: two of my three SFWA-qualifying sales were written in present tense (“Thief of Futures” and “Observations on a Clock”). Ultimately, I believe a strong story will sell, regardless of the tense it’s written in, provided the chosen tense is the best one to tell the story.