Present Tense Versus Past
When should we use present tense in writing, and when should we use past tense?
In writing for publications, of course, we need to use house style—the standard the publication uses, that is. I once wrote for a periodical that used present tense for articles, which is rather unusual. But of course I did get used to writing as called for.
I’ve had a couple of students who wrote for film and who always reverted to present tense in writing their novels—a reflex action, though both understood that most fiction is written in past tense. Writing fiction in present tense presents somewhat of a barrier to selling, even if that doesn’t make placing a novel impossible. Some short stories as well as some literary novels might sell in present tense, which is thought to be “literary.” Also, young adult fiction can sell in present tense because a few YA novels written in present tense have been exceptionally successful.
Yet another consideration in tense: While writing in past tense, how should we speak of ongoing conditions. This can be slightly tricky.
- Reverend Brown came out to speak to the press. Brown is blind, having been blinded by shrapnel in Iraq.
That’s how we would write this for a nonfiction piece about Brown. However, if Brown is a character in fiction, we’d write this differently.
- Reverend Brown then went out to speak to the press. Brown was blind, having been blinded by shrapnel in Iraq.
In fiction, we mostly stick to past tense—including when referring to conditions and events that might be ongoing. Brown is likely to continue being blind, but in fiction, we write “was.”
- Dan took the kids to the Hudson River, which was clean enough to jump in and swim.
While this is pretty true today, in fiction, we’d have this in past tense. We don’t want to jerk the reader from past to present back to past tense.
Yet some facts are so present tense in our bones, we have to write them in present tense, regardless of other considerations.
- The family traveled on the subway down to New York Harbor and from there took a boat out to where Lady Liberty stands.
Even in fiction, we wouldn’t put Lady Liberty in past tense. And we would protect other icons similarly.
- The family caught a train to Washington and hurried from Union Station to where the Washington Monument stands.
We wouldn’t say “where the Washington Monument stood” unless we were writing some kind of post-apocalyptic story.
Past, present, future. Read my post-apocalyptic novel, Question Woman & Howling Sky, available on Amazon, where you can also buy my YA novel that time jumps, but is written in past tense—The Heroine’s Journey—and my middle-grade fantasy, Strings, based oh so loosely on string theory.
Or if you want to learn more about writing, download my The Naked Writer for your Kindle or take a class with me online at Writer’s Digest University. Need a line edit for an article, story or novel? GHayden2@nyc.rr.com