Emma Darwin teaches creative writing and is currently working on her third novel. We asked her if she could outline the advantages and disadvantages of Present Tense and Past Tense in writing.
It’s one of the apparently simple, but huge, decisions you have to make, right at the beginning: will your main narrative be in past tense, or present tense? It is always possible to change your mind later, but it can be anything between a nuisance and a nightmare. So it’s well worth thinking hard, and looking at how writers you admire work with both, before you start.
I’ll nail my colours to the mast: I’ve always felt that past tense is how stories are told. After all, a story you’re telling has already happened, either in real life, or in your imagination. Present tense is powerful, but its power is also its limitation.
And now I know why I feel as I do, thanks to David Jauss’s essay, “Remembrance of Things Present”, in his marvellous book, On Writing Fiction: rethinking conventional wisdom about the craft. Some of these thoughts come from his much fuller exploration of how and why present tense works, and why it’s become the default for many writers and editors: do track his book down.
Past tense – the advantages
- Manipulating time: a year in a sentence or a day in 600 pages, a story told backwards or inside-out or from both ends inwards.
- Flexibility of pace: you can quite naturally change speed and gear in narrating events
- Creating suspense: we know there is a future to this story (because it’s being told from there): it’s a mystery but not a blank. The narrator can even hint at or tell bits of it.
- Backstory and flashbacks are much easier to handle because there are so many more kinds of past tense than present tense.
- Characterisation is easier and potentially deeper when you can handle the Then and Now of your story so fluently.
- Narrator and actor in the story are separated by time, even if they’re the same character; free indirect style comes naturally, to help evoke voice, character and consciousness.
- Past tense sets the action in the wider context of people and their pasts and futures, so there’s scope for dramatic irony and greater understanding.
Past tense – the drawbacks
- The events of the story are over: the reader knows it, and knows that the narrator, at least, probably didn’t die.
- It’s easy to slip into telling rather than showing: informing the reader, where you should be evoking the minute-by-minute tension of action.
- Handling past tenses is trickier for novices, because there are more to choose from, and the had had problem with flashbacks needs a bit of thought.
- Combined with third person it’s easy for learner-writers to slip into a rather distant, bland narrative style, remote in psychic distance, so we never really experience things as the characters do.
Present tense – the advantages
- Immediacy: the story is projected into the reader’s “now”.
- Realism in time: the action is continuous and forward-moving, as it is in real life.
- Disorientation: the stream of one-thing-after-another-after-
another suits any narrative where the point-of-view character is disoriented.
- The eternal present suits characters who forget or repress their past and future, and stories where the theme is the evanescence of the present.
- Defamiliarisation: when present tense was a rarely-used technique (Dickens used it, but after that no one much till the 1950s) its effect was strange and estranging.
- It simplifies handling tenses: mostly just simple and continuous present to grapple with.
- Combined with first person, present tense closes the gap between narrator and actor: what the actor is experiencing is all that the narrator can know.
Present tense – the drawbacks
- Immediacy is also inflexibility: the narrative proceeds at the speed of the physical action, there’s not much scope for expanding and compressing, and time-shifts are awkward or abrupt.
- Realism in time puts the focus on immediate experience, not wider context and understanding.
- Realism in time tends to include trivia of action and setting which with past tense you could skim over at will.
- Tension can only be created by the future being a blank, so there’s less scope for suspense and dramatic irony.
- Unless you can convincingly pause the action, exposition and flashbacks have to be dumped into the flow of action like a stone. This tends to limit the scope for depth of backstory and the subtle characterisation that can result.
- Free indirect style is much more awkward to handle and much less effective, since there’s no difference between the narrative tense and the tense of the actors’ voices and thought.
- By being eternally in the present, the narrative “takes the story out of time”: it loses touch with the sense of how the past pushes us onwards and makes us act.
- Combined with first person, there’s less scope for narration that works with the wider implications of what’s happening, unless the character actually stops and thinks.
- Combined with first person, the fact that a character is both narrator and actor in the present creates a sense of detachment from the events: some of “I” must be observing, while the rest is experiencing.
Then, of course, there’s the narrative which works with both past and present tense, either switching between separate chunks, or in one continuous thread (as with the different structures of Then-and-Now in the three threads of A Secret Alchemy). The logical way is to use present tense for the most recent sections, and past tense for those further back in time.
But the reverse might work even better: the disoriented feel of present tense can make it perfect for memories, while the more solidly-anchored past tense can make it perfect for the more sophisticated relationship to time that a main narrative needs. In other words, because past and present tense have such different effects on the experience of the story, you’d be mad to make sweeping assumptions about either, or refuse to use it. You need both.
Emma Darwin was born in London and studied Drama at university. After various jobs including publishing social work books, driving a sandwich van and selling musical instruments, her first novel The Mathematics of Love was published in 2006 and was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Best First Book, and other prizes. Her bestselling second novel, A Secret Alchemy, was part of a PhD which explored the writing of historical fiction. She’s now writing her third novel, and teaching Creative Writing for the Open University and elsewhere.
Sites That Link to this Post
- Who’s Driving This Story? – The Writer's Journal | August 26, 2015
- When Writing About A Novel What Tense Use | Bredar Brader | May 15, 2015
- Emma Darwin | Links from the Purple Chair | January 1, 2014
- Featuring Women Writers on WWWB 2013 - Women Writers, Women Books | December 30, 2013
- Best Writing Advice in 30 Seconds - Women Writers, Women Books | December 3, 2013