Thursday, April 18, 2013

P is for Past Tense

John sat on a damp log, munched on a carrot stick held tight in one hand, and tested the edge of his dagger with the other.

John is sitting on a damp log, munching on a carrot stick he is holding tight in one hand, and testing the edge of his dagger with the other.

John will sit on a damp log, munch on a carrot stick he holds tight in one hand, and test the edge of his dagger with the other.

The above is obviously an example of the three basic tenses: past, present, and future.  Each has their own place, advantages, and disadvantages.  Present tense feels bloated and long, although it can help you to really connect with the protagonist if done well.  Future tense, especially here, can create an ominous tone like that of ancient prophecy.  It isn't very common, however.  Past tense is really where it's at, if you aren't writing children's.

Past tense is what you'll find in almost all books written for adults.  It gives the story a feeling of being in the past, a little distant, but perhaps more sure, more credible.  A tone of finality can accompany the prose.  He already swung that dagger and killed the beggar an infinite time ago, there isn't any stopping him by yelling at your book (as if there is anyway).

Most of my flash fiction is in past tense.  I feel more comfortable with it and feel that my words are sharper without having to add in extra words like you do in present tense.  The only disadvantage really is the fact that you have to try even harder to keep your story character-driven.  Thoughts help you get a sense of the moment a little better, that and body language.  I must say that past tense is my preference.

Which tense do you prefer?


  1. I prefer present. I write YA and sometimes children's. I love being all the way in my characters head. I haven't noticed it being wordier. I will have to play around with it and see. I actually started writing my WIP in third but it felt distant to me so I switched it over. Simply Sarah

    1. It really depends upon what genre you're writing. I write for an adult audience nine times out of ten and past tense fits that bill in almost every genre.

      Oh, and by children's I was referring to anything younger than adult. That's the "publishing world definition" that I've heard most often.

      POV is a whole other situation, but for me it's about 25% first-person, 70% third-person limited, and 5% assorted second-person and the other three types of third-person (I recognize four types total, although numbers vary).