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Generally in fiction, you have two options for tense: present tense (she runs) and past tense (she ran). Along with point of view, your tense is something you need to decide as soon as you start writing and that decision will affect your whole story. But what is the best tense to write a novel in? Are there different rules for different tenses? Read on to find out.
The difference between present tense and past tense
When you’re writing in the present tense, you could write something like this: “I call my boyfriend. Yesterday he said he would be home by morning”. But if you’re writing in the past tense, you would write this instead: “I called my boyfriend. Yesterday he had said he would be home by morning.”
I’m not gonna go into the technicalities of grammar because you might not be writing in English and I’m not an expert anyway, but my point is that you need to remember which tense is the one where the story happens now and which is for previous events.
Let’s talk about point of view first
This post might be about tense, but your point of view is connected to what kind of an experience you give your readers.
For more about the subject, you can read my blog post on point of view, but here’s a quick explanation: You can choose between first-person, third-person intimate and omniscient point of view. Both first-person and third-person intimate stay in one character’s point of view at a time despite the differences in pronouns (“I said” vs. “she said”) while the omniscient point of view can be anyone and anywhere.
You’re going to need to choose your point of view when you choose your tense, because it dictates how you deliver information to your readers. You need to know whether you’re going to write something like “I open the door to my room” or “she opened the door to her room”.
Different combinations of tense and point of view are going to feel and sound different. Most writers default to what they prefer reading, and that’s totally fine. You can also do experiments before you start writing properly and try writing scenes with different tenses and points of view.
Tips for writing in past tense
Past tense has been used in fiction for a very long time and it’s often very natural and normal for most writers and readers. In fact, it’s so normal that it’s barely noticeable. There are still a few things you need to keep in mind.
If you’re writing in past tense and you need to take a longer time to describe things that happened in the past rather than in the “now” of the story, don’t write the whole thing like:
“I had gone to the library and I had found the book he had had talked about. It had been exactly like he had had described. But the librarian had come to tell me it was closing time and I had had to leave. It had been the last sunny day that year.”
That’s really clunky and it might put distance between your reader and the story, which is most often something you want to avoid.
Instead, do this:
“I had gone to the library and I found the book he talked about. It was exactly like he had described. But the librarian came to tell me it was closing time and I had to leave. It had been the last sunny day that year.”
Start and end with the “extra past tense” and then use the regular past tense in the middle – it helps the writing flow better and keeps your readers engaged while still being obvious that you’re talking about things that happened BEFORE and not NOW. (Yes, I’m aware “extra past tense” is not a real grammatical term – I just want you to get the point even if grammar isn’t your thing.)
Tips for writing in present tense
Present tense is often present in modern fiction specifically. It can create a sense of immediacy and intimacy, expecially when paired with the first-person POV. It’s often a conscious choice for writers to use present tense, so make sure you’re doing the choice on purpose. Not all the readers are going to like it, especially if they’re not used to reading modern fiction or if they haven’t recently read books meant for younger audiences.
When you read something in present tense, it almost feels like you’re following someone around with a video camera and seeing everything as it is and as it happens. This can be great for your story if it’s what you want, but you also need to be careful not to overwhelm your reader.
Because it’s often a choice you have to make, your readers can sometimes detect if you’ve made that choice for stylistic reasons rather than because it fits your story so well. Like I said earlier, past tense is barely noticeable, so if your readers will be noticing your present tense usage, make sure it’s only good things they’re noticing.
When you’re writing in present tense, it’s a lot easier to keep track of things that happen “now” and things that happened “before”. At the same time, you’re kind of stuck in the present if you use present tense. If your story happens on different time levels, present tense might not be the right choice for you.
Can you use different tenses in the same novel?
I’ve read a couple of novels where the writer used different tenses for different points of view. For example, in Family Upstairs by Lisa Jewell, one character recounts the past events using the past tense, while another character’s point of view (which happens in the “now” of the story) is written in present tense.
If you’re just writing your first novel, I wouldn’t recommend you try to do something like that. You have to make sure you know what you’re doing, that you stay consistent and that your choice has a real purpose behind it. Don’t confuse your readers by using a device that doesn’t work. Before you try it, read some novels that use different tenses
What is the best tense to write a novel in?
The best tense to write a novel in is the one you like writing in and that serves your purposes.
There are no right or wrong answers when you’re choosing what tense to write in. Many contemporary novels seem to favour the first-person present tense (I open the door and he looks at me.) but it doesn’t mean you need to use it if it doesn’t feel natural to you.
When you’re choosing your tense (and POV), you might want to follow genre conventions. For example, modern thriller readers might be more open to reading stories written in the present tense than historical fiction or fantasy readers.
What to do if you struggle staying in the same tense?
If you have trouble staying in the right tense or right point of view while writing your first draft, that’s totally fine. I know it’s something that some writers struggle with, but you don’t need to worry about it if it distracts you from the flow of writing. Let Future You worry about it during the editing process – that’s what it’s for.
When you read through your first draft, keep an extra eye on your tense and make your changes as soon as you can so they don’t distract you during future edits. If you still genuinely struggle with this, you could always ask for outside help.
Can you change your tense after you’ve already written your story?
When I decided to change my novel’s point of view from third to first person, I dedicated one draft just for changing my writing from “She closed her eyes” to “I closed my eyes” to make sure I would change everything that needed to change and that everything would still make sense.
If you need to do the same with your tense, I’d recommend you also spend an entire draft doing just those changes. You might see other things you need to fix, but just make a note of them in some way and deal with them later. The best way to get completely overwhelmed by editing is to try to do too many things at once!
Writing exercises for different tenses and points of view
If you’re not sure yet which tense and point of view to choose for your story, here are a few exercises for you so that you can try them out before you make your choice.
- Your character is in danger. Write a tense, action filled scene in present tense and then re-write it in past tense. Which one felt more natural to write? Which one sounds better when you read it? If you want, you can even ask for someone else’s opinion. (You can check out our Facebook group and ask for feedback from your fellow writers.)
- Your character is going on a date. Write a scene about it in first-person present tense and then third-person present tense. Which one feels more like you’re actually there with the character? Is it what you want?
- Write a scene where your character is remembering something dramatic that happened in their childhood. Try it in present tense and in past tense – which one makes more sense when you read your scenes again?
- Using the omniscient point of view, write about two strangers meeting somewhere busy with a lot of people around them. Write in present tense and then in past tense.
If you still struggle with choosing the “right” tense for your novel after reading this post and doing the exercises, don’t overthink it! Just pick past tense and go with it – I promise it’s hard to go wrong with that.