Tense--past and present headaches

I’m getting rather…upset…about the use of tense in my novel. I have been getting feedback from a writer and she’s recommended I write more of the current day stuff in the present tense. The thing is, I get all f**ed up about it, and somehow it doesn’t feel right to me, even though I know that it is, technically, correct.

When I write, for instance, “Chloe steps off the bus and over the prone form of a homeless man, or woman–a shape in a stained sleeping bag–toward the main doors of the store. She is ready for their questions…,” it feels more akward to me than writing: “Chloe stepped of the bus and over the prone form…She was ready for their questions…”

What do you have to say on the matter?

I quite like present tense. :slight_smile:

I used to.

The present tense is used exclusively in screenplays and treatments of screenplays, which may be one reason I’m tired of it.

“he opens the door, he sees her, he reaches for his…”

Doesn’t it seem a bit too, I don’t know, too…too…nowish?

I like the immediacy of present tense. Done well and with a story where it works, I think it brings the reader emotionally closer. But some stories are better done in past and just sound silly in present tense (to me, at least).

It’s your story - you can write it however you wish. :smiley:

How about writing the same scene both ways and then letting them rest for a bit. When you go back to them, pay attention to how they feel as you read them.

I do agree that present tense has become fashionable, which makes writers sometimes choose it for the wrong reason.

I’m facing a similar dilemma with my story, though in my case it’s how to mix the povs that I want to use.

Good luck with finding a solution you feel works.

Edited to add: There’s an unpleasant rhythm to this post and I apologize for that.

I hate the present tense. I have put books back on the shelf because it’s so jarring. That could be the result of a lifetime spent reading books in the past tense, but it still seems more trendy than immediate to me.

Okay, end of rant. I’ll go back to my cave now.


UGH. ME AGREE. ME LIKE PAST TENSE. most books in my cave are written in the past tense. Hey, I know this is going to showcase my complete ignorance of grammar, but can someone tell me if there is a tense, used in fiction, which lies somewhere between past-past, and it’s happening now sort of past?

Not: He wrote the post without thinking and pushed the send button.

But: He wrote the post and sends it without thinking.

Hmm. Maybe that’s called Bad Writing.


By the way don’t worry about the rythm of a post…they’re not meant to be literature, not really. just like email. look ma, no caps!

Here’s the short list for the Present Tense entry on Wikipedia:

In English, the present tense is subdivided into the following forms:

Present simple: “I go to school every day.”
Present progressive: “You are being rude” (at this moment)
Present perfect: “I have had two computers.”
Present perfect progressive: “She has been living in London for a year.”

And if you really want to twist your brain, check out the past tense.

Do not - if you value your sanity - check out the subjunctive. Ever. :smiling_imp: (This is for English. I’m sure other language still actually have their subjunctive in active use.)

Thanks for the note re: my rhythm comment. There’s just something wrong with that post and it’s like fingernails on a blackboard but I’m too lazy to figure out how to fix it.

If you don’t like it, then don’t use it. It’s your book, no one else’s.


Both present and past tense are effective ways to narrate, for each implies movement in time and consequence to actions.

Past: Humpty recalled the day he fell off his wall. (he survived)

Present: Humpty tips and falls, his mind a shattered yolk. (maybe not)

Progressive: Humpty is tipping and falling, down down a wall. (stay tuned)

My feeling: mix them up, depending on the effect you want. Variety keeps a reader hooked.

Regardless of theory, trendiness etc, I think the key thing is that if it doesn’t feel right to you, then maybe it isn’t right for you (in this particular writing project, at any rate). Maybe it’s better to write in a voice that feels natural, and more like you? Maybe your writing style involves not using the present tense, just as using it is part of some other authors’ styles?

I have read books written well in the present tense, when after the first couple of pages I didn’t even notice the tense any more; I have started books written in the present tense which read so badly that I never finished them. Sometimes it’s the right tense to use - but I imagine that the author recognised that, and didn’t impose the tense as an unnatural straitjacket. It must be very hard to sustain an uncomfortable writing style without sacrificing whatever it is that makes your writing fluid and individual.

A problem with present tense for me is that it requires the reader to pretend that the rest of the book/article doesn’t exist yet. That’s fine if you’re writing in real time (like a blog) but when you’ve crafted a finished product it just feels a bit less manipulative to me to acknowledge that as an author you know how it’s going to end by using past tense, and the reader is just getting the story.

If you use present tense you have to feel confident about putting your reader “in the moment” - of course, this is the default position for screenplays, but I think that the novel has a kind of permanent anteriority which is part of the way it’s read.

That said, I have read one or two things in present tense that have worked, but I think you have to be self-conscious about your decision and the different kind of time you’re creating with the reader, rather than making it a personal preference issue.

The advice to write some bits in both and sit with them is good. Good luck!

I’ve used the present tense successfully for short passages which happened in the past, say in the character’s childhood, and which are still very much alive in his/her head. When he moves into the present tense he is reliving the events of the past rather than simply remembering them.

Personally I find a novel written entirely in the present tense a bore.

On the other hand, I remember chapters of Iain Banks’s Complicity written not only in the present tense but in the second person, drawing the reader into the story and making him complicit with the sadistic actions.

As others have already said: it’s your story, you write it the way you want. Incidentally, when I’m commenting on someone’s work I always phrase it that way: ‘You could try doing so-and-so, but it’s your novel and you may well come up with a better way…’


I use present tense when I want the reader come deeper into the story with me, the narrator. I use past tense when I want both the reader and me are a bit detached from the events - as if the light of time has made everything a bit far from us.


I can’t stand present tense and never use it, except for a few rare instances in dialog.

I dislike it even more than first person. Don’t know why, but books written in first person make me feel queasy.

One nice thing about using the past tense to describe current action is it frees up the present tense for other things. For example, in first person past, a switch up to the present can do characterization or indicate eternal present:

“I [stepped] off the bus and squinted. Now, I (carry) sunglasses wherever I go – in my line of work, these things (are) important. But when I [reached] for my jacket pocket and patted air, it all [came] back to me. Wherever my midnight visitor {had gone}, he {had taken} not only my jacket, but a complementary pair of gas-station Ray Bans. I guess (I’m) just a generous person.”

These tricks work a bit differently in third person, but it’s the same idea - when you push everything up into the present, that cuts down on your options to get out ahead of the story - which some people miss more than others, of course…

Oh dear, now you’ve got me at it. I’ve just written a prelude in the present tense, and it works better than if I had done it my usual boring tense. But if I keep it like that, I’ll have to wade through and present-ify some of the other sections as well. Decisions, decisions… You can’t just have one wee bit in the present, and everything else in the past, can you? Or can you?

I wonder has anyone ever written a novel entirely in, say, the imperfect or the pluperfect :slight_smile: A long time ago, I vaguely remember reading a short story expressed entirely in various future tenses… it wasn’t great.

You can, and some do, though it can be tricky to pull off. Some go into present tense for action, for instance, mimicking modern oral styles. The translator of Haruki Murakami’s Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the Edge of the World put alternative chapters in present tense (because in the original Japanese, alternate chapters used either the formal or informal version of “I”, for which there was no English equivalent).

The main trouble is ensuring that it is not jarring for the reader. Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting flits in and out of present tense, and whilst I loved the book at the time, I found these shifts jarring. In other books, you don’t notice. I think there has to be a good narrative reason for the choice of tense, and for shifting it, so that if the reader asks, “Why are these parts in present tense?” there will be an answer somewhere other than, “because the writer felt like it.”

All the best,

You want to feel queasy, especially if you’re a guy, read Nabokov’s Lolita, as I just finished doing for a graduate course I’ll be taking this fall. It puts the reader–it put me, at any rate–in the uncomfortable position of being Humbert Humbert, a sexual deviant who can justify his abominable actions nine ways to Tuesday but who, in the end, is nothing more than a pathetic abuser of what he called a “nymphet” to disguise what she really was, an underage girl he manipulated into sex. A great novel, they say, but I found it so disagreeable it was only with the greatest restraint I kept from throwing it across the room. That, and I had to read it for the course…

As for all the posts about tenses, I’ve found all your comments very helpful and encouraging: more so, in fact, than the long distance relationship I’ve had over the past four months with this mentor. It’s not like I want a continual patting on the back and no criticism, but what she saw me writing and what I thought I was writing were two different things, and I’ve decided to cut my participation in this correspondence workshop short by two months. It’s going to take me a while to find my way back to the novel, and remember what made me want to write it. For the moment, I’m so sick and tired of talking about it, writing it, thinking it, breathing it, I want to erase/burn/shred every file associated with it! (I won’t do it, but the pressure of all these files, of five years part time work on it, weighs heavily on me.)

Siren wrote:

They say there is no such thing as a dumb question, particularly when you are honestly wanting to know something, so I’ll have to betray my appalling ignorance of some grammatical terminology and ask you for examples of the imperfect and pluperfect tenses!

imperfect: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Imperfect_tense
I was eating, I used to eat

pluperfect: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pluperfect_tense
I had eaten