Writerly Post Wednesday: Past or Present Tense?


Hello, Wednesday! We’re halfway through the week — you can make it!

Today I’ve decided to talk about tenses.

There are two tenses that writers can choose to write their novel in: past or present.

When the seed of a story embeds itself in my mind, one of the first questions I have to ask myself is (apart from whose point of view it’s going to be in, and third or first) is generally what tense I’ll write it in. Most of the novels I’ve written have been in past tense; there’s only one novel that I chose to write in present tense, and that was my Young Adult Dystopia novel. (This was in my I-love-The-Hunger-Games-and-I-want-to-be-exactly-like-Suzanne-Collins stage. When I finished the first draft I realized that I should just not be a sci fi writer. I suck at it.)

hunger games animated GIF

But, uh, that’s slightly off topic.

I’ve been thinking about the next novel I’m going to write — which is probably going to be during NaNoWriMo in November. (If you wanna know more about it you can check out the two main characters here and here.)

And thus, I came to the terrifying conclusion that it’s probably going to be written in present tense.

scared animated GIF

scared animated GIF

So why am I so worried about writing it in present tense? The answer is pretty simple: I haven’t done it very often.

I’ve only done it once before — and I’m worried that because my Dystopia novel was such a failure . . . that this NaNo ’14 will fail, too. Yes, I judge myself very harshly, okay?? Though I’m not going to not do it because I’m afraid that it’s going to turn our crappy. Because, realistically, it is going to be crappy. What first draft isn’t? Let alone a first draft written in one month?

I suppose your wondering why I’ve chosen that the novel should be written in present rather than past. I thought about that a lot when I was writing this blog post, and I came to the conclusion that I wanted it to be the sort of novel that’s going to be in the moment. Spontaneous, almost. I feel like present tense would help to portray (God, whenever I write that word I feel like I’m doing English homework…) that sort of mood throughout the novel.

In a way, too, I want to write in present tense so I can prove to myself that I can do it. One failure of a novel doesn’t mean anything. Writers grow and learn and lean on their strengths. But as a writer I don’t want to be stuck in a rut: stuck to writing the same tense over and over again because it’s something I’m comfortable with. Something that makes me feel familiar and safe.

Sometimes writing about what you’re not comfortable with ends up becoming the thing you most love.

Or at least — that’s what I keep telling myself.

books animated GIF

Tell me: Which tense do you prefer writing in? Past or present? And have you got any tips for writing in present tense? I’d love to hear your thoughts! You can also answer the poll below.


11 thoughts on “Writerly Post Wednesday: Past or Present Tense?

  1. HAHAHAA fantastic gif usage, Kara. Love it :) I usually write in past as well – first person past just feels like the most natural to me. But I have, on occasion, used present, and I do like the immediacy of it. I think different stories call for different ways of writing them, though. I’ve sometimes changed the tense in my second drafts. That’s a lot of fun…

    • Gif searching is FUN. Haha, glad you liked them. ;) Eech, if the novel doesn’t work in present tense (which I am determined to at least TRY) then I’ll have to rewrite it in past. Oh joy. Yeah, past tense feels more natural to me, too, but I’d say that’s because I’ve used it more often.

  2. Jeez I’m like the exact opposite of you, I’ve only written in present tense, the one time I tried past I ended up switching to present after like 3 chapters! I do think though that if I write the book I’m planning on doing for NaNo it will have to be in past tense because it just makes sense to the story.
    I don’t think I have any tips because I’ve always just done it, I guess just try to let it flow naturally instead of always having the thought in the back of your mind that it has to be present tense and that you’ve never done it successfully before? There I tried! =)

  3. Prepare yourself for a very confusing next sentence. I also plan to write in present tense for the novel that I will write after the novella that I will write after I finish the novel on which I am currently working. *cringes* I hope that wasn’t too confusing. I’m nervous about it too, because I’ve never written a long piece of work in first person present tense, and I’m afraid that it will be too easy for my writing to get choppy if I write the word “I” too many times. But like you, I want to branch out so that I can improve my writing and keep myself from getting stuck in a rut. Good luck with NaNo!

    • I had to read that sentence twice, but I got it all! xD Past tense is a more common tense, that’s for sure, but I’m beginning to notice it more now. (Whether that’s just because I’m looking at the tense more or not, I don’t know.) But yes, branching out can be very beneficial for a writer. :) Good luck with your novels/novellas! ;)

  4. I guess it depends on the story. I think I probably write in past more, but I always thought I write more in present tense. I always try to connect my tenses with my point of view. Normally I write in first person so I’ve always thought I’d written more in present, probably because all the times I’ve tried my WIP in first it’s always been in present. I usually don’t like writing present tense in third person because I feel like it gets too play-like. It used to make me cringe, but apparently I’ve changed my ways because my current WIP is in present tense and third person (three different point of views and first in just crazy). It’s basically up to the author. Honestly, I don’t pay that close attention to tenses. Halfway through reading a book I will realize what tense it’s in. I guess the same goes for my books.

    • I agree — novels written in third person present sense are usually just . . . odd. Some don’t work right. I’ve seen it work in some books before, but I don’t think it’s something I’d ever try. However, like you said, it completely depends on the author. If you feel like it’s right for you novel, then go for it. I wouldn’t be able to pull it off! My novel will be written in first person, though, so I think I’ll give it a shot and see how it turns out. If it’s crappy, or doesn’t work, I can always rewrite it. It would be a pain… but I’ve rewritten a novel from third to first person before, so I could do that. ^_^

      • It does feel weird, but now I’ve gotten used to it. I have found that I do have to word stuff different and I think I can’t explain much without it coming off like that so there is a lot of dialogue. I know how it feels. With the same book I’ve been constantly changing it from third to first person and with that comes the tenses. It gives me a headache.

  5. I also prefer writing in the past, but I think what you’re doing is great. It’s important to step outside your comfort zone, especially to prove to yourself that you can do something! :)

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