Which Tense Is Best

  • By: Jessica Faust | Date: Oct 21 2009

I’ve written a couple of manuscripts, though not found myself at the point of querying yet. I’m also an avid reader, mainly of women’s fiction, chick lit, romance and erotic romance. This will sound ridiculous, but it just occurred to me that nearly everything I read is in the past tense, yet I always write in the present tense.

As my goal is to produce, polish, and submit a novel so knock-your-socks off that you simply have to take me on as a client – would you say that I should adapt my style to the past tense?

This question coincidentally arrived the day I posted the question about writing a memoir in present tense, and while I’m going to ask you to go back and read that post and the comments readers made, I also think it’s a topic that’s worth revisiting.

In the previous post I said that I don’t believe in rules, that I’m more of a guidelines gal and yes, that still holds true today. While we certainly have, and need, rules of grammar and punctuation, I don’t think there should be rules when it comes to how a writer chooses to actually write the book. That’s part of what is often called voice, an author’s ability to make the work her own. That means writing in the way that best works for your book (and keep in mind what works for your book might not always be preferable to you as the writer). That being said, should you be writing in present or past tense?

Without reading your book I can’t say for sure. What I can tell you is veering too far outside the guidelines can be a bit like trying to sell Beef Stew Ice Cream to a traditionally chocolate, vanilla and strawberry ice cream eating culture. While we’re certainly open to new things, we still like those new things to feel vaguely familiar. Present tense might be a more difficult treat to swallow.

However, it’s about more than trying to appeal to an audience or make something familiar. It’s about the craft of writing. I think the trouble writers have when writing in present tense or even first person is that it becomes a little too much about you telling a story, and the important pieces of storytelling (the showing) are actually left out. You forget the importance of other viewpoints, body language and description, for example. Of course writing present tense, just as writing first person, feels easier because it’s about you and this moment you’re in. However, when you really sit down to read it, it’s not easier to read. In fact, it’s more difficult. It doesn’t give the information that makes a story really sing for the reader or listener.

If you want a straight answer I would encourage you to start honing the craft of writing in past tense. Once you master that skill go ahead and try present tense.


29 responses to “Which Tense Is Best”

  1. Avatar Rick Daley says:

    Great advice, Jessica, thanks for the post.

    I think it's important that the writer sticks to the POV and the tense. Once you make that decision, you need to ride it out. If you choose present tense, but then litter the story with constant flashbacks, maybe the story doesn't really take place in the present.

    If you choose first person, but then provide narrative about other characters that the MC should not know, you are cheating; there is no first-person omniscient (with out getting deeply spiritual).

    Like so many aspects of writing, it all boils down to the execution.

  2. Avatar Anita Saxena says:

    I've always wondered about this. I've read books written in both tenses, with of course past being the most popular.
    When I wrote the first version of my WIP I wrote it in first person, past tense and then when I rewrote it came out in first person, present tense. It just flowed out that way. I hope it flows for the reader too. Nail bite…

  3. Avatar LynnRush says:

    Nicely said. I love books in first person past tense. I've read a present tense one, and I found myself frustrated. Didn't like it as much. Anyway, good luck with your writing!

  4. Do you think it makes a difference what genre you are writing for? There is a book I've read where the tense switched from FP for one viewpoint character to TP for another and alternated from present tense to past tense to show when one was talking about the present or past.

  5. Hank Phillippi Ryan writes in first person present, and her series has done well. But her protagonist is a newscaster, so it's appropriate. I know there are some people who simply will not read anything in present tense, but if it's done well you don't notice–or care.

  6. Avatar Laurel says:

    A Great and Terrible Beauty is written in first person, present tense if you'd like to take a look at a bestseller that uses this. I found it a bit jarring but probably because it is so uncommon. At any rate, something about that book works and the voice is very unique.

    I think Rick brings up a great point. It would be hard to pull off a story that isn't chronological in present tense. The only example I can think of is The Sound and The Fury Benjy section and that is the POV of an idiot savant with perfect recall but no sense of time.

  7. Avatar Anonymous says:

    Emily Giffin also writes in present tense.

  8. Avatar Paul greci says:

    I think it comes down to a combination of voice and execution. What tense is the best choice for your story will hopefully become apparent as you write it and then have it critiqued. You can always experiment by rewiting the opening in a different tense and see how it feels, how it sounds. See if the voice still sings, or sings even better.

  9. Avatar Kimber An says:

    You write in whatever tense or POV works best for you. If you write in which doesn't work for you, and the story, it's obvious and the story will bomb. The reader will hurl your book against the wall and never buy again, and she'll tell all her friends not to as well. You need confidence in your telling and that takes knowing you've nailed it.

    But, I think this is a common worry when you're not writing just like everyone else in your genre/subgenre. I feel it too because mine is YA, which seems to be almost entirely in First Person POV these days. I only feel confident in deep Third Person Limited POV.

  10. Avatar Watery Tart says:

    Present tense feels to me 'too close'. It almost goes with a Second person narrative (think Goosebumps 'you choose' books or personal erotica).

    I read a lot of fan fiction, because I'm a geek that way, and notice new writers OFTEN choose first person, so Jessica, I think you're right, that this must be EASIER for a lot of people, but I think it takes a very skilled writer to pull it off and have it not sound amateurish.

  11. Those writers who like to write in present tense should consider writing YA novels. Unlike adult readers, teens have no problem with that tense, and many first person pov books are actually written in the present tense.

    Of course before you jump over to the YA genre, make sure you read tons of books for that age group. Also there's some great writing books geared specifically for writing to the teen market. It's not as easy as some people may think, but it is a lot of fun.

  12. Avatar Lydia Sharp says:

    As a writer, I use past tense. As a reader, present tense is a little jarring at first, but I get used to it. I have no problem with third person or first person in both reading and writing.

    With viewpoints, I try to use as few as possible, only what is necessary to tell the story. In reading, too, I get frustrated if a PoV change doesn't really add anything. Stick to the main character(s) unless you absolutely can't for whatever reason.

    Just my two cents.

  13. Avatar karenranney says:

    Present tense drives me nuts as a reader. I don't care if the book is touted as being brilliant, I can't read it.

  14. Avatar Anonymous says:

    YA is dominated by first person narration, it's pretty much the standard, I think, because it is so accessible. But even in YA present tense has a tendency to grate on my nerves. Literally, it makes me nervous.

    The thing I really can't stand though, and for some reason this happens a lot in YA, is the second person POV in which the word "you" is used for a couple of paragraphs here and there, even though the rest of the book is in first person. I always think, where in the heck are the editors. Since when is it okay to address the reader directly as "you" when the rest of the book is in first?

  15. Avatar David says:

    I think it takes a true master to pull off a present tense narrative. Too often, I can feel the writer in the background, thinking, "I'm spitting out some real literature here."

  16. I think it depends on the genre, the book, and the writer. I am writing a Civil War narrative nonfiction, a true Cold Mountain, a book of historic adventure and enduring love, in the first person point of view. The book starts off with the main character, Colonel Osgood Vose Tracy, giving a speech at a 25th Gettysburg reunion. He then flashes back to the time he left for war. It reads a bit like Geraldine Brook's book, March, with a couple different viewpoints. Many readers have told me that they like the first person much better than third, that they feel "right there" with Osgood…https://atruecivilwarstoryofcourage.blogspot.com/

  17. As usual, I do my own thing. My women's fiction is in first person present tense and my YA novel is third person. I think you just need to listen for how the story wants to be told and tell it that way. I have no problem reading no matter what the tense is, as long as the story and writing are captivating.

  18. Avatar Jael says:

    Do whatever serves the story. SIMMER is narrated in first-person present because the narrator changes over the course of the story. By the end of the book, she's changed enough that it wouldn't be the same story if she were looking back on it.

    Learn both, use whichever works for the story you're telling. Ditto first and third person.

    (One of my favorite books, Alias Grace, alternates between first person past and third person present, and it makes perfect sense for that story, though if you had asked me in the abstract I would have said NEVER DO THAT.)

  19. Avatar Vivi Anna says:

    A great present tense series I've read is Ann Aguirre's scifi Grimspace and Wanderlust.

    If you want to read books that work with that tense you should read them.

  20. Avatar Livia says:

    There's been some great discussion on my blog recently about writing in first person present tense. People had some great thoughts about the pros and cons, and I found it really helpful for organizing my thoughts about it.

  21. Avatar Karla says:

    Thank you for the advice, Jessica. Great answers, all.

    I found a similar post on the Redlines & Deadlines blog:


    (Sorry, I couldn't get the link to work, but there are lots of interesting opinions in the comments.)

  22. Avatar Carradee says:

    I would encourage you to start honing the craft of writing in past tense. Once you master that skill go ahead and try present tense.

    I improved most as a writer when I started fluctuating my POVs and tenses, perhaps because present tense comes easiest to me. But I also wrote flash pieces in future and present perfect to intentionally experiment and stretch myself.

    Ultimately, I find present tense less awkward for backstory and such, because then I just need to use past tense and not the clumsy past perfect. Ulgh. (And even if you use the option to substitute past for past perfect once you've established that you're talking about something in past perfect, how do you specify where specifically you return to strict past instead of past perfect?)

    More lately, I've written a short story in 2nd person POV that got a revision request letter (and the revisions requested were not related to the POV, actually, though it did bring comments of surprise from the editors). It's out on submission now. 🙂

    So what I ask is, why must a novice master third person, past tense before experimenting? What if he's naturally a present tense writer?

  23. I never willingly read a novel in present tense.

  24. Avatar Anonymous says:

    When I pick up a book and find it's in the present tense, I put it back. I do the same with dialogue that isn't in quotations. Sorry. It's a total turnoff. It's distracting and it takes me out of the story. I am constantly aware of the writing and the writer.

  25. Avatar Jenna says:

    I will never forget reading the book set in pre-protestant Europe written in 3rd person present tense omnicient. GAH!!! If this is historical fiction, it should not be written in the present tense.

    sticking with a tense is most important. Honestly, most present tense work, especially in first person, reads like the minutes of a bad D&D game.

    First person can make me forget, as long as that author is completely in the character's head. Charlaine Harris does a good job of not head-jumping. Still, I prefer vastly 3rd person past tense work. I've never even attempted to write fiction in any other way, since I know it takes a master to do it. I'm not there yet. Heck, I still have trouble keeping to limited and not omnicient.

    While it is important that a writer grow and learn, pissing off the reader is not a good way to do so.

  26. Avatar Cameron says:

    Thank you Jessica! With this post, (and your wonderful readers' comments, too) you freed me from two months of bang-the-head-on-the-laptop frustration over issues related to both tesne and POV! Now, on the third rewrite of my fourth draft, I think I've finally figured it out. All it took was changing tense and a slight change of POV to create a more effective, efficient and possibly even more shocking narration technique!! Thank you again – Perfect timing.

  27. If the writing is coming out naturally in present tense, it probably reads naturally to the reader. Three recent (and brilliant) present tense books I've read are Courtney Summers's Cracked Up To Be and Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games and Catching Fire. All three are 1st person, present tense, and young adult.

  28. Avatar susiej says:

    As others have already said, first person has become the norm for young adult, but adolescencts tend to be very me focused. As an adult, I tend to tire of that very close POV and often would like to get out of that one mind, see the rest of the world so to speak. That's not to say I didn't enjoy Diana Gabaldon's Outlander (all in Claire's first person POV), but that's great storytelling. And she was smart enough to introduced a new POV in the second book. And about 4 more in the third.

  29. Avatar Erika Robuck says:

    Very interesting post. The last few books I've read have been in the present tense, and I'm not a fan. I find myself thinking of the author too much with present tense. It sounds like a narrator of a television commercial doing a play by play.

    But with some popular books out there in that tense, I wondered if the trend was heading that way.