I am quite new to writing so I hope my question makes any sense.

I'm trying to write a first draft of a story that has been haunting me for quite a while. Even though I'm fine with it to fail, I would like to try and finish the story and incoorporate good practise writing techniques where I can.

I have been enjoying the tale and filling up the details I had not yet thought of in the past.

However when researching dialog vs action scenes I keep falling in the rhythm of using past tense for (dialog) actions and present tense when people are talking about stuff.

Now I've read a few questions that looked similar: this and this. But people keep giving conflicting answers which confuses me what to do.

I guess it is a matter of taste, but how can I be sure?

So my real question is not really about if I should do past or present tense but rather how I can be sure my writing does not become too 'weak'.

2 Answers 2


The tense of the narrative (that is, all the text surrounding direct speech) has nothing to do with the tense of the direct speech (the text within quotation marks). Someone in the past can speak of their present:

Yesterday, when I stood here, I said: "I stand here now."

What you have to decide is whether you want to narrate your story in the past or present tense. There is no fundamental difference, and you can use either one, but you cannot mix them (in the narration).

The tenses in the speeches of your character will always be relative to their present, not yours.

  • So you are saying the tense of the dialogs are irrelevant. But all the narrative parts should be in the same tense (whichever one I choose)? Apr 30, 2018 at 11:10
  • @TotumusMaximus The tense of the dialog is irrelevant to the tense of the narrative. And yes, all the narrative parts should be in the same tense.
    – user29032
    Apr 30, 2018 at 11:27
  • I guess I will stick with my past tense then. I have tried fairly hard to see how the present tense would work out like in the example in my question. But it kept feeling unnatural to me. Apr 30, 2018 at 11:31
  • 1
    @celtschk There are about 36,812 special cases when it comes to tempus. I didn't want to overwhelm Totumus Maximus with them, as their problem seems to be much more basic than that. – I feel that an answer is best when it addresses the problem stated in the question, not when it expands to a general guide to all special problems related to a topic.
    – user29032
    May 1, 2018 at 7:28
  • 1
    @Cloudchaser: You don't have to list all special cases in order to acknowledge they exist.
    – celtschk
    May 1, 2018 at 7:50

I guess it is a matter of taste, but how can I be sure?

Some stories can be told in either tense and it won't alter the feeling of them drastically, the difference can be quite subtle. Also, some writers hate writing in present tense while some find it's the only tense that comes naturally to them. So it can be a matter of taste.

However, sometimes a change in tense can have a big impact on a story.

For example, I wrote a literary fiction novel about two women who form a relationship over a long journey. I wrote that in past tense because I wanted it to be a lilting tale, told from the point of view of the older woman as she relayed the story of her experiences on that journey to the reader. A lot of time was spent inside the protagonist's head as she narrated her feelings (which you can do when looking back on an event in the past with hindsight).

Later, I wrote a fast-paced psychological thriller in present tense because I wanted a sense of immediacy. I wanted the reader to experience the thrill of the action scenes as if they were actually happening in the moment of reading. Handled well, it can create a closeness with your reader, the feeling that they're experiencing the journey while you're telling it. What I couldn't do was spend huge amounts of time inside my protagonist's head, because it's not realistic that we spend time in a sort of stasis while we mentally process an event happening in real time. But as it was a fast-paced novel, I didn't want the action to be slowed down by that anyway.

So, think about the bulk of your story. Every story is going to have its quiet moments and its thrilling moments, but think about the pace you want to create overall and rather than going on taste alone, think about what's best for your story. If you're slipping in and out without thinking, it sounds as if you're probably comfortable writing in either.

I don't know that you can be sure. You just have to make the best guess at what will work. Sometimes you only know with hindsight once the novel is done. But don't worry, you can always change it later. I've switched tense on a 130,000 word novel. It didn't take as long as I thought it would!!

Good luck!

  • My story is not really fast paced (i think) but has some action moments which i would like to have this sense of immediacy in. But present tense felt uncomfortable. But I do not want to have that effect of someone looking back on the story like you meant either. I have no idea what I truly want yet, for I have lots of challenges completing the story as it is. May 2, 2018 at 7:47
  • You can still create immediacy with past tense, through the writing itself. Shorter sentences, for example, clipped, short words, coming right in close to the action and not wasting time on too much setting and exposition. Also, not showing the action through the character's eyes, helps to create a sense of immediacy.
    – GGx
    May 2, 2018 at 8:12
  • For example (forgive me, it's a terrible example, but should illustrate the point) instead of writing 'John saw the zombie walk through the door, heard it's deep-throated grunt, and smelt the stench of rotting flesh.' Let the reader experience it for themselves. The zombie staggered through the door with a deep-throated snarl and the stench of rotting flesh filled John's nostrils.' By writing this way, even though it's in past tense, you bring the reader right up close to the action and create immediacy that way.
    – GGx
    May 2, 2018 at 8:12
  • Anne Lamott says that every writer should allow themselves to write shitty first drafts. Every writer writes shitty first drafts and it's okay because they lead to slightly less-shitty second drafts and maybe a passable third. So, my advice would be, just tell your story to the page as if you are making it up as you go along for a captive listener who can't wait to hear the next word out of your lips. Just get it down. Don't worry about tense, POV, etc etc. These can all be ironed out in your second draft once you can see the story as a whole.
    – GGx
    May 2, 2018 at 8:16
  • 1
    This lady on YouTube is talking about Scrivener (writing software which I use personally and highly recommend but that's very complex). However, her video will give you some excellent insights into pre-writing, what she does before she even starts writing. And you'll see that most of what she does is character development. It may help, some great tips there: youtube.com/…
    – GGx
    May 2, 2018 at 8:26

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.