Past Tense vs Present Tense: Which One Do You Need for Your Novel?

The two major tenses available for creative writing are past and present (future tense is not a viable option). In fact, a common mistake new writers make is switching between the two or choosing the wrong tense. Before you start writing your book (or short story), it's imperative to decide which tense you'll use for the story.

And this article on past tense vs present tense will help you decide. 

In this article, you will learn:
  1. Past tense defined (with examples).
  2. Present tense defined (with examples).
  3. Pros and cons of each.

What Is Past Tense?

Writing in the past tense means talking about something that happened in the past. The easiest way to think about this is to consider how people tell each other stories. If you wanted to tell someone about your day at work, you would probably use the past tense. 

Take this, for example: “Around eleven-fifteen, Gary showed up with a box of donuts. There was a stampede as we all rushed to get one before they were all gone.”

Note the use of the past tense verbs showed and rushed. The action is happening in the past. This is not only common for telling each other stories verbally, but the past tense is also the most common tense in fiction writing

What is Present Tense?

Writing in the present tense means describing something as if it's happening right now. If you were to walk around all day narrating your every action and thought, that would be a form of present tense. 

Here's an example: “The clock reads eleven-fifteen as Gary steps into the office with an open box of donuts. Before he can even get the words out, everyone stampedes toward him to get one before they're gone.”

While you wouldn't tell someone of something that happened in the past like it was happening right now, the present tense can work for literature. Note the use of the present tense verbs reads, steps, and stampedes. The action in this example is all immediate, as if you're watching it happen. 

A Brief Rundown of Verb Tenses

The definitions above provide a broad view of the past and present tenses. But if you're planning to write an entire book in one of these narrative tenses, it pays to dive a little deeper. 

To fully understand the use of past or present tense in your creative writing project, it helps to first understand the different types of verb tenses. While I don't want to turn this article into a grammar lesson, it's important to at least be passingly familiar with the major verb tenses at your disposal as a writer. 

Simple Past and Past Perfect Tense

The use of both simple past and past perfect is common in fiction. The past tense example I shared above is written in simple past. But if I wanted to modify it to describe a sequence of events that happened before the narrative’s now, I would need to use past perfect. 

Here's an example: “Around eleven-fifteen, Gary showed up with a box of donuts. He had eaten one of the sugary treats; I could tell by the frosting on his mustache. There was a stampede as we all rushed to get one before they were all gone.”

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In order to describe the sequence of events (Gary eating a donut before showing up and causing the stampede), the second sentence starts off as past perfect. Otherwise, the paragraph wouldn't be so clear. Using only simple past, it would look something like this: “Around eleven-fifteen, Gary showed up with a box of donuts. He ate one of the sugary treats; I could tell by the frosting in his mustache . . .”

While this second version might get the point across, it could be confusing to some, making it seem at first as if Gary picked up and ate one of the donuts right then, as the office rushed toward him.

Using the words had eaten indicates that the action took place earlier, helping to keep things clear for the reader.

Bonus: Brush up on your use of past progressive and past perfect progressive to really cement your understanding of writing in the past tense. 

Simple Present Tense and Present Perfect Tense

Similar to simple past and past perfect, simple present and present perfect are often used in present tense fiction writing. The paragraph above in the present tense is a good example of simple present (sometimes called present simple tense). But let's see it with a present perfect example. 

“The clock reads eleven-fifteen as Gary steps into the office with an open box of donuts. He has eaten one of the sugary treats; I can tell by the frosting on his mustache. Before he can even get the words out, everyone stampedes toward him to get one before they're gone.”

If you wrote this while using simple present, the sentence would be: “He eats one of the sugary treats . . .” which implies that he's eating it now as he steps into the room. 

The words has and have are your friends when writing in the present perfect tense.

Bonus: Brush up on your use of present progressive and present perfect progressive to really cement your understanding of writing in the present tense. 

Books Written in Present Tense

The majority of fiction novels are written in the past tense. As such, I don't think we need a list of examples. Open your e-reader or go to your bookshelf. Unless you seek out books written in the present tense, you'll likely find that 8 or 9 out of 10 fiction novels on your shelf are in the past tense. 

This style is so ubiquitous that many readers don't even notice that the story has “already happened.” Despite the use of past tense verbs, readers can still become immersed in the story, feeling as if it's happening right now. 

Books written in the present tense, on the other hand, are somewhat rare. But there are certainly plenty of authors who have done this type of writing well. Here are some examples from different eras of excellent present-tense novels. Note that not all of these books are written entirely in the present tense. Some of them alternate to the past tense for certain characters or storylines:

  • The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
  • Rabbit, Run by John Updike
  • Bird Box by Josh Malerman
  • The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
  • Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk
  • Bleak House by Charles Dickens
  • Divergent by Veronica Roth

Choosing Past Tense: Pros and Cons

So now that we've gone over the refresher, it's time to decide which tense you should use for your story. Here are some pros and cons of the past tense to help you decide. 

Pro: It's More Versatile

The past tense is much easier to work with than the present. This is because you can use all twelve types of verb tenses in English when writing in the past tense. This also makes it easier to move through time and bounce between different character points of view than in the present tense. 

Pro: It's Still the Norm

You can rest easy knowing that most readers won't even bat an eye at the use of the past tense. They're used to it because most of the books they've read are in the past tense. If you're a new author, you want to give readers as many reasons as possible to take a chance on you. So you can’t really go wrong sticking to this tense.  

Pro: We Already Talk Like This

When we tell each other stories, we do it in the past tense (most of us, anyway). This means it has been ingrained in our heads, which helps us to write smoothly and naturally when we sit down to pen our story. 

Con: It's Not Quite as Intimate

Compared to the present tense, the past tense is not quite as intimate or immediate. For some stories, the past tense may not be the right choice. If you're looking to write a story that takes place over a short period, for example, the present tense might be best.

Con: It Can Be Confusing to Write

As mentioned above, you have more options when it comes to writing in the past tense. However, more options can mean more confusion if you're not up on your grammar. In past tense, you may need to use future perfect, past progressive, or past perfect. This can be overwhelming, which may deter some people from developing the daily writing habit it takes to finish a novel. 

Present Tense Pros and Cons

The present tense often works well for short stories, but it can be trying for an entire novel. Still, let your story dictate whether this tense is right for your novel. 

Pro: Good for First-Person Narratives

The present tense is a good choice for first-person books. Not only does it create a sense of immediacy, but it also helps the reader empathize with the narrator. Of course, this factor can also be exploited to great effect if your narrator is unreliable, making for subverted expectations and a big twist.

Pro: Great for Action

Action in present-tense novels is intense. This is because it seems like it's happening in real-time. In fact, the whole book seems like ongoing action because of the immediacy you get by writing this way. This is often why people compare present-tense stories to watching a movie unfold. After all, screenplays are exclusively written in the present tense for this reason. And when you’re watching a movie, it does feel as if you’re seeing the events play out in real-time.  

Con: Some Readers Hate It

You can bet that if you write a book in the present tense, there will be some readers who won't get past the first page. Since this is not the norm, writing in this tense can rub some readers the wrong way. This is not something you can do anything about, so it's important to consider. Look at your genre and see if there are many books written in the present tense. If not, you might want to go with the past tense. 

Con: You're Stuck in the Present

It's difficult to jump around in time in a present-tense book. And this means many writers will include every small, meaningless detail. After all, when you're constantly in the present moment, it's awkward to jump ahead an hour, a day, or a week. This is one reason why it takes some skill and experience to write a novel in the present tense. 

Con: It Narrows Your Options

Just as being stuck in the present makes significant time jumps awkward, it also limits your options for building and maintaining tension throughout the book. In the past tense, it's easier for the narrator to visit other characters or even reference an event that has yet to happen at that point in the story. In the present tense, this is nearly impossible to do well, so creating tension has to be done in much narrower ways, which can lead to gimmicky plot lines or unbelievable conflicts. 

Past Tense vs Present Tense: Conclusion

Hopefully, this explanation of the different tenses has helped you determine which one is right for your book. If you're still not sure, try writing a chapter or two in both tenses. After you're done, leave them for a few days or a week and then read them with fresh eyes. This can help you see which one will work for your story. 

You certainly don't have to be a master of English grammar to understand these two tenses, but it helps to be aware of the common pitfalls for both the past and present tenses.

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