Anonymous asked: I'm having difficulty deciding what tense and what person to write in and I want to decide before writing much more because changing it is tedious. What are the pro/cons of present vs. past tense and are they more useful in certain genres (i.e. I'm trying to write a thriller/suspense/horror with a lot of character reflection.) What about 1st person vs. 3rd person?
You’re probably somewhat familiar with the past tense, so I’ll keep it brief. With the past tense, you really have the ability to reflect on what’s happening in your story. Your narrator is given lots of time to muse, deliberate and ponder. If you’re planning on reflecting a lot, then past tense may be the best choice. Of course reflecting in the present tense could be an interesting challenge (if you’re up to it).
However, it isn’t all sunshine and unicorn droppings; there are also pitfalls for writing in the past tense. Some moments can drag, especially when you get into detail. You’ve probably read a book (or fan fiction) where the author goes on and on about something you don’t particularly care about (clothing, setting, physical appearance, and clothing). It can get monotonous. Of course this pitfall can be done well and you can give necessary background information to your readers.
With the present tense, it’s a bit little more difficult to give convey this vital background knowledge. There is no omniscient, third-person voice that fills the reader in on what’s going on. It’s all up to the narrator. So you’ll either need a really smart narrator or intentionally give your audience limited information (which can add extra flavor to the storytelling). So as most writing advice goes: it can be good, if it is done well. I think the key to writing in the present tense is being aware of its deficiencies and to keep them in mind while writing.
If you don’t want to commit fully to one or the other, you could also switch off between them. Be careful not to confuse your readers when doing this. When you do switch tenses, do it strategically. For example, in a novel that’s primarily written in the past tense, the protagonist can be looking back at a moment and narrate it in present tense to emphasis their mindset and underscore their inability to move on from a painful memory. You can also switch tenses when changing between view points, giving each of your protagonists distinct voices. I only listed a handful of options, but there are endless possibilities for combining tenses to add spice to your story.
A wonderful chart that I found on Ava Jae’s blog (Writability), shows how “closeness” (intimacy between the reader and protagonist) can change with different tenses and view points. Closeness is particularly important in creating empathy between the audience and narrator.
In the book On Writing Fiction by Davis Jauss, he discusses seven advantages and ten disadvantages to writing in the present tense in his chapter, “Remembrance of Things Present: Present Tense in Contemporary Fiction.”
Positive Aspects of Present Tense:
- Immediacy, events are happening to the narrator at the same time they are happening to the reader. The reader can easily get lost in the story.
- Timing is more realistic. You can’t skip forward a decade within one paragraph like you do with past tense.
- Shifting to present tense in a story can have a striking effect by making a text stand out more. It has a highlighting affect on the material. Dramatic and exciting moments become even more dramatic and exciting.
- It is good for writing dreams, since present tense can be disorienting. Disorienting can be good at conveying the befuddling experience of dreaming.
- If your protagonist is someone who lives in the present (a character who doesn’t reflect on the past), the present tense can be a tool for emphasizing that trait.
- It can signify how a memory is still significant for the protagonist whenever they remember it. To achieve this you’d need to be writing the rest of the book (or most of it) in the past tense.
- You only have four tenses: the simple present, the present, the present progressive and simple past/present. Making it simpler to keep track of.
Disadvantages of Writing Present Tense:
- It’s harder to manipulate time. Since you are restricted to the present. It’s not necessarily impossible to move through time but it is definitely harder.
- There is also the difficulty of creating a character with depth and complexity.
- You have a more difficult time creating a feeling of dread and tension, since everything is happening rapidly.
- It causes confusion in timing, especially when referring to past events.
- There is less variety in terms of the pacing. You can’t randomly skip forward six years like you can with the past tense.
- There’s more of a focus on acton and dialogue versus the meaning of events. There’s also less focus on setting and character description.
- In contradiction to number six, there is sometimes too much focus on the character’s inner monologue.
- The present tense can create boring plot points since it’s usually used as a tool to add to the realism of a story. This is especially true for when a writer is relaying events to the reader through the characters thoughts.
- In order to describe events in present tense, you have to actually describe them rather than the protagonist’s feelings and reactions. So there is a conflict of interest between trying to tell the story and portraying the realistic reaction of your character.
- It’s strange to narrate to no one, which is essentially what present tense narration is (at least in first person).
* This wasn’t listed in the book but I thought it was worth mentioning. While I was researching online, I found a common complaint among authors and readers about the present tense: it was annoying to read. I don’t think that it’s actually the tense that is annoying but more the fact that it’s noticeable. Most of us are used to reading in the past tense and when we see the present tense, it stand out.
This list refers specifically for a first person view point. I believe third person present tense is rarer. You shouldn’t let that discourage you if it’s something you want to do. And for a better understanding of present tenses’ advantages and disadvantages (and other fantastic tips on fiction), I’d highly encourage reading the rest of the book!
I can’t say which tense would be the best for you, but I’d suggest weighing the pros and cons in your head and thinking of which would best aid you in creating suspense/terror/thrill in your story. So I guess the question I’ll leave you with is: would you prefer more reflection or action?
P.S. I realize I’ve generalized a lot and I’d like to add that there are exceptions to every rule! Past tense doesn’t necessarily mean boring and present tense isn’t always a confusing mess.