Present Tense vs. Past Tense

| Monday, December 13, 2010
Today's Tune: White Wine in the Sun

This topic really has more to do with how I write short works vs. longer works, but it's still relevant to tense.

So, obviously, past tense is written as though recalling an incident from the past. "Jamie Jones stumbled through the door, hair askew. She collapsed into a chair and began to laugh."

Present tense is written as though events are unfolding in real time. "Jamie Jones stumbles through the door, hair askew. She collapses into a chair and begins to laugh."

There are many reasons for deciding to use one tense over the other. Past tense feels a little more "story-like," as though one is recounting a tale around a campfire. Present tense is more immediate and, when used well, can be great for creating tension.

Personally, I often use first-person present in my short works and either first or third-person past in my longer works. When I write flash fiction or short stories, I want my reader to feel connected to a specific scene -- a small window into the lives of my characters. I want the scene to feel like it's unfolding before them and they're experiencing it at the same time as my characters.

I find that sort of voice incredibly difficult to maintain well in my longer works. Novel manuscripts give me the freedom to extrapolate and take more time to set things up. I find past tense works better for me here. When I write in present, I feel like everything has to be concise and to the point. Boomboomboom. I feel it loses its immediacy if I spend too much time dawdling on character development.

This is how I choose the tenses I do. What tense do you write in, and why?


{ Alex J. Cavanaugh } at: December 13, 2010 at 3:05 PM said...

I always write in third person and past tense. Just works for me.

{ Old Kitty } at: December 13, 2010 at 4:22 PM said...

I'm with Alex - past tense third person!! I find writing in first person present tense most difficult!! I guess it's because the action is past by the time I get to write it if that makes any sense! Take care

{ aspiring_x } at: December 14, 2010 at 6:13 AM said...

until recently, i've never made a conscious choice about tense. but when i think about it, i generally use first present for flash fic... and third past for my bigger works... but i have this new WIP where i'm really stuck on tense, because the nature of the story is a little disorienting... so, i'm trying to use different tenses as keys to where in the story the character is... but- yeah- not working out so much... :(

{ Lisa Potts } at: December 14, 2010 at 11:22 AM said...

Steph, I tend to agree with you. I love to write my short stuff in present tense and my novels in past. I use both first and third person POV depending on my mood and the story.

{ Vanora } at: December 19, 2010 at 5:10 PM said...

I love first person present tense but I find it hard to write after long periods of time. I guess I need practice :) Because too much 3rd past tense makes me feel really dull

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