One of the most important choices to make when writing a first draft is which tense to use: present or past?
Stories in the past will use the past tense while narrations supposedly simultaneous with the facts will be in the present.Wrong. It’s all fiction. So, which one do you choose?
The present tense is ideal for emotional reads, thrillers, horrors and anything where you want your reader to feel, gulp, and sigh with the narrator. For an even stronger effect combine present tense with first person POV.
Things to keep in mind when using the present tense:
- If the narrator is seven, they cannot speak like a Nobel Prize
- The vocabulary has to be appropriate for the place and time the story occurs, even more so than when using past tense. For example, you might think they didn’t say “OMG” or “ugh” in 1972. Think again.
Below is a picture I snagged by using a great free tool available from Google Books, Ngram viewer. Ngram viewer will search whatever term you enter in a corpus of books you decide, be it English fiction or French. I wrote a blog post about this that went nuts for some reason, you can find the original here.
The past tense is more flexible and can be used pretty much for any fictional work, which is why is more common.
Things to keep in mind when using the past tense:
- You can make the narration feel more in the now by mixing in dialogue (which will always be in the present tense) and thoughts (remember to italicize them). You can even talk about things that will happen in the future!
- If you have to describe something that happened before the time of narration, use the past perfect (had+past. For irregular verbs you want to use the past participle–sing, sang, sung). For example…
The local train dropped us in Riomaggiore, and we started to hike.
The sea was clear, a teal so intense like I had only seen in Sardinia. Blues and greens chased each other between the foam of the few waves breaking onto the rocky cliffs. The thickness of the sultry air melded with the intense scents of spring: aromatic herbs, poppies and lemon trees.
My pothead friends and my lonely heart did not matter anymore. In Cinque Terre I felt like I belonged, my longing fused with that of the waves, breaking onto the rocks to come back whole again, stronger and more beautiful.
Fluttering white butterflies tended to the grasses. They looked like minuscule reproductions of the white sheets flapping in the distance: clotheslines crossing meadows, sheltered between rocks and terraces. They announced the tiny colored homes massed on the side of the hills like seagulls’ nests, overlooking the beauty of the marriage between wind and sea. This place was no secret, the trails were marked, and yet its magic was overwhelming.
Why isn’t everyone here, all the time?
“Wow,” Maria gazed at the sea, singing below us.
I turned to look at her and wiped my eyes. It was only the two of us left on the cliff.
“Why are you crying?” Maria was not alarmed, amused or surprised. She just asked.
I thought about it. “I think that sometimes I feel too much and I can’t keep it all inside, you know?” She nodded. I felt such an intense love for her at that moment, such a deep connection. “Maria, this is what I want to do. One day I’ll buy a little cottage by the sea, and I’ll spend my days writing.”
“Sounds like a plan, can I join you?”
“Yes! And just in case we get bored, we’ll have a couple of hunks to keep us company, slave-like, you know?”
“Yes! They won’t be allowed to open their mouths. We’ll just talk to each other for intellectual stimulation, but keep them around for entertainment.” I nodded. “Romeo and Nico?” she suggested.
And who’s gonna get Nico? Awkward. “Ah, maybe. I’d like to keep them changing, not to get too attached.”
She turned her whole body toward me and lifted a high five. I hit it hard. We had a plan.
“Balni! Vani! Come on!” Romeo called.
I mouthed a silent good-bye to the cliff, and we ran back to catch up with the flock.
Romeo walked beside me. “What was that about?”
“What?” I asked.
“You and Vani, plotting together on the cliff.”
“Man, did Nico break up with you? Feeling lonely?” I joked, eyeing Nico up ahead, laughing with Toma. Maria snickered.
“Something like that,” Romeo admitted. “So? What were you up to?”
“We were making plans for the future,” I explained, keeping it vague.
“Do your plans include me?”
I couldn’t help but blush a little, Maria nudged my side in an accomplice gesture.
I smirked, surprised that the Romeo wasted time flirting with me. “If they do, not in a way you’d like, I’m afraid.”
And then, Romeo dropped the bomb.
–From “Forget Nico, Falling for the Wrong Italian” (available as e-book, paperback, and audio)
See? In the paragraph above (past tense) there are things happening in the now and in the future (the plan). There were also things that happened in the past in the part I cut […] but I preferred to keep it short.
Regardless of your tense choice, BE CONSISTENT! Do not mix present and past, it becomes very confusing! The only instance when you mix them is if you are writing in the present and talk about something that happened before the narration time.
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I wrote my novel in the present, can I switch to past or vice versa?
Panic not. Been there, done that. Everything is possible, but you have to be methodical and come to terms with the fact that it will take you at least five rounds of editing to catch all the wrong verbs.
Question for #TIS readers and bibliophiles at large
TIS (my series of YA novels) is written in the past tense (first four books). Originally I chose to do so because Leda (my main character and narrator) is quite young in book one, and I wanted the narrative to sound more mature. Now I am writing book five, Leda is in college and I switched to present tense because I think it’s more emotional, funnier.
How do you feel about that?
Who am I to give you advice?
I am the unapologetic author of the Italian Saga (#TIS): an irreverent series taking place in Italy and speaking of love, sadness, sex, and happiness with a healthy dose of humor <3 These are not trashy, cheesy books. No fairy tale stereotypes. Yes for the ugly, beautiful truth <3
I am an indie authors who did it all herself and now helps other authors do the same. All my books are available as digital, audio, and paperbacks.
Writing your WIP: past or present tense?
21. Juni 2016 Schreiben lernen