I have recently picked up several works of fiction and begun to read them. I have found that some are written using past tense while others use the present tense.

What is the significance of using these different tenses while writing fiction?


3 Answers 3


A lot of it is just convention. Most people seem most accustomed to reading past tense, so it tends to not be noticed by the reader.

There are exceptions to this, however. YA, especially, has a lot of present tense writing, and in that genre it seems to be totally unremarkable.

Fans of present tense often argue that it gives a sense of immediacy to the story, while opponents say that it is jarring and intrusive to their reading experience.

Personal anecdote: My first two books were written in present tense; I don't remember giving it much conscious thought, that's just how the words came out. There was some negative feedback from readers, although the books overall were fairly popular. I thought the critics were crazy, but I wanted to sell, and so for the next couple books I tried past tense.

When I went back to the present tense books, after having immersed myself in the past tense, the present tense DID seem awkward and intrusive to me! I got over it quite quickly (within the first chapter of rereading), but it wasn't automatic. So I do think there's a significant element of just being what people are accustomed to that determines their preference.

  • Is this apply when writing an examination essay such as IELTS or TOEFL so i will use past tense on it too. Commented Jul 3, 2011 at 3:39
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    It depends on the sort of essay, really. Literary essays are traditionally written in present tense, but if it's a personal essay, past tense is fine.
    – Kate S.
    Commented Jul 3, 2011 at 7:43
  • In addition to immediacy, I've found that present tense tends to add some suspense and mystery. It always gives me the impressions that the narrator doesn't know what's about to happen either (since it hasn't happened yet), which may be good or bad depending on the story. Also, I've always associated it with old detective bits, Dick Tracy kind of stuff. I've never actually read Dick Tracy or similar stories, but that's the image it brings up in my head. Commented Jan 7, 2013 at 13:46

Here's what I'm familiar with: a lot of people see present-tense as a description of something happening right now, while past-tense is a narration of events that have already concluded. So:

  • Some readers find present-tense more immediate and, well, tense.
  • Some readers take issue with past-tense narration, seeing it as an unjustified device: If somebody's telling us this story, who is it? Why is he telling us the story? If the narration is first-person, that means the narrator must have made it through the story pretty OK, no?
  • Most readers accept above issues as unimportant side-effects of convention. E.g. if a narrator dies at the end of the story, they won't shout "wait, so who just wrote the whole thing?" - they don't see the narration as being part of the established facts of the story.

I think a lot of people find past-tense more natural because present-tense storytelling is not something you encounter in day to day life. In real life, people tell you things that have happened; it's rare to be subjected to a real-time report. Think of the exceptions - e.g. sports commentaries and on-the-spot new reports; they can be very exciting, but they're rarely personal or possessing narrative structure. And those kind of reports would probably be exhausting to listen to for too long of a stretch.

Fiction presents things happening "now" in a medium used primarily to describe things already over. That's where the issue comes from. But in most cases, I think that readers prefer the comfort of more familiar phrasing over the increased accuracy of using a more appropriate tense. The familiarity makes the inaccuracies accepted and invisible.

As Kate said, current convention favors past-tense writing, so all other considerations aside - anything else may feel somewhat jarring or unusual to many readers. And both are popular, familiar and accepted enough that you can really pick whichever feels most comfortable and appropriate for you, as long as you remain consistent within a single piece.

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    Msybe it's generational, but I think there is a fairly common trend of telling stories in present tense in every day conversation. "So I just look at him, right? He's wearing some sort of jumpsuit, I don't even know what it is, and he stares back at me, and I know right then, we're going to fight." or, more mundanely, "So I'm at the store, and I have to chose between peas and carrots, because I don't have money for both." I think people use the present tense in conversation when they want to build drama and immediacy - similar to writing?
    – Kate S.
    Commented Jul 3, 2011 at 15:09
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    It happens; I've never felt it to be common. And even then, it's very clear the speaker is relating something in the past - amusingly, practically the diametric opposite of fiction aiming for immersion but sticking with past tense :P
    – Standback
    Commented Jul 3, 2011 at 17:13
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    I really wanna try and write a story in future-tense and see what happens. I think it'd be a fun experiment. =P Commented Jul 3, 2011 at 17:45
  • @Ralph: I've seen it done, once or twice; I confess I found it mostly gimmicky, though I remember the stories justified it fairly well. Terry Bisson's "The Toxic Donut" was one.
    – Standback
    Commented Jul 3, 2011 at 18:25
  • @Ralph - do it future tense, second person, just to really mess with things!
    – Kate S.
    Commented Jul 3, 2011 at 20:28

I write blog posts in the present tense even if I'm writing about something which happened in the past, because it's funnier to be "present" as the gag is unfolding.

I prefer novels in the past tense, but it's just a preference, and I could get used to a story told in the present tense.

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