I'm writing a sci-fi novella about a scientist named Steves living in the 24th century. I'm mostly using the typical past tense to narrate the incidents happening to the protagonist. Whenever I'm talking about things in general though, I tend to switch the tense to present. And all the while, I'm writing a book which is set in the future!

Is this appropriate? I also feel that I'm using my tenses wrongly at times. This is my first draft, by the way. Mistakes ought to be there.

Sample of the piece:

He was stuck. Simply.

The shutters had closed. There was no escape. The robots on guard would never let anything, or anyone for that matter, in or out of the room. Even a tiny mouse cannot escape it. This wasn’t a possibility by the way, since the place was super hygienic. Not a single speck of dust lay on its shiny, polished floor. The room was adequately taken care of. Or I better say, excessively so.

Steves couldn’t believe his eyes. The shutters had had closed. His heart sank. He was fuming by now. Why the heck did he agree to take the responsibility of managing the MAINS ROOM? He knew he still wasn’t that qualified to handle that flaming room.

DOOM’S ROOM more like, Steves muttered to himself with a chilly smile. He was given to play with words. And with science, which was exactly why he was here. He is one of the scientists at Revolution Tech (RT) – the leading innovative tech research institute of the 24th century. It has been founded on January 1, 2301–the very beginning of a new era of science and technology–with the mission to conquer every impossibility and make brilliant scientific discoveries that will change our world forever. (And I dare say they have been quite successful.)

Steves is a young, talented and dedicated scientist. He’s fairly new here; it's barely his first year at RT. Nevertheless, it hasn’t taken him much time to blend in.


Given that the narrator is telling the story 1 year later and things are pretty much the same, could I still use present tense in some places?

2 Answers 2


The tense used in a story is relative to the temporal POV (point of view) of the narrator, not to the actual calendar date. The modern novel arises from traditional storytelling, meaning that the default temporal POV is that you are telling a story about things that happened before the story is told. So even though your story is set in the future, the temporal POV is after the events of the story.

However, it is possible that parts of the story may be in the present relative to the temporal POV (universal or unchanging things, things in a frame) or in the future relative to the temporal POV (prophecy). In which case, they should be related in the appropriate tense.

Unchanging features are an interesting case. Statements about them are true in the present as much as in the past when they impinged on the events of the story. Thus statements about them in the past or present tense would be equally valid. The convention is to refer to them in the past in storytelling. Referring to them in the present might make sense if the story were in a frame that was contemporary to the storyteller.

When characters speak, of course, they speak in their own temporal POV, which is different from the narrator's temporal POV. (Characters speak in their present, not the narrator's present.)

There is a technique in which a story is told in present tense, meaning that the temporal POV is contemporary to the story as it unfolds. This can be used to create a kind of jittery or fragile feeling, or a sense of inevitability or doom -- the events are unfolding before your eyes yet you are unable to intervene or stop them.

Just as it is possible to change spacial POV in the middle of a story, it is possible to change temporal POV. However, this is much trickier and will likely just get you into trouble.

  • I have another question: Given that the narrator is telling the story 1 year later and things are pretty much the same, could I still use present tense in some places? Jan 2, 2017 at 19:05
  • 1
    But why would you want to? What do you hope to gain?
    – user16226
    Jan 2, 2017 at 19:09
  • The narrator himself will be involved in another part of the novella. Jan 2, 2017 at 19:10
  • The narrator will eventually come back to the present (the time he's living in). Jan 2, 2017 at 19:11
  • 1
    You can change time from past to present without changing narrative temporal POV from past to present. When you talk to someone face to face in the present, you usually use the past tense. The only exception is when you are describing events that are literally happening as you speak. Are you describing events that are happening as the narrator is addressing the reader? If so, then use present. If not, not.
    – user16226
    Jan 2, 2017 at 19:17

No, you can't randomly switch to the present tense like that. You are telling your story in past tense, even if you're talking about the future relative to us.

News stories can switch to the present tense for the general because they are reporting on facts which are relative to the moment you're reading them: Shannon Faulkner enrolled in the Citadel yesterday, becoming the first female cadet. She deleted all references to gender on her transcript, so the school did not know she is a woman.

Change everything in your story to past tense. You can have some present tense in dialogue, of course, but not narration.

  • 2
    @SohaFarhinPine No, because it's a function of storytelling narration. Either you use past tense or you use present tense for narrating, period. The only time you can change that is if you clearly delineate that you're stepping outside your narrative flow — for example, a dream state, a vision of the future, or a "timeless" dimension like the land of the Sidhe. It doesn't matter if "things are the same" in your story for the last 50 years. It's still past tense. Jan 2, 2017 at 21:39
  • 2
    @SohaFarhinPine I'm sorry, but you still aren't listening. It has nothing to do with the narrator's past or present or the events being the same. It is a narrative device. It's like telling a story in third person vs. first person. You can't switch arbitrarily because it's easier to explain the narrator's thoughts in first person. A story in the past tense is "being told" to someone. The events have already occurred. That's the narrative tool. If you can't grasp this, you should take some remedial writing courses. Jan 2, 2017 at 22:52

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.