How to choose your narrative tense
When writing a story you need to decide on the grammatical tense you are going to use – i.e. whether it will be told in past tense, present tense or future tense.
The tense is indicated by the form of the verbs. For example, here’s a passage in the present tense:
I run through the dark forest. What if she catches up with me?
If we change that to past tense, it goes like this:
I ran through the dark forest. What if she caught up with me?
Practically, the future tense doesn’t really work for fiction as it’s difficult to keep talking about events as if they’re still going to happen. So we can eliminate this tense as an option and just stick with past or present tense.
That leaves the question – how do you decide on past vs present?
1. Tense is independent of story setting
The first point to note is that the grammatical tense of the story has nothing to do with the time period in which the story is set. If your story is set in the future, it can be told in the grammatical past tense. And you can use present tense even if your story is set back in the 17th Century.
Past tense is seen as more traditional because, but that doesn’t mean it’s old fashioned. It’s just the way that stories have always been told.
Present tense is the new kid on the block. It’s apparently more immediate and thrusts the reader more into the action. It gives the impression that the action is happening right now.
However, that doesn’t necessarily mean you should use present tense if you are writing something very dramatic. We all grew up reading stories set in past tense and when we listened to stories told by parents or grandparents they were usually told in past tense. So past tense has become a signal to us that we are entering story mode. If you’re having doubts about which tense to use – stick with past tense. It will serve you well in most instances.
Something else you can consider is what the current popular writers in your genre are using. For instance, in Young Adult fiction, there is a trend in favour of the present tense, perhaps because of the success of books like The Hunger Games, which are told in present tense.
For most genres it’s unlikely a publisher will reject your story just because it’s told in a tense that is not currently the rage. But do your own research here and check whether your favoured genre has any particular expectations of tense.
4. Instinct and feeling
The other way to decide on tense is just to go with gut instinct. Use the tense that your story wants to be told in. Your story will tell you what tense it wants to be told in and whether it wants first-person or third-person narration. The main thing is just to start with what feels right and then give yourself the freedom to change it later if you feel another tense and point of view seems more appropriate.
Tense in dialogue
An important point to remember is that speakers always speak from their present moment. This means that the verbs that give the tense of the sentence are the ones outside the quotation marks. You don’t need to do anything to the verbs in the words spoken because these are always spoken from the character’s present moment
Take a look at the following dialogue and see if you can identify what tense it’s written in:
“What did you do for Christmas last year?” I ask.
She gives a glum expression and says, “Nothing much. Just sat around and exchanged polite insults.”
It’s the verbs outside the quotation marks that indicate the tense, so the present-tense verbs ‘ask’, ‘says, and ‘gives’ indicate that this is present-tense narration.
Notice that even though the narration is present tense, the characters are using past-tense verbs because they are telling about something that happened in their past.
When it comes to deciding on the tense of narration, my advice is not to let this become a cause for hesitation or over-thinking. It’s quite normal for writers to experiment with past and present as they begin writing a piece and then see which one serves them best. You can always go back and change the tense of what you’ve already written if you decide that another tense feels more comfortable and more suited to your story.
For the full story on choosing tense, with more examples and exercises, see my book and course Write Masterful Fiction (details below).
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