Before you begin to type your novel, you should decide which tense you’ll write it in. Once you’ve chosen, you must use this tense consistently throughout the novel and intercut with other tenses if they add to the story.
The easier tense to write in is the one that fits your story, so there isn’t a tense that’s better or easier than the other for storytelling. Authors use past tense most regularly to write their novels, so there are more resources and examples regarding past tense writing.
Let’s take apart and analyze the differences between past and present tense. As you’ll see, both have their merits and limitations and are suited to different genres and atmospheres.
The Differences Between Past and Present Tense
We learn the fundamental differences between the tenses relatively early at school, but there’s much more to it than meets the eye. Tenses have distinct characteristics that relay messages to the reader, mostly subconsciously.
The below table will clarify the key characteristics of the two for you to compare:
The table above offers pretty standard explanations, so let’s dive even deeper into what each of these tenses does for storytelling.
If you’ve already started writing your novel, or any kind of text for that matter, chances are you’ve already started writing in the past tense. This is the most widely used tense for storytelling, and here’s why.
- Depth: Past tense is layered and reflective. You can flash back and layer events, as well as conceal and unfold storytelling elements at will.
- Atmosphere: It’s great for creating suspense and a nostalgic atmosphere. The past tense allows you to focus on past events, reveal memories, and build up to surprise twists.
- Control: You have more flexibility with the order of events in the story. Because everything is reflective, you don’t need to follow a linear storytelling sequence, as you can be as descriptive as you want because there’s no time limit.
- Past simple: They didn’t go surfing because they couldn’t swim well.
- Past perfect: I had thought I wasn’t allergic to seafood; that was a mistake.
- Past continuous: We were driving to the beach when we saw the accident.
- Past perfect continuous: She had been working, so she couldn’t attend the party.
Despite the prevalence of past tense, it has its limitations. The past tense presents information that’s already been decided or has happened, and there’s less room for the surprising and unexpected compared to the present tense.
Past tense can also have a significantly slower pace than present tense, so some readers might find themselves bored or unable to concentrate on the story. You can find examples of popular and successful books written in the past tense at Goodreads.
The present tense is the most cinematic, immediate, and fast-paced tense, as the reader sees events unfolding in real-time as if they were watching a movie. The present tense is unlike the past tense in that you must keep better track of the timeline you’ve created.
- Detail: In a sense, the reader becomes the main character. Readers are privy to characters’ internal thoughts in real time, meaning there’s an opportunity for detailed, sensory descriptions that add texture to your story.
- Immediacy: This tense is excellent for describing things as they happen at the moment because it doesn’t show the reader what’s to come, and creates anticipation and leaves them wanting more.
- Engagement: Present tense allows the reader to follow the characters and experience what they experience. This immersive factor creates a sense of engagement that the past tense lacks.
- Present simple: They go surfing on the weekends.
- Present perfect: We have been mistaken in thinking I could eat seafood.
- Present continuous: I am driving to the beach and avoiding an accident.
- Present perfect continuous: She has been working and not partying.
There are limitations to the present tense, more so than the past tense. The present tense makes it harder for you to jump backward and forwards in time between events without things becoming confusing.
Telling a story as it happens also means you won’t always get the chance to explain how the characters got there in the first place, and keeping track of a timeline requires a lot of focus and consistency.
Take a look at Goodreads’ list of present tense books to see examples of the kinds of stories and genres told through this tense.
Which Tense Works Best with Which Genres
Past and present tense have unique characteristics and usages that authors can use to create different atmospheres. But each of these tenses is more frequently used in particular genres, which creates amazing and intense stories when used properly.
Genres That Use Past Tense
Past and present tense have specific qualities that make them better suited to certain genres. These aren’t by any means set guidelines, though, as you can pair either of these tenses with any genre you like.
Past tense is relatively common and easy to keep up with, as you can manipulate time and events more easily. Here are a few examples of when you can use past tense:
- Thrillers and crime novels: You can use past tense to slowly and meticulously reveal plots, events, and memories that layer and deepen the story. It’s easier to use as a tool to create intrigue and suspense.
- Children’s books: Children easily get confused between the story and reality if it’s written in the present tense. Writing in past tense allows children to view stories as something that has passed and doesn’t influence them at the moment.
- Autobiographies: An autobiography primarily focuses on someone’s past journey until the point that they’re writing the book, so writing in the present tense wouldn’t make sense, except for brief flashes back to the present day.
Genres That Use Present Tense
Fewer genres use present tense as their primary modus operandi, considering it can be more challenging to stay on track and to show rather than tell a story.
But here are a couple of genres that present tense is used for:
- Young Adult Fiction: Young readers can insert themselves into the story and follow the characters as they live through events, which makes it more exciting and builds anticipation. This can be a similar experience to watching a movie.
- Choose your own adventure stories: These novels are full of continuous action and decision-making that leads to many twists and turns. This immersive reading experience is best done in the present tense.
As mentioned before, these genre conventions aren’t set in stone. There are a lot of kids’ books and thrillers written in the present tense, and sometimes the past tense makes for excellent YA Fiction. It all depends on the specific book you’re writing. You decide what fits.
This article compares present and past tense to determine which is easier to write. While past tense is generally what writers opt for, present tense is just as useful for storytelling and is sometimes even more effective, depending on the genre.
The takeaway here is that you should use whatever tense works for your story. There isn’t one that we can definitively say is easier or more effective than the other.