Tense is one of several elements writers need to consider as they craft their stories. Although it can be an inherent thing that happens naturally, some writers may deliberate over which tense to use.
Past tense and present tense come with pros and cons. Laying out the advantages and drawbacks of each can not only make understanding them easier but help you determine which is better for you and your stories.
Today, we'll be exploring past tense.
In the past tense, the story is told as though it has already happened. The narrator is looking back on events that have already occurred and sharing them with the reader.
As the more traditional of the tenses in fiction, past tense has a lot going for it, but there are some aspects that might make it less favorable to some writers.
PRO - Familiarity
Past tense is more commonly used in fiction and has been for centuries. When we talk about present tense novels, a fair amount of the ones that come to mind were published more recently.
While not exactly a genre convention in the way a happy ending is in a romance, past tense is more expected. Because it is the more traditional of the tenses, it's more familiar to readers.
Present tense is not bad and has gained popularity as of late, but it can still catch readers off guard because we see it less and don't anticipate in most stories.
Tense isn't necessarily a deal-breaker for many readers, but just know it might feel unexpected and take them another second or two to orient themselves.
CON - Plot Armor
One reason writers might decide to not write in past tense if they are using a first-person POV (in which the narrator is a character directly involved in everything going on) is because everything has already happened and therefore, the protagonist has lived to tell the tale.
Main characters can be garbed in "plot armor," a term used in relation to the survivability of characters in otherwise un-survivable encounters. A protagonist is more likely to come out of a life-or-death situation alive simply because they are the protagonist and the story relies on them to continue.
Plot armor, combined with past tense's taking place before the "now" of its being told, informs the reader that even though they might come out of a battle bloody and bruised, they won't die because the story has more to go; this is particularly true when the story is in the first-person.
In the present tense, the story is told as the events unfold around the character. We might still assume the character survives because of plot armor, but it's not as certain to us.
If we know the main character likely survives, we may not be as worried about them going into situations where their life is on the line. The stakes are lowered because the risk of death is not as prevalent.
PRO - Rock Around The Clock
Stories are typically told in a chronological way, with characters moving from Point A to Point B.
This isn't always the case, however.
There may be information that provides valuable context better presented through a flashback, bringing the character back to a time in the character's past.
Some stories use dual timelines. For example, part of the story could be set in 2022 while the other half is set in 1972. Each side might follow the same character at two different times in their life, or it could revolve around two different people who share a connection.
And sometimes, stories are simply nonlinear. Chapter One may very well be that aforementioned Point B, and the narration shifts back to take the readers through the events leading up to that moment.
Think of it like that record scratch sound effect and freeze frame followed by the protagonist saying, "Yep, that's me. You're probably wondering how I got into this situation…" From there, they back things up and fill the audience in on everything leading up to that first scene.
Another film example of this comes in The Emperor's New Groove. The film opens with a sad llama sitting in the rain as a voiceover starts. Kuzco tells the audience that the llama is him and that he not only used to be a person, but an emperor.
Once that is established, Kuzco takes the audience back in time and shows them how Ymza turned him into a llama, teaming up with Pacha, and everything that happened prior to that opening scene. The story eventually returns to the opening shot plays out from there.
With past tense, it's easier to explore the past and jump through time.
CON - Distance
Many readers enjoy books written in the present tense because of its immediacy.
You feel more involved in the action because you're experiencing it in real-time alongside the character.
On the other hand, past tense stories can have your readers feeling more distanced.
Since a story told in past tense has already taken place, readers don't have the ability to take part in the same way they can in a present tense narrative.
PRO - Reflective Perspective
This benefit of the past tense might be more of a personal pro, but it's worth adding to this list.
One element I find myself weaving into my writing is a reflective tone. I like slowing down and letting my characters ruminate on the past and earlier moments in the story.
Hindsight is 20/20, and it's often in looking back that we start to see the broader scope of a situation. Where others involved might have been coming from and the repercussions we could not have anticipated.
Slowing the story down gives my characters, and thus the reader, a chance to reevaluate their choices. Even though they cannot go back and change anything, that knowledge may influence how they move forward.
While these scenes can of course be found in stories written in the present tense, I've found it's not as easy to weave them in. This might be because not enough time has lapsed to give these moments the necessary reflection, or because it feels like it slows things down more, but these moments seem to fit better in stories being told as though the events are all already memories.
Tense is one of those things in writing where there is not a definitive right or wrong choice—well, aside from staying in one tense for the majority of if not the entire time and not shifting back and forth. Several factors can influence whether you choose past or present tense, including the advantages and disadvantages of each.
At the end of the day, it's better to choose the tense that will best serve your writing.
Leaving past tense in the past, next week's post will give present tense the same pro and con treatment.