Getting Tense | On Choosing Tenses In Fiction

Writers have plenty of choices to make when settling into a new story.

Among the first is the tense your story will be written in.


Tense can coincide with the POV, and both can be a split-second decision you may not even realize you're making.


In my experience, I didn't crack open a notebook and say, "Hey, I'm going to write a story from a third-person POV in past tense." Rather, it's one of those things that just sort of happened with that first sentence or two.


It's not always a subconscious split-second decision though! Some writers may deliberate over whether or not their story would work better in present or past tense. Each comes with its own pros and cons and considerations.


I've covered the various POVs in a series of posts a good while back, but I've never really gone into the different tenses here on the blog.

So today, things are going to get tense.


If you're on the fence about your story's tense, this is the post for you!


What Is Tense?

The tense you are writing in is the difference between...


It was a dark and stormy night.


and...

It is a dark and stormy night.


Tense in a story tells the reader when something is happening. Typically, writers will use one of two tenses: present and past.


Present tense is when the story is being told in the moment. The narrator is experiencing these things in real-time, so to speak. Think of it as the literary equivalent of live footage on the scene.


Past tense, meanwhile, is when the story is being told when it has already happened. The narrator is reflecting on the events. If present tense is live coverage, past tense is a newspaper article reporting on the event the day after.


There's also future tense: it is going to be a dark and stormy night.


Here, the story is told from the standpoint that is hasn't happened yet, but it will. It's not as common in fiction, so we'll skip it here.


You could also get into more specifics when talking about tenses, like progressive and perfective and their variations, but that's a lot of ground to cover in one post.

Most of the time, people keep things simple and just say past, present, or future tense.


As for which tense to use in your writing, there are some things that can help you decide.



Genres and Categories

We talk about genre conventions on the blog, and with good reason.


Genre conventions and reader expectations have the ability to impact the reader's overall experience with the story. These are things that might draw them to your book and, depending on how they are used, can maintain their interest or lose it.

While it is certainly important for your work to stand out from the crowd, sometimes being aware of the trends isn't so bad.


Examples of present and past tenses can both be found in every genre. One, however, may be more popular than the other on some occasions.


The same can be said for age categories. A majority of the romance novels I have read are written in the past tense, regardless of being contemporary or historical.

The same can be said for age categories.


Children's stories are often told from a past-tense POV. Although I cannot recall the first present tense book I read, I think it would have been around late elementary school, so figure around age 8-10.


In the 2010s, the YA dystopian novel was booming. Among the most popular were The Hunger Games and Divergent. Both of these were written in present tense, with Katniss and Tris experiencing the stories as the reader did.

As such, present-tense is often associated with contemporary reads and more recent publications.


Explore the trends of your story's genre and intended age category. Although the trends are not a rule carved in stone, knowing what is popular can be an example of what readers lean more towards.


A Matter Of Perspective

Your story's point of view is a decision all its own, but it can (but not always) coincide with the tense you are using.


If you are using a third-person POV, chances are that you'll be using the past tense. This is the more traditional pairing.


The waves glimmered in the sunlight. Sweat clung to Jacob's forehead. He stared at the shore as the crew rushed around him, ropes flying and shouts rupturing the calm of the sea.


Compare this example to the same fragment written in the present tense.


The waves glimmer in the sunlight. Sweat clings to Jacob's forehead. He stares at the shore as the crew rushes around him, ropes flying and shouts rupturing the calm of the sea.


Although it can work, it's not something you see with the same frequency.

With the first-person POV, you tend to have more options at your disposal when it comes to the tense.


Let's take that example and put this Jacob character in the position of narrator, first in past tense:


The waves glimmered in the sunlight. Sweat clung to my forehead. I stared at the shore as the crew rushed around him, ropes flying and shouts rupturing the calm of the sea.

And now in present tense:


The waves glimmer in the sunlight. Sweat clings to my forehead. I stare at the shore as the crew rushes around me, ropes flying and shouts rupturing the calm of the sea.

Again, both can work.


You might find that you like characters telling the story themselves as they are experiencing it, or that you prefer when the character is recounting the events after all is said and done.


It's just a matter of where your character sits within the moment--which brings me to my next point!


When The Story Takes Place

The "when" of your story may also determine its tense.


This doesn't mean a story set in 1784 must be told from a past tense or that a contemporary work can only be told from the present.


It's more about when things happen in relation to the narrator's experience, and how that pertains to your reader.


If your tone is more reflective, you might find a past tense enhances that feeling. On the other hand, if you want your readers to be part of the action as it goes down, present tense would give put them in the middle of the fray.


How removed is your character from the experiences they're sharing with the reader? How far away from it is your reader? Determining both can help you find the perfect tense for the story.


Taste

Personal preference is one of the driving factors in many decisions writers face. Whether it's their genre, the tropes they include or omit, or the elements that makes the love interest so attractive, a writer's taste so often guides their pen.


And it can also be one of the things that influence the tense they choose.


If the majority of an author's favorite books are written in present tense, they might enjoy writing in present tense, too.


It could also be that while an author has a number of favorite books that are written in the present tense, they actually prefer writing in past tense.


With writing, there's a lot we do because it just feels right. We entrust a lot to gut instinct and personal taste. Tense can simply be another of those things.

The tense you write in can feel like an important choice. It's one that will carry through the entire length of your whole story—and potentially longer if you extend into a series.


But it's not always as intense as it seems!


Knowing what each tense brings to a story can help you determine which is the best fit for you and your writing.


Both present and past tense have their advantages and drawbacks. Be sure to swing by the blog next week, where we'll start evaluating them!



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