Talking about tense: past vs. present

It occurred to me this week while revising: Would my story feel more alive if I wrote in present tense?

I wrote my manuscript in past tense without giving it a thought. That’s the tense I’m used to from my journalism background, the kind that comes easy to me.

But I’m reading Mary MorrisThe River Queen, and it’s in present tense. That discovery prompted me to go through my bookshelf of travel memoirs to see what tense those authors wrote in. (I’d done this once before, but now that I’m farther along with my own writing process, it has more meaning.)

Turns out the jury is split. Eat, Pray, Love and Tales of a Female Nomad are written in present tense, as is Under the Tuscan Sun. But Somebody’s Heart is Burning, The Great Railway Baazar and The Lunatic Express are all written in past tense. So is another book by Morris, Nothing To Declare, which makes me wonder: why did she choose past tense for one travel memoir and present for another? (I’ll send this to her and see if she might answer in the comments.)

I remember reading Eat, Pray, Love for the first time and feeling like the present tense was slightly awkward, but perhaps that’s because the types of books I read — mostly narrative nonfiction — are usually written in past tense. Now I’m looking at her book again and wondering whether that present tense helps the reader feel like she’s on Gilbert’s journey with her right here and now.

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So now I’m asking you: What works best for you as a reader? What tense do you prefer to write in?

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8 Responses

  1. I’ve been thinking about this lately, also. Like you, I’m used to writing in past tense, and that tends to be my natural tendency. I’m writing my manuscript in past tense, and I’ve played around a bit with other tenses. For this work, I think past tense is best.

    But sometimes present tense works better when I read a book. I think it all depends on the writer and their style of writing. Some writers can write in present tense, and it feels as if you’re right in the middle of the story, going through that same experience with the narrator. But other times, it feels forced. I’d be interested to see what other writers think about this. 🙂

  2. Ahh…I’ve thought about this a LOT! When I first started writing the ms this question plagued me, making me very tense indeed. After reading E,P,L I felt I had to do present tense and it felt unnatural. Then I read Committed and that was in past tense so I felt relieved. Did a bunch of research/ thinking and this is what I came up with.

    My conclusions:

    * Present tense is REALLY hard to pull off well.
    * Present tense can pull you into the action, BUT it can also be awkward to read.
    * Past tense can also be written actively and pull you into the story.
    * The reader shouldn’t be thinking about the tense as she reads, it should be invisible. It’s harder to do this with present tense.
    * Lots of editors/ readers feel strongly about present tense and hate it. Not saying that should be a reason to avoid, but just something to consider.

    In sum, do present tense at your own peril. 🙂 Or maybe wait for a second or third book (!) to attempt – why create unnecessary work for yourself if the past tense comes out naturally?

    That’s just my opinion & my decision though. Interested to see what other people think.

    • Great post Alexis, and alisha, I love your research and conclusions. Thanks for posting! I’m working on some stuff and find I’m writing pretty exclusively in past tense … but then there are a handful of scenes in present tense. I don’t know whether that’s, well, allowed. Part of me is like, “There are no rules!” but the reality is, some things just don’t work quite right. 🙂

  3. Oh yes, the other thing I forgot to mention is that present tense makes it difficult to reflect on what’s happening with hindsight. It’s hard to create a bigger picture when all the narrator knows is what’s happening this second. This is really important in my case so that was another strike against it.

  4. Wow — Great comments so far. Thanks, gals. Wish we were all near each other tonight so we could sit at a table and talk about this!

  5. I use past tense. Much easier in the overall picture. I have noticed a few present tense usages in my book and will watch out for these in my next ones. But overall [ast tense for me.

    Stephen tremp

  6. Alisha – I like your comments a lot. I was just revising an essay this morning that I am trying in the present tense because it is very present but if I am going to put it in with a series of essays I am working on not sure if it is going to work to have one present and then the next past…Decisions!

  7. As you know, I’ve just switched to the present tense – any action that takes place ‘in the direct chronology of the main narrative’ is in the present tense but background is in the past tense and when I am in ‘reflection mode’ I use the past tense. Let’s see if it works. It’s making me nervous to read the responses to this post because I didn’t know that a lot of editors have strong objections to the present tense – the last thing I need is to give a publisher a reason to reject my manuscript!

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