Why I’m Tense about Tense (and why you should be too!)

“The past, the present, and the future walked into a bar. It was tense.”

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Tense places our stories in a specific time frame. It limits the action to a certain duration of time. That time can be very grand or very small, but tense is the first clue to readers about where to place the story and how to orient themselves. Past tense signals to readers that the story is placed between the beginning of time and the second before they picked up the book; present tense signals to readers that everything is happening right now as their eyes scan the pages; and future tense signals that everything can happen from the moment the book is closed to the end of time.

As anyone who has ever read more than a handful of books will know, most stories implement past tense. It has become what our brains expect when we perceive words on the pages of a bound book: This is something that has already happened. We tend to be thrown off at first when we pick up a book and it is written in an “unfamiliar tense” like present or future. (As a side note, I’ve never encountered a novel or short story written in future tense, and while I don’t deny that it can be done, I don’t recommend doing it.) When books defy the common convention of past tense, it is almost always for a specific reason.

So what tense should we write with? It depends. I’m a big believer in writing in past tense unless you have a very specific reason not to. Past tense gives a sense of closure—it’s happened, it’s over. It also allows for reflection. Just as we, when we tell stories, reflect on how the experiences have made us feel and have shaped us, so too does the narrator reflect on his or her own experiences, or the experiences of the characters. Not to mention, past tense is the convention that readers expect and is thus easier for them to interpret. It is not that I do not have faith in my readers to exercise their faculties a little more than usual by forcing them to read something not in past tense; I just know that a large number of readers will find more comfort in past tense because it is what they are used to. Instead of focusing on how unique the tense is, they can just relax and slip away into the story.

But then, when is it appropriate to deviate from the norm? If you’re writing in present tense just to be unique, forget it. Have a very specific goal in mind with your choice of present tense. (I’m going to assume you took my advice and stayed away from future all together.) The number one benefit of present tense is its sense of immediacy. The story is happening now, and you’ve been dropped right in the middle of it. It allows for the narrator to more easily connect with the reader, giving the reader a sense of “we’re in this together.” When I think of this, I’m always reminded of The Neverending Story, in which Bastian, who is reading a book, becomes a part of that book and is on the journey with Atreyu and must ultimately save the land of Fantasia.

In conclusion, tense holds a lot of weight with stories and is often one of the first things your reader will notice (whether consciously or subconsciously), so it is an important consideration. Past tense is always the safer bet. You never hear someone say they disliked a story because it was written in past tense, but it is not unheard of for someone to say they disliked a story because it was written in present. That being said, a writer who can do present tense justice—and who has a specific reason to use it—can greatly benefit from its use. Know your intent for choosing tense, and know what you can do with each. Most importantly, write what you want. Chances are, you’re writing mostly for yourself. Enjoy this time when you don’t have fan bases to please and agents and publishers dictating your every move. This is your time to experiment and have fun.

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