With more present-tense works written and posted on social media, the question has risen about which is “better” to write–past tense or present tense.

Most argue that past tense is the “default” for physical novels and it’s easier to process. This assumes that the current wave of present tense users on social media use it only on social media because it has now become the “default” of reading on an electronic screen.

There are physical books, however, written in present tense and online works written in past, so the question is:

Is one right or wrong?

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And what are the benefits/drawbacks of each?

Here are some examples to hopefully clear the air:

BENEFITS OF PRESENT TENSE

One of the biggest benefits of writing in present tense is that it can intensify the sense of urgency. In Alive by Scott Sigler, every moment needs to make an impact. The entire novel hangs on its fast pacing, which is helped by the use of present tense.

Personally, I don’t believe the narrative would have been as effective in past tense as it was in present tense.

In the context of the novel, with the main protagonist Em Savage fighting for her life tooth-and-nail at every turn, the present tense brings the reader into her struggle and makes it truly hard to believe that she can ever escape the situation alive.

This tense can also seem more personal to some readers.

This is one of the reasons that present tense is so common online; real people are discussing their real, current problems or thoughts in a very personal way over an impersonal medium.

This all depends on perspective, however. Some disagree with both of these points, and believe that, with clever crafting, past tense can be just as urgent and personal as present tense.

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DRAWBACKS OF PRESENT TENSE

This is, for some, a harder tense to write than past. Since past is seen as the “default”, it can be hard to stay consistent with present tense without slipping into past tense every so often.

It is also more difficult to avoid passive voice in present tense. Some phrases that would work in past tense simply don’t in present tense, so the entire craft of the novel or story has to change. This can be tedious, frustrating, and time-consuming. Plus, if these issues are not fixed, the text will come off as dry and chalk-full of passive voice.

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BENEFITS OF PAST TENSE

This is typically the easier tense to write, as most books use this tense, and it is easier for us to write what we read.

This tense is seen as the “default” and is easier to digest than present tense, so that the readers can quickly turn their attention to the other aspects of the book besides the tense choice.

DRAWBACKS OF PAST TENSE

Some argue that writing in past tense may lose the sense of urgency or intimacy that present tense offers, especially in thriller or horror novels.

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In the end, it is up to the author to decide what tense they prefer to use. Some stories call for past tense and others call for present tense.

It also depends on the perspective you choose to write from.

Want to find out more? Find it in How to Choose Perspective for Your Novel.


 

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