"Present Tense" or "Past Tense" in Writing Fiction? The big question. A simple answer.

May 15, 2019


In my writing and publishing coaching work over the last few years, I have noticed that there is a growing wave of emerging writers who are choosing to write their fiction in present tense, bucking the tried and true past tense narrative that has so honorably served the storytelling form since the beginning of storytelling.


All of the 65 novels and short story collections that I acquired and published over the years at Picador USA/St. Martin’s Press were written in past tense.  However, I bear no outright prejudice against the ‘present tense’ trend, per se.  Some truly brilliant contemporary bestselling novels have been written in present tense, including Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale;  Anthony Doer’s, All the Light We Cannot See, and Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games.


Nonetheless, wildly successful ‘present tense’ novels are a minority.  The top 15 novels on the current New York Times Fiction Bestseller List are all written in past tense.


Book publishing professionals (and accomplished novelists) recognize that it is much harder to write and sustain a truly dramatic plot line using present tense narration, instead of past tense narration.  Present tense narrative makes it difficult, sometimes impossible, for a writer to seamlessly integrate the narrator’s PAST with the narrator's Active/PRESENT scenes; thus, the present tense fiction often lacks the sweeping all-inclusive dramatic timeline and overarching interconnected story-lines that are attributes of all bestselling novels.


When using present tense narration, the writer is limited to three inherently flawed methods of conveying important historical events or the protagonist's past personal experiences, to the reader.       


a) Memory “Flashbacks”, in which the protagonist stops “the present tense action” to remember important personal and historical events or experiences (and these “memories” are in past tense).


b)  “Dialogue”: in which the protagonist relays important historical events or past personal experiences in his present tense conversations with other characters.


c) “Letters” or “Notes”: —in which important personal or historical events and experiences are conveyed on the page through the characters’ written notes or letters.


The use of “Flashbacks” or “Dialogue”, or “Letters” are anti-climatic “second hand” narrative methodologies that, among other infractions, often lead to brazen breaches of the “show, don’t tell” commandment, in which readers are “informed” about the narrator’s thrilling mountain climbs and near-death chases long after the climbs and chases are over.  


Employing “flashback” narration—or using letters or conversations between characters to convey the most exciting historical stories and the protagonist’s most poignant past experiences, can send the narrative into dry and arid flatlands.  


The use of  traditional “past tense” narrative in fiction makes it easier for the writer to “connect” the protagonist’s past to what is going on in the protagonist’s present scene and storyline…thus creating the seamless narrative and ever-intensifying dramatic tension that are mandatory attributes of successful fiction.   


No agent or acquisition editor in mainstream publishing will reject a present tense query or submission outright; however, their level of skepticism will be set in high gear.  


When masterful storytellers and prose stylists choose to write in the present tense, they do so selectively and with deliberation.  Present tense narrative has a certain palpable intimacy and presence, as though the narrator’s heart (and, presumably, the reader’s) is beating in the moment, right there on the page; the story is happening NOW.  


Writers of first novels, or first short story collections, should make the decision between “present tense” narrative or “past tense” narrative, very judiciously.  The ‘pros’ and ‘cons’ are not equally divided between the two.


In addition to the “difficulty” factors of sustaining dramatic continuity and tension in “present tense” narrative, that I have outlined, above, the following facts should be considered:


** There is a vocal enclave of general readers who refuse to read (or buy) present tense stories. (There are NO general readers who refuse to read past tense stories).


** Until recent decades, the masters of fiction over the millennia have used past tense narrative 99% of the time.  


** Contemporary authors who have successfully employed present tense narrative in their fiction are an exceptionally talented few.  The chance that, just out of the gate, an emerging first novelist will be a master of eloquent descriptive prose and possess the dramatic storytelling genius of Margaret Atwood, Suzanne Collins, or Anthony Doer, et.al., is a minuscule percentage of a minuscule percentage. 


Ultimately, the choice between using “present tense” or “past tense” in one's fiction is the author’s, and I respect his or her final decision, whatever it is.  Simply put, my advice is this: do not make that choice easily.  


Think twice before setting up the additional barriers and skill requisites necessitated by using “present tense” narrative.  Trying to sell a debut manuscript — whether self-publishing, or aiming to capture the interest of literary agents and traditional publishers— is hard enough as it is.

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