Past vs. Present

So, I’ve been pondering more about the actual craft of writing thanks to taking a fiction writing class recently. And I’m sure I have many important things to say, but today in class I was startled to accidentally listen in on a conversation in class (I know I’m terrible).

“I’m so bad at writing in past tense,” one person says (see what I did here!).

“Well, from what I’ve heard you should mostly try to write in present anyways,” the other in the group says. “So it’s good you’re already writing that way. Everything I’ve heard says that’s how you should write.”

I had to stop myself from interjecting myself into the conversation, giving away the fact that I was eaves dropping. And besides, I didn’t want to look like a snob. But I was very confused by what these non-English majors were saying. You are supposed to write in present tense? What on earth? Where had they learned that?

I am not usually a fan of present tense. It was one of my main complaints with The Hunger Games. I’ve always felt it’s a bit awkward and clunky and the few times I’ve started writing in present tense, I invariably end up switching back to past by the end. It’s like a magic trick of mine. Ta-da! Past tense again.

The thing is, most narratives are written in past tense. It’s tradition. In fact, until more recently past was all people wrote in. Present is a recent development. Classic books: Great Gatsby– Past tense, Wuthering Heights– past tense, Frankenstein- past tense, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn– past tense. Just a few I have on hand to check. I’m not sure how these two were so misinformed, or maybe I just missed parts of the conversation and they were referring to something else. But nonetheless, there is a tradition of past tense.

That’s not to say you can’t write in present tense. Well-known books have used this technique, such as The Hunger Games, All Quiet on the Western Front, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Handmaid’s Tale, Room to name a few.

In fact some of these books I like quite a bit, so it’s interesting to me to realize I didn’t notice the style in some of these books, and yet in others it felt strange.

As with all writing styles and choices, there are advantages to either. Present tense sometimes helps to give a sense of being in the moment, it’s easier to write with showing rather than telling. I know one of my best pieces on here “Closing the Door” was helped along by my use of present tense. But past tense sometimes creates more narrative flow, it’s common place. If you look at fairy tales or other traditional narrative forms that’s usually the tense that’s used. If you’re going to kill off characters present tense might be better though because otherwise you wonder who’s narrating (at least in first person). They’re telling their tale from beyond the grave? What?

I honestly can’t even process all the reasons why you should choose one over the other, but it’s certainly a big question. Which do you prefer as a writer? What do you see as advantages or disadvantages? Are there stories you liked in present tense vs. past tense? Goodreads has a nice list of present tense books here, but be wary because I noticed there are a few mistakes (like David Copperfield). Always good to hear other’s thoughts on the matter. Just had to share my own on this conversation I overheard.


Filed under Writing

11 responses to “Past vs. Present

  1. I mostly tend to write in past tense because the stories usually come out of journal entries I’ve made after the fact. I’m most comfortable with that, I think.

  2. To me, I think it depends on the story and the feeling the writer is going for. It’s sort of like first person POV vs. third person POV.

  3. You know, it just goes to show that if the words and story are well crafted, the tense goes unnoticed.

  4. Present tense always weirds me out a little, but if the story’s good, I can get past it. I’ve tried writing in present before, but like you, I invariably switched back to past after a few sentences. I’m definitely more comfortable in past tense.

  5. I’m a traditionalist: I usually go for past. I started a novel in present tense, then ended up revising it so it was in past because it just sounded better.

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