So my WIP at the moment is called The Daisy List. It’s getting very angsty at the moment, but I quite like it. It’s a second draft, and in past tense.
The first draft I wrote in present tense. Reading back the first draft I’m just like…
I do not understand this landscape.
And THEN, when I start on the second draft again, I accidentally switch tenses back to present. All the time.
Let’s look at some positives and negatives of both
Positives – more realistic, easier to suspend disbelief. It’s how we tell stories in real life, so this tense doesn’t jar the reader.
– more reflective. I mean, if it’s in the past, the narrator already knows what’s happened, and their reflections are often much deeper. It feels more profound or something.
– often easier to write. This is the tense most people start with, because it’s most common in books.
Negatives – can sometimes lead to telling rather than showing, and lead to recounting. This is a problem I have in my own WIP – the main character is telling her story, but sometimes it distances the reader from the actual story.
– lacks immediacy in some cases
Positives – the action is immediate. Everything happens in the moment. This leads to a closer distance between the narrator and audience.
– thoughts and feelings of narrator are easier to see. Most commonly, present tense is paired with first person. I can think of a few exceptions (All This Could End by Steph Bowe for example), but third person present tense is VERY hard to pull off. We’ll stick with first person present for now, which definitely helps with observing a character’s inner thoughts.
Negatives – may alienate readers. I know some people who are REALLY put off by present tense, something that isn’t often found with past tense.
– can be difficult to write well. I’ve tried present tense a few times, and sometimes it ends up sounding really awful. In my opinion at least, it’s a harder tense to write compared to past tense.
– harder to create a suspension of disbelief. I mean, technically it’s impossible to tell a story as it’s happening, so some inconsistencies might be apparent there.
The question: which one to choose?
(loving the tension in this gif)
Really, the choice of tense depends on what you’re writing. Something more reflective might need past tense, while something needing immediacy may use present tense. Really, your choice shouldn’t depend on what other people are writing. Play around with the tenses! Try out different things! Your first choice may not be the one that you end up with.
I know that past tense definitely works better with The Daisy List, because Daisy is coming back to her experiences from an older perspective. I like that about it. There is a lot of flexibility with both tenses, so whichever one you choose, make it work for you.
And happy writing!
Readers and writers, I want to hear from you both! What’s your favourite tense to read or write in? Writers, do you accidentally switch tenses like I do? Readers, are you turned off by a certain tense?