Does (or Did) Tense Matter?

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.

About D. Thomas Minton

Writer of speculative fiction
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8 Responses to Does (or Did) Tense Matter?

  1. I agree with you that strong stories will sell, regardless of tense. I wrote my first novel in present tense, only to have an editor strongly suggest I switch to past. Fast forward to landing my agent… He suggested I revert to present. 🙂 I think going with our instinct is key; for me, that lends itself to a better story in many ways. Thanks for the thought-provoking post.

    • This sounds like stories I’ve heard from other writers. I find it interesting how much this topic seems to elicit strong opinions among writers, editors, and publishers (whereas readers don’t seem to care as much).

  2. Marc Schuster says:

    To a large extent, I would imagine that the preference of one tense over another is largely subjective. But as you point out, present tense does lend itself to a sense of immediacy and urgency, so I supposed it’s best to think of tense as yet another tool for writers to deploy — and to do so with at least some degree of care. The other thing that makes present to attractive to me is that saves me from having to decide how much distance exists between the action and the recounting of the action. If the story is told in present tense, they’re both (arguably) happening at once, but if it’s told in the past, the writer has to decide how far back in the past it happened and stick to that distance. (Then again, this aversion to such decisions is probably something I need to work on as a writer!)

    In any case, thanks for this thought-provoking post! (And clever title!)

    • Your last point is the one I think Pullman and Nye are making, and the one I find the most interesting. While I don’t agree with them that choosing the present tense is by default lazy, it does have the potential to flatten the narrative. I wonder how much of the flattening could be removed through reflective dialogue, sort of the reverse situation that Pullman talks about.

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  4. Colum Paget says:

    # Your last point is the one I think
    # Pullman and Nye are making,

    If Pullman and Nye were making any real points about ‘use the appropriate tense at the appropriate time’ then they would have had something to say about all the stories that are written in past tense, despite taking place over short timelines. They never have or do. They only argue that people should use the ‘appropriate tense’ when people are using present tense, and in all those cases they are always arguing for past tense.

    I don’t deny there is some strength to some of the arguments, but they are using them to defend a larger position, just as politicians will pick up any argument they can to argue for a policy, and cast the argument away when it no longer suits their purpose.

    At the end of the day, writers should write what they want to in the way they want to. I don’t quite see why Mr Pullman in particular thinks he has the right to lecture Booker prize nominees on how they should write.


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  6. Pingback: Present Tense: Breathlessly Waiting to Read About What’s Already Happened « change it up editing

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