The Nitty-Gritty of Writing: Tense

It’s been a while since I’ve done a nitty-gritty of writing post. I often focus on general writing elements like spelling or grammar, but this time I want to gear this post towards fiction writers.

When writing a story, tense is very important. And I don’t mean “tense” as in dramatic tension (although that’s extremely important, too). By “tense” I mean “when is the story taking place.” Is the story told in the past tense, the present tense, or the future tense?

Past Tense

This is the most common way to write a story. It works well for either first or third person point of view.

“I smiled at Joe.”

“Dennis slammed the door behind him, trying to drown out the angry shouts.”

The first example is first person, with “I” telling the story; the second example is third person. But both are written in past tense, as if the action has already happened.

Present Tense

Again, this works for either first or third person narration.

“I smile at Joe.”

“Dennis slams the door behind him, trying to drown out the angry shouts.”

Present tense can have the benefit of putting the reader more directly into the story, because it gives the feel of the story happening right now. I’ve heard many arguments against present tense storytelling, though, saying that it’s less professional or less mature. I personally don’t have a problem reading it, but I think that present tense narration doesn’t automatically work for every story.

Future Tense

Obviously, this writing style would be told as if something were about to happen.

“I will smile at Joe.”

“Dennis will slam the door behind him, to try to drown out the angry shouts.”

Future tense is rather awkward, and I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a work of fiction told entirely in future tense. (If you’ve read – or written – one, please share!)

A Word of Caution

Most people know the difference between past and present tense and can choose the right forms of the words to use. However, the biggest issue I’ve seen in writing is a change of tense during the course of the story.

A lot of people will switch between present and past tense as they’re putting together their first draft. For a first draft, this is okay – the idea is to get the story out, not to worry about polishing it just yet. But I have read second and third drafts (and even finished, edited, and published pieces) where the writer keeps losing track of which tense the story is in.

Of course I’m not referring to a story that deliberately changes tense, as a way of making an artistic point or distinguishing between present scenes and flashbacks. Incorrectly switching tense would be something like this:

“Dennis slammed the door behind him. The angry shouts bother him, and he walks faster.”

I’m not trying to advocate whether past or present tense is better. I think that is a decision determined largely by the story itself, and the writer should be free to choose either one. But please, writers, do choose one and stick with it throughout the story.

Even if you try something far out like writing in future tense, consistency truly counts for a lot.