Writing Advice…Past Tense or Present Tense?

November 8, 2013 | By | 35 Replies More

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.

emma_darwin_photoIt’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.

A Secret Alchemy

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.
Mathematics of Love

Mathematics of Love

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.

Follow her on twitter @emma_darwin and visit her website www.emmadarwin.com


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Category: Contemporary Women Writers, How To and Tips, On Writing

Comments (35)

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  1. Thanks, Emma, this is great. I tend to work instinctively on tense (and other things) rather than thinking it through. I spent so many years studying literature that if I start to think it through I find my writing gets stiff and academic. So it’s fascinating to see it laid out so clearly from the point of view of the fiction writer.

  2. I’m a big fan of the immediacy of present tense, both reading it and writing it.
    thanks for a great summary of pros and cons

  3. Katie says:

    Thank you for this post. I am a novice writer and I am currently writing my first novel in first person, present tense. I did not choose to write the novel in present tense, the tense chose me. Naturally I prefer writing in third person, past tense, but it simply will not work for this novel.

    Some of the flaws with present tense that I have read about, I can overcome fairly easily. My novel is dystopian, and the main character is rebellious and already somewhat “detached” from the society around her. She lives in a unique society which is, at the very least, interesting to observe. Nobody in this society, not even the more intelligent members or most of the authoritative figures, have a true sense of ‘the bigger picture’ or what is actually going on. An essential theme is that the protagonist most figure it out for herself, which works very well for present tense. A sense of the past does exist, but it is due to flashbacks. These memories are essential foreshadowing to the rest of my story. I have found that in order for the flashbacks to work, I have to make it so that not much action is happening or create an entirely new chapter, which, I admit, has proven annoying.

    Overall, there are two main reasons why I chose to write my novel in present tense. The first reason is that the heroine dies at the end of the novel, so it would not make much sense for her to be retelling the story in past tense. Third person wasn’t really an option for me because I feel as though being intimate with the heroine is vital for this particular story. The second reason is that my story seems actually more effective when the character does not know what is going on around her or in the future. Although she is rebellious, the society in which she lives in hinders any attempts to learn more about the world around them, so she starts off as being somewhat ignorant. As the novel progresses, she becomes more intellectual and mature.
    Although this has proven to be a difficult tense to pull off, especially for an amateur writer such as myself, I know that my novel would not be as efficient any other way. These tips proved helpful and has made me rethink some of my writing so far, so thank you.

    • Emma Darwin says:

      You’re welcome, Katie, and sorry I haven’t got back to you till now. It sounds as if you’ve discovered the advantages of present tense, but also the drawbacks. I think writing any story is partly a process of making decisions about how to tell it, and then coping with the consequences of those decisions: everything has some pros, and some cons!

  4. Heidi Whurr says:

    Oh goodness, this a real dilemma. Your article is so damn good it has literally thrown my former stubbornness into disarray. I am a new author working on my first book. I’m just about to start what I hope will be my final rewrite before submitting it for publication, and guess what? Its all in present tense.

    You’ve summed up perfectly why I love present tense. I feel real, vivid and like I am immersed in the story. However, your points against it are also very strong and I can see what you mean. However, I’ve always found writing (and reading) in past tense a real stumbling block to my imagination. Its like I cannot see it, because it doesn’t seem worth the effort if the story is already finished. Your article has made me reevaluate all of these assumptions.

    I really don’t know what to do now. Thank you very much though.

    • Emma Darwin says:

      Heidi, apologies for throwing you into disarray! I do think that the thing which instinctively shows up on the page is very often the right thing … at least for this project.

      But I do think that it’s worth understanding the drawbacks, as well as the advantages, of whatever approach you take, so you can cope with those drawbacks. And, of course, a different project may need a different approach.

  5. Moira says:

    Really sccinctly analysed. I felt the difference but had never broken it down like that before, thank you.

  6. Kelly Leiter says:

    I just wanted to let you know how helpful this post was to me and that I recommended it on my blog for other beginning writers.

  7. irish novel says:

    nice article! thanks for sharing your views and giving precious advice.

  8. Hi Emma,

    Great article! I’ve often been conflicted about which tense to use in my stories. My two novels have been about historical events, so the past tense, lends itself well to my work. I’ve also found flashback to be an effective technique. Like you,I believe stories should be told in the past tense. Working with present tense, can be a challenging endeavor.

  9. Julie Luek says:

    Great post bookmarked and shared.

  10. Great post, Emma! I’m pretty much wedded to past tense – like you, I feel that’s how stories are told, and it’s what comes naturally to me. However, you’ve inspired me to try using present tense for flashbacks in something I’m working on at the moment. Disorientation is precisely the effect that’s required in the flashbacks, and I think it could work really well. Thank you!

  11. Sue Brown says:

    Good post, Emma.

    I write in both, although I admit to being frustrated with an endless stream of people telling me I shouldn’t write present tense before they’ve read the story. I leave it to the story to tell me whether it should be past or present.

    • Emma Darwin says:

      Yes, that’s what it comes down to in the end, isn’t it: if you’ve really got an understanding of how each works, then the story can drive your decisions, and you can follow.

  12. Debi says:

    Really great post, pinning down the pros and cons of each in the literary sense and the impact each has on the way the story is told. It might be worth adding that some agents I’ve spoken to recently have said they’re finding the use of present tense has been a bit overdone over the last few years, especially in YA. I asked one agent at the Festival of Writing in York if they’d seen any really good novels in their 1-1s. Her response was, ‘Argh. What is it with all this present tense?’

    • Emma Darwin says:

      Debi, isn’t that interesting about the agent. And, actually, I’m not surprised. Present tense narratives still have a very strong flavour, even if it’s lost the shock-value it had twenty years ago, and like any strong flavour, after a while it gets too much, and you want to go back to good old plain vanilla…

  13. Samantha says:

    I have a distaste for present tense, as well. It seems to be in fashion lately with the YA stories, but I’m not particularly keen on YA stories on the whole, either. It just feels immature to me, without enough thought. Yes, it’s immediate and makes things seem more exciting, but I want stories with more meat on their bones.

    It’s probably my personal preference. I just finished Divergent, and it raised a lot of moral questions and thus had “meat on its bones.” Yet I can’t say I felt it was super-awesome-great… Maybe it was the tense, and my own personal preference.

    I did use present tense for a flashback-type scene in my fantasy, to disorient the reader because my 1st person MC is disoriented by it.

    • Emma Darwin says:

      Samantha – yes, I agree that when present tense isn’t working, it’s often because of that unreflective, headlong, one-thing-after-another rush that can’t and doesn’t stop to let things percolate. As Jauss suggests, it restricts the scope of what the story can do and say.

  14. Laila Blake says:

    Lovely post! I have to say, it especially helps me in terms of commenting on the work of others and nailing down a feeling I never quite knew how to express (or whether it was a real thing).

    “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.”

    This is very, very true and something to look out for. I’ve seen it so many times.

    Personally, I take my choice by scope or theme. Big plot, lots of characters and places, I’ll most likely go with past tense. Small plot, few characters who talk a lot and think a lot – I’ll be more drawn to present tense (combined with first person).

    • Emma Darwin says:

      Laila, I do think you’re right that it’s a case of horses for courses. And present tense works for Wolf Hall, in the sense that the writing’s so astonishing that I stopped caring about the drawbacks of present tense.

  15. LaneAshfeldt says:

    thanks for this well argued assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of Past and Present tense.
    As the piece above shows, there is no right answer to the question, and sometimes I’ve rewritten a piece for tense before making a call. But I am talking short fiction and yes with a novel its not one you’d like to have to fix if you changed your mind. I’d love to know what you think about writers who swap between past and present without (in some cases at least) an easy to define logic for the tense changes (sometimes within the same scene)? The only immediate example that comes to mid is Douglas Coupland but there may be others…

    • Emma Darwin says:

      Lane, you’re welcome. Re swapping mid-scene… I know I’ve read it done well quite recently (example escapes me – not enough caffeine yet this morning), but I think I’d feel quite a subjective judgement about whether it worked or not – if I’m overall being caught up and convinced by a piece, then I’d assume they did it on purpose, and look for why – what shift of concsciousness it’s embodying. If the piece isn’t working on my in the wider sense, I’d just reckon it was an error or a mis-judgement.

  16. Very good blog and explication of the problem of tenses.

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