Present Tense or Past Tense? Which Is Authentic to Your Narrative?

Topic Progress:

A single short story or even a novel might go through several revised tenses before the writer decides which tense works best within the narrative.

One benefit of writing a narrative in present tense is that memories and flashbacks can then organically take the past tense, effectively eliminating the need to use past perfect, which can become cumbersome to the narrative flow and language of the work.

Writers who prefer past tense to present tense often explain that narrative, by its very essence, is a past story being told in the present, and therefore the most natural verb tense is past.

Whichever tense the narrative takes as its primary tense, it is essential that the writer stay true to the structure of the primary tense and shift tenses only when strategically necessary to the flow and context of the narrative. In literary fiction, there is no standing formula for this; however, a general rule of thumb is to stay with the same tense within paragraphs, and only shift tense when necessary.

A Quick Verb Tense Tutorial (Online Writing Lab)

Only two tenses are conveyed through the verb alone: present (“sing”) and past (“sang”). Most English tenses, as many as thirty of them, are marked by other words called auxiliaries. Understanding the six basic tenses allows writers to re-create much of the reality of time in their writing.

  • Simple Present: They walk.
  • Present Perfect: They have walked.
  • Simple Past: They walked.
  • Past Perfect: They had walked.
  • Future: They will walk.
  • Future Perfect: They will have walked. (Online Writing Lab)

Writing Exercise

Choose a work and rewrite the first three pages in a different tense. Then choose an important scene within the narrative, somewhere in the middle, and rewrite it in a different tense. Next rewrite the last three or so pages in a different tense.

Which of the versions—the originals or the rewrites—flow best? Does each section seem to want a different tense? If so, how might the narrative accommodate this as a strategic necessity?—i.e., a bookended opening and closing,  scene reframing, character pov shifts….

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