Using present tense in a story about the past

Using Present Tense in a Story About the Past

Understanding how to use writing tenses is challenging. How do you mix past, present and future tense without making the reader giddy? What is the difference between ‘simple’ and ‘perfect’ tense? Read this simple guide for answers to these questions and more:

First, definitions of writing tenses

Using Present Tense in a Story About the PastIn English, we have so-called ‘simple’ and ‘perfect’ tenses in the past, present and future. The simple tense merely conveys action in the time narrated. For example:

Past (simple) tense: Sarah ran to the store.
Present (simple) tense: Sarah runs to the store.
Future (simple) tense: Sarah will run to the store

Perfect tense uses the different forms of the auxiliary verb ‘has’ plus the main verb to show actions that have taken place already (or will/may still take place). Here’s the above example sentence in each tense, in perfect form:

Past perfect: Sarah had run to the store.
Present perfect: Sarah has run to the store.
Future perfect: Sarah will have run to the store.

  • In the past perfect, Sarah’s run is an earlier event in a narrative past:
  • Sarah had run to the store many times uneventfully so she wasn’t at all prepared for what she saw that morning.
  • You could use the future perfect tense to show that Sarah’s plans will not impact on another event even further in the future. For example:
  • Sarah will have run to the store by the time you get here so we won’t be late.

(You could also say ‘Sarah will be back from the store by the time you get here so we won’t be late.’ This is a simpler option using the future tense with the infinitive ‘to be’.) Here are some tips for using the tenses in a novel:

1. Decide which writing tenses would work best for your story

  1. The majority of novels are written using simple past tense and the third person:
  2. ‘She ran her usual route to the store, but as she rounded the corner she came upon a disturbing sight.’
  3. When you start drafting a novel or a scene, think about the merits of each tense.

    The present tense, for example, has the virtue of:

  • Immediacy: The action unfolds in the same narrative moment as the reader experiences it (there is no temporal distance: Each action happens now)
  • Simplicity: It’s undeniably easier to write ‘She runs her usual route to the store’ then to juggle all sorts of remote times using auxiliary verbs

Sometimes authors are especially creative in combining tense and POV. In Italo Calvino’s postmodern classic, If on a winter’s night a traveler (1979), the entire story is told in the present tense, in the second person. This has the effect of a ‘choose-your-own-adventure’ novel. To rewrite Sarah’s story in the same tense and POV:

You run your usual route to the store, but as you round the corner you come upon a disturbing sight.

This tense choice is smart for Calvino’s novel since it increases the puzzling nature of the story. In If on a winter’s night a traveler, you, the reader, are a character who buys Calvino’s novel If on a winter’s night a traveler, only to discover that there are pages missing. When you attempt to return it, you get sent on a wild goose chase after the book you want.

Tense itself can enliven an element of your story’s narration. In a thriller novel, for example, you can write tense scenes in first person for a sense of present danger:

A muffled shot. He sits up in bed, tensed and listening. Can’t hear much other than the wind scraping branches along the gutter.

2. Avoid losing clarity when mixing tenses

Because stories show us chains and sequences of events, often we need to jump back and forth between earlier and present scenes and times. This is especially true in novels where characters’ memories form a crucial part of the narrative.

It’s confusing when an author changes tense in the middle of a scene. The fragmented break in continuity makes it hard to place actions in relation to each other. For example:

Sarah runs her usual route to the store. As she turned the corner, she came upon a disturbing scene.

  • This is wrong because the verbs do not consistently use the same tense, even though it is clear (from context) that Sarah’s run is a continuous action in a single scene.
  • Ursula K. Le Guin offers excellent advice on mixing past and present in her writing manual, Steering the Craft:
  • ‘It is highly probably that if you go back and forth between past and present tense, if you switch the tense of your narrative frequently and without some kind of signal (a line break, a dingbat,a new chapter) your reader will get all mixed up as to what happened before what and what’s happening after which and when we are, or were, at the moment.’
  • In short, make sure there are clear breaks between entire sections set in different narrative references.

3: Mix the tenses for colour and variety

Using Present Tense in a Story About the PastLe Guin raises a good point about writing tenses. Le Guin describes the downside of telling a story almost exclusively in present tense:

How to Choose the RIGHT Tense for Your Novel

One of the first decisions you have to make when you’re writing a novel or short story is which tense to use. There are only two viable options: past tense or present tense.*

Which tense should you choose for your novel?

Using Present Tense in a Story About the Past

*Future tense is certainly technically possible, but it’s used so rarely in fiction we’re going to skip it here.

What’s the Difference Between Present and Past Tense?

In fiction, a story in past tense is about events that happened in the past. For example:

From the safety of his pickup truck, John watched as his beloved house burned to the ground. With a blank face, he drove away.

Present tense, on the other hand, sets the narration directly into the moment of the events:

From the safety of his pickup truck, John watches as his beloved house burns to the ground. With a blank face, he drives away.

This is a short example, but what do you think? How are they different? Which version do you prefer?

Using Present Tense in a Story About the Past

Choose Between Past and Present Tense BEFORE You Start Writing Your Novel

New writers are notorious for switching back and forth between past and present tense within their books. It’s one of the most common mistake people make when they are writing fiction for the first time.

  • On top of that, I often talk to writers who are halfway finished with their first drafts, or even all the way finished, and are now questioning which tense they should be using.
  • Unfortunately, the more you’ve written of your novel, the harder it is to change tenses, and if you do end up deciding to change tenses, it can take many hours of hard work.
  • That’s why it’s so important to choose between past and present tense before you start writing your novel
  • With that in mind, make sure to save this guide, so you can have it as a resource when you begin your next novel.

Both Past Tense and Present Tense Are Fine

Past tense is by far the most common tense, whether you’re writing a fictional novel or a nonfiction newspaper article. If you can’t decide which tense you should use in your novel, you should probably write it in past tense.

There are many reasons past tense is the standard for novels. One main reason is simply that it’s the convention. Reading stories in past tense is so normal that reading present tense narratives can feel jarring and annoying to many readers. Some readers, in fact, won’t read past the few pages if your book is in present tense.

That being said, from a technical perspective, present tense is perfectly acceptable. There’s nothing wrong with it, even if it does annoy some readers. It has been used in fiction for hundreds of years, and there’s no reason you can’t use it if you want to.

Keep in mind, there are drawbacks though.

The Hunger Games and Other Examples of Present Tense Novels

I was talking with a writer friend today who used to have strong feelings against present tense. If she saw the author using it in the first paragraph of a novel, she would often put the book back on the bookstore shelf.

Then, she read The Hunger Games, one of the most popular recent examples of a present tense novel (along with All the Light We Cannot See), and when she realized well into the book that the novel was in present tense, all those negative opinions about it were turned on their heads.

Using Present Tense in a Story About the Past

A listener named Becky had a question about present and past tense. She wanted to know which of the following was correct: “The girl who was next to me was named Stephanie,” or “The girl who was next to me is named Stephanie.”

I’m assuming that the Stephanie she’s talking about is someone who Becky knows is still alive and still named Stephanie.

On the one hand, she wants to use the past tense because the other verb in the sentence is in the past tense, and she doesn’t want to switch tenses needlessly.

On the other hand, if it’s still true that the girl is named Stephanie, wouldn’t she want to use the present tense?

They Used to Make the Best Milkshakes

Becky’s question reminds me of a radio commercial I heard years ago. I’ll just slip into the historical present tense to recount their conversation to tell you about it. An older man and probably his grandson are talking about a local ice cream shop.

The grandfather says, “They used to make the best milkshakes,” and he reminisces about just how good those shakes were. Then he says, “In fact, let’s go get one right now!” The grandson says, “Wait a minute! You said they used to make the best shakes.

” The grandfather replies, “Yep! And they still do.”

Her name is still Stephanie, but the story happened in the past.

Did the grandfather lie? I think we can agree that he didn’t lie in a strict sense, but he certainly misled and confused his grandson—and the radio audience, too, which was the whole point.

It forced us to take special note of the fact that the ice cream place still made milkshakes.

Actually, the place they were advertising is still in business, and it still makes milkshakes, so should I have said, “the fact that the ice cream place still makes milkshakes”?

Implicatures

The point that Becky’s question and the radio commercial illustrate is that using the past tense can convey messages other than just that something was true in the past. Linguists call these implicatures: messages that go beyond the strict meaning of a phrase or sentence.

Here’s another example. If your friend from two states away calls you and says, “I’ll be in town next month,” and you understand that he wants to get together with you while he’s in town, that’s an implicature. He didn’t say, “Let’s get together.” You just know.

If Aardvark tells Squiggly, “Red ants taste the best,” Aardvark is implicating that he has eaten red ants, even though he hasn’t said as much.

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Narrative Tense—Right Now or Way Back Then

January 31, 2012 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill last modified January 31, 2012

One of the first decisions for a writer beginning a new story is the choice of narrative tense—will the story be a look into past events or will it race through the present? That is, will the writer use past or present tense in terms of verbs and the action of the story?

The writer must decide what is the when of story.

I’ve seen plenty of comments and recommendations about narrative tense and a lot of the debate is contentious. Although some readers and writers might have no true preference, most are firmly in one camp or the other.

Either they insist using the simple past is the only way to tell a story or they say present tense has much to offer and is as equally valid as past tense.

I don’t intend to start a debate, but I do want to let you know that you have options. And limitations. And that you face the expectations of readers, readers who include agents and acquisitions editors.

___________________________

What we’re talking about is the manner in which you present the actions of your story world. Do narrator and viewpoint characters see actions and events as happening in the past or do they act as if the events are happening right now?

  • Do they say—
  • Marlboro raced through the forest. [Past]
  • Or
  • Marlboro races through the forest. [Present]
  • What about these—
  • Tilly, aching for one sight of her lover, waited at the abandoned cottage and watched for riders on the old north road.
  • Tilly, aching for one sight of her lover, waits at the abandoned cottage and watches for riders on the old north road.
  • _________
  • I feared the man who was my father; his voice alone demanded respect.
  • I fear the man who is my father; his voice alone demands respect.
  • The setup for both is simple; the effects are vastly different.
  • ___________________________

Most stories are told using the simple past—was, walked, drank, hoped.

Stories using the past tense are written the same way stories have been told for years—once upon a time, sometime before the present time, these marvelous characters existed and lived out a fantastic adventure.

They did these things, these events are over, and someone can’t resist telling you all about these happenings and adventures.

When I say most stories, I mean the great majority of stories. Oral stories as well as written fiction are told using the past tense. It’s common to readers, it’s common to writers, and it’s been the prevalent format for storytelling for years and years and years.

It’s so common that readers don’t notice it; they simply jump into the story’s adventure.

The present tense—is, walks, drinks, hopes—on the other hand, is rare. Yes, we all know wonderful stories told using present tense. Yet in comparison to the number of novels that use the simple past, present-tense novels are few in number. Present-tense narration is also much more recent a practice.

From what I can tell from a quick survey of Internet articles, readers notice when stories are told using the present tense. I’m not saying, nor are those readers, that there’s anything wrong with the use of present tense. We are saying that its use is noticeable.

And noticeable mechanics may well not be what you’re trying for.

Let me stress that neither choice is right or wrong on principle. You can use either present or past tense for telling your stories.

The present tense is often associated with literary fiction, short stories, students in writing programs and workshops, and first novels. The past tense is used in most genre novels.

Pros and Cons

Familiarity
Since the past tense is familiar to readers, readers don’t have to adjust when they begin a story written using past tense. There might well be an adjustment period for readers of present-tense stories.

Novelty
Stories told using present-tense narration can be enticing because they’re different. Readers may also end up paying closer attention since the format is one unfamiliar to them. They may develop a deeper involvement in the story.

Immediacy
Some writers and readers believe that use of the present tense makes story action and events more immediate. On the other hand, proponents of the past tense may find that verbs used in the past tense make story events seem more immediate. Because there’s no adjustment needed, readers can imagine themselves in the story from page one.

Believability
Readers have to believe that story events written in present tense are happening at the very moment they’re reading.

That’s admittedly a stretch for some readers since they know the story events are not happening in the now. After all, a book’s events have to have been completed before the book was written.

Yes, readers can get over this incongruity, but reader perception is something to consider when you choose your narrative tense.

  1. While the present tense is not common in fiction, some writing uses present tense as a matter of course—
  2. Scripts and plays
  3. A synopsis

Essays that use the literary present tense (When writing about the events of a story: Alex then demands a declaration from Stella, but she refuses to humor him. When writing about what a writer says: Tinsdale uses this phrase to show his contempt for his critics’ opinions.)

  • ___________________________
  • No matter your choice for the narrative tense—
  • Be consistent—don’t switch between past and present
  • Use compelling and descriptive verbs
  • Don’t overuse progressive forms—was walking, is talking

You won’t go wrong using the simple past for most of your fiction. Readers expect it and it won’t get in the way of the story.

Try present tense if you want readers to notice the narrative tense or you want to see if you can make story events even more immediate. Keep in mind that readers might have to make adjustments.

Weigh the benefits against the costs—are the benefits, whatever they are for your story, enough to compensate for that adjustment period during which readers will not be fully involved in either characters or plot events?

Be prepared to change from present tense to past in order to see your manuscript accepted by a publisher. You might have to do it; would you be willing to make the change if it meant being published? Could you do it?

 *******

Choose the present tense if you’re trying for a unique feel to your fiction, but know the limitations. Know that readers might not accept your choice. Know that publishers might ask you to change your narrative tense.

Choose past tense when you don’t want to distract the reader, when you want to use the common storytelling method.

Don’t let fear hold you back. Use the narrative tense that works for the story, the genre, and your readers. Know what narrative tense can achieve.

  1. Write strong stories.
  2. Write powerful fiction.
  3. ***

Past or Present? Using Tense Effectively in Fiction

For the main narrative voice of your story, you need to choose a verb tense. Once you do, consistency within the narrative is essential.

I stopped reading one self-published book after less than a chapter because the author couldn’t make up her mind about verb tense.

The constant switching between past and present was confusing and made it impossible for me to become engrossed in the story.

There are exceptions, such as dialogue and flashback, when you can switch tenses, but for the most part, you need to pick a tense and stick to it.

Which Tense Should You Use?

The most common tenses for narrating a story are past and present. Historically, the past tense seems to have the upper hand, but the use of the present tense has recently become more common, especially with the rise of young adult fiction.

The present tense lets an author tell the story as it is happening.

Jill stares down at the bed with its mussed sheets. The faint scent of perfume tickles her nose. It’s not her perfume. Her stomach twists into a tight knot.

The past tense tells a story as if in reflection. The narrator can be speaking of something that happened five minutes ago or five hundred years ago.

Jill stared down at the bed with its mussed sheets. The faint scent of perfume tickled her nose. It was not her perfume. Her stomach twisted into a tight knot.

Some argue that present tense lends a sense of immediacy to the story and to the action. I’ve read too many novels, however, written in the past tense with plenty of action and immediacy to accept this argument at face value. Nonetheless, the present tense has its place, especially in modern literature, and I have no problem with it when it’s used well.

In the end, the choice is stylistic. Choose whichever tense feels best for you and your story. In any case, be deliberate in your choice, and consider your audience. Many readers have a preference for one over the other.

Tense in narrative

In this resource we will practise using tense consistently and think about the effect of using past tense versus present tense in a story.

Goals

  • Identify past tense and present tense forms.
  • Practise changing tense and using tense consistently.
  • Consider the effect of changing tense in a story.

Lesson Plan

Background

Writers sometimes choose to tell a story in the past tense and sometimes in the present tense. You might see either of these:

  • Tara lost her balance and slid down the rocky slope. Cursing, she picked herself up and rubbed her grazed leg.
  • Tara loses her balance and slides down the rocky slope. Cursing, she picks herself up and rubs her grazed leg.

Whichever is chosen, it is important to be consistent in the use of tense. Notice that the first example all the verbs have past tense, while in the second example all the verbs have present tense.

It wouldn’t work if we mixed up the tenses in this story:

  • Tara lost her balance and slid down the rocky slope. Cursing, she picks herself up and rubs her grazed leg.
  • Tara loses her balance and slides down the rocky slope. Cursing, she picked herself up and rubbed her grazed leg.

In the first example we have a change from past to present tense, and in the second example a change from present to past tense. This is confusing and incorrect, because we don’t want to change from one time to another at this point. We want the story to continue in the same timeframe.

Of course, we can change the tense when we do intend to show a shift in time frame, e.g. I love the jumper you made for me. Here we have love (present tense) and made (past tense). This is correct, because it refers to a present-time state (I now love the jumper) and a past-time completed action (you made it for me before now).

Change of tense is only a problem when we lose track of the tense we are using and accidentally change to another tense without meaning to change the timeframe.

Activity 1: Tense consistency

Ask students to look at the short passages on the first slide. For each one, ask them to identify where the tense changes incorrectly, and then write a correct version which continues with the tense used at the start of the passage. When they finish, they can check their answers on the following slide.

Activity 2: Past to present

Ask students to read the extract on the slide, which uses past tense narration. They should rewrite the extract, changing to present tense narration throughout. Their version should read:

The dread comes from nowhere. Without warning, my flesh begins to crawl. I feel the hairs on my scalp prickle and rise. I can't see anything except the bear post and its cairn of stones, but my body braces itself. It knows.

Ask students to compare the two versions and answer the questions on the slide.

Activity 3: Present to past

Now ask students to reverse the process. They should read the extract on the slide, which uses present tense narration, and rewrite it using past tense narration. Their version should read:

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