Worldbuilding: past or present? Tense tips for writers

Style is the first thing a reader notices when flicking through a book, and it’s also a very powerful arbiter of expression – and a key way that writers build the world they’re presenting.

One of the biggest decisions is whether to write in present tense, or past? It’s not an idle question. The selected tense will almost completely shape the feel, tone and reception of the story, even define its readership. So today I thought I’d outline some of the issues – what’s good, what’s bad, and what are the pitfalls?

Present tense
We live in the present tense. We do stuff NOW. It’s an immediate thing. And that’s the focus that present tense gives your story. In some ways it’s a bit artsy, but it can be a very powerful tool for creating dramatic tension, the sense of the instant – the sense of now.  So what does present tense do for us? On the plus side, it:
– lends itself to showing not telling
– is an incredibly powerful way of giving an immediacy to character emotion
– often works best when stripped down – when the adjectives are kept to a bare minimum.
– It’s usually a fiction technique, but I have seen non-fiction written that way – and it is just incredible, when it’s done right.

The down side is that present tense:carries certain ‘artsy’ overtones. That might be appropriate. Or might not. Depends on the audience. It will put off certain kinds of readers. And personally I think it gets a little wearing after a while – better suited to shorter works that focus on the character’s impressions and experiences, not necessarily an epic narrative.

Past tense
This is how stories are usually told – aloud, when written, or whatever. Most novels are past tense, virtually all non-fiction. We sit down and say what happened, some undefined time ago.  To me, past tense has a lot of plus sides:
– it’s well suited to longer narratives
– we expect it, so it opens up a wider audience
– it’s easy to write in. Mostly.

The down side is that past tense
– doesn’t always lend itself to showing; it is also easy to tell in the past tense – and that, as I’ve posted (and so have a lot of other writers) is a pitfall.
– it’s easy to create narrative plod.

Ultimately it’s a personal choice, but I’d always recommend that the tense – which is a massive arbiter of style –is picked to suit the tone of book you have in mind and the kind of audience you expect.  And one top tip to finish on. Don’t mix them. Certainly not in the same sentence. But really, not in the same book or story.

Does anybody have their own experiences of the difference between tenses? Do share, I’d love to hear from you.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012


7 thoughts on “Worldbuilding: past or present? Tense tips for writers

  1. I don’t agree with not mixing them in one book. I’ve read books where it was done really well. “A Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Attwood is a great example – present for the story, past for flashbacks.

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  2. Reblogged this on Naimeless and commented:
    I have been thinking about this for quite a while, and the post really does have a lot of good points in it. I haven’t decided yet whether my book will be past/present or one or the other strictly. I think though, after having read this, entirely in the present with a few flashback exceptions will be the way it turns out.

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  3. I am writing about hiking the Camino de Satiago and trying to determine whether to write in the past or present. For examples, please see http://womenoftheway2011.com/ and let me know which you example you prefer and if you think writing about a personal experience is best done in the present. Thank you.

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  4. In part it’s whichever you are more comfortable with, in part what the readers can hold to. The present tense option on your site has an immediacy to it; the other more conventional travelogue. Present tense does tend to have a more ‘artsy’ feel than past and not all readers like it.

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