The Best Tense for Fiction: past, present, and future

Choosing which tense to write your novel or short story in can have a significant impact on the way the reader experiences the tale. Each comes with pros and cons.

What is Past Tense in Fiction?

This is the tense that is by far and away the most commonly used in fiction. This is probably because it’s the tense we almost always use when telling someone else a story.

Most narratives related between people which describe real events are described using past tense. For instance, ‘She walked to the shops.’

This is the tense that your reader will instantly feel most comfortable reading, and it will be the most intuitive and easy to use in your story. 

What is Present Tense in Fiction?

Far fewer tales are written in present tense. In common speech, present tense might be used to deliver some instructions.

For instance, ‘You walk down to the shops, and turn left.’ 

However, this tense can also be used to convey a sense of immediacy in third person. For instance, ‘He runs to the shops. He opens the door, and he climbs onto the counter.’

Arguably, the effect above is that it may feel to the reader of the story as if the events described are currently happening, and that could make them more exciting.

What is Future Tense in Fiction

Future tense is used even less commonly. It describes events that will or may occur in the future. For instance, ‘He will walk to the shops.’ 

It can be used to generate extra emotion or pathos, especially tragic feeling, when relating events in the future that have arisen from or exist in relation to events that have previously been narrated.

For instance, after learning that a woman is trying to give up alcohol to be a better parent, we learn, ‘Later that year she will drive into a river, and drown.’ Ooof. 

Whichever tense you choose to write in, it’s fun to play around with them.

Make sure to chose the tense that serves your story the best, and that brings your story alive for your reader in the most interesting way!