I have written a novel that I want to send out to agents, but I'm now having doubts as to whether it is polished enough to do so yet. A big problem for me right now is tense.

My novel is written in past tense, first person perspective. When my protagonist is describing the events in the novel, his current place in time is after the events that happened, but only by ten seconds or so if I had to place him somewhere. He does not know what will happen due to that. For all intents and purposes, he is describing things as they happen in the moment.

When he first describes himself, he uses present tense because that is how he still looks when he is doing so. Example:

"Wow, that guy's hair is so white!" a passerby said.

I was the only one he could have been talking about. There was no one else here it could have been. My hair is a pure white, alongside my also white eyes. My other features are tired and weary.

At the start of the novel in the prologue, I also described the setting in present tense because the situation at the start of the novel reflects how the world appears to the protagonist at the current time.

Should I do another edit fixing this stuff? A lot of it feels very unnatural when I change it.

  • 2
    The switches seem pretty appropriate because the narrator is narrating events that happened in the past, but presently describing unchanging aspects of himself. However if your narrator is only ten seconds ahead of what's going on and you want him to describe things happening AS THEY HAPPEN in the moment, why not just use present tense for the whole thing?
    – Tasch
    Commented Mar 21, 2020 at 18:54
  • 1
    Your text looks fine to me. I didn't even notice the tense change (up until the awkward "My other features are tired and weary," which is just an odd self-observation)... Take a look at Jane Austen's Indirect Free Speech for examples of a Mozart-level genius. 2 centuries later she is still the master of breaking every 'rule' of tense and POV, while somehow making it all work. Indirect Free Speech is having the confidence to state an interior monolog as a narrative fact. It skips phrases like "…," he thought to himself. and instead just says the things that are thought, biases and all.
    – wetcircuit
    Commented Mar 22, 2020 at 12:39

1 Answer 1


There is an idea in story telling called the point of telling. It is the point of time when the narrator is telling the story from. In present tense, its now. In past tense, the point of telling maybe to five years after the events in the story, or whenever. Some stories place the point of telling in the middle of the story -- they use past tense until the narrator gets to the present, then they shift to present tense.

You seem to have created a unique point of telling that uses qualities of present tense with past tense because your point of telling behaves exactly like present tense, except for that 8 second delay. I expect that would read oddly. The narrator has no future knowledge, so they can't be blamed for not sharing details but the piece is written in past tense. I imagine that oddness is what you are reacting to.

If you feel very positive that your story needs this kind of nearly-present tense to tell the story properly, then I'd work on writing in present-tense and read lots and lots of books written in present tense. Write little stories, not related your novel to get comfortable with the method.

If not, then consider picking a specific point of telling for your narrator. The only down side of this approach, and it is the most common form used, is that the narrator can't claim ignorance of future events in the story that happen prior to the point of telling. And its only a real problem when the narrator is being cagey about revealing information to inject tension into the story that wouldn't be there normally.

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