« Should a Fiction Writer Map Out His Work in Advance | Main | Questions Every Writer Should Ask When Writing Their Story/Novel »

November 12, 2007



Holy crap, Mark - - everyone in my workshop writes in the present tense. It's driving me crazy!

Carl Duzett

I think you're right about people using present-tense to subconsciously make up for stories wherein nothing happens. It allows people to write stories without having anything happen in them, yet still they have the excuse that "it's immediate."
What I'm trying to discern is when it's better to use present tense over past tense.

Dena J.

I just naturally write in the present tense -- it's the way my brain works; the way most stories flow out of me, naturally. I didn't notice I did it, until a fellow student in the 2nd year of my writing course pointed it out. It was not a criticism -- he just wanted me to realise it and choose it deliberately, not by habit.

Nowadays, after the first draft, if the story is better served by past-tense/general time, I will revise for that. But most times not.

I guess what I am saying is that if the story is well crafted, well narrated... just a 'good' story, either present tense or general time will do it justice.

Do what works for you and keeps you writing.

I think readers who say "oh this drives me mad" or "oh please switch to past tense" are sometimes just reaching for something critical to say. I doubt most readers notice it as a device if it is executed well.

It's like what someone once said about filmmaking: if you leave a film and say, "Nice cinematography," then the filmmakers didn't do their job. If you leave saying, "Great film," and all the crafts and techniques meld togeather seamlessly, then they did their job. Same for the tenses and pov... etc, etc... I believe.


I have a question, and I am sure it seems elementary but I am struggling with it. It may be that I am obsessing, or I have spent too much time with my book to be able to look at it objectively, but I have a book that is written in the third person, and it is telling the story of something that happened in the recent past. I know I need to use past tense for the book, but it doesn't seem to fit when I am describing, for instance, what the main character sees when she walks into her new home. She is performing actions as we are reading, but because I am telling a story about something that has already happened, how do I write it so that it makes sense. An example, 'She opened the fourth drawer and finds hair spray, gel, mousse, leave-in conditioner, body lotions, body powder, and a few other miscellaneous beauty products as well. She puts her hairbrush back into her purse and pushes the chair back..' I am wondering how to tell the story in the past tense, third party while still taking the readers through the main character's experiences.


I have started a story in the present tense I am considering converting to past, because it is a long story (about 40 pgs) and contains little backstory. I suspect that present tense works better with stories that contain considerable backstory because the backstory is told in past tense. Example: Ellen loops the strap of her bag over the back of her chair and lifts her latte from her tray. She has just returned to New York from L.A. where she edited silly specious screenplays for five years.
However, I think that without backstory the immediacy of present tense in sentence after sentence in a long story can overwhelm the reader. Comments?


To Joey
Here's two examples of how to improve the story:

1# Past tense
'She opened the fourth drawer and found hair spray, gel, mousse, leave-in conditioner, body lotions, body powder and a few other miscellaneous beauty products as well. She put her hairbrush back into her purse and pushed the chair back..'

2# Present tense
'She opens the fourth drawer and finds hair spray, gel, mousse, leave-in conditioner, body lotions, body powder, and a few other miscellaneous beauty products as well. She puts her hairbrush back into her purse and pushes the chair back...'

I think your problem is mixing tense; sometimes it's as if the character is acting in the moment, putting something in a drawer, then later has already put something into the drawer. Decide on which tense to use and just make sure you're using that same tense throughout the whole piece and, whichever you decide to use, it should make sense.

Col. J. MeEwen

Hi, have a recently completed book of which a publisher has recently perused a few chapters and has requested the full manuscript. They suggest that I restructure the complete book before sending as the first tow paragraphs were past tense and then the third present and this pattern (disconcertly) generally repeated. I noted other authors sometimes us present tense around content of Speech. Would this be the norm and correct or should any follow through be also past tense. E.g. 'You shoudn't much listen to all you hear Sandyman'said the Gaffer, who did not much like the miller 'There isn't no call to go talking of pushing and pulling.' (Cortesy J.R.R. Tolkein)Also is it everappropriate to change tenses in a paragraph or even a sentence to one and back again if it sounds right contextually, or is this a no-no. Apreciate any advice. Thanks struggling writer. Col.


It's good but firstly if you write a smaal stories in a present tense more we can understand well. after you write them in future as well as past. then we can understand very clearly please.
thank you very much


This was surprisingly helpful, After i read this site, i scannned through my story, and it did seem like i was just using it to make up for a lack of narrative. I probably wouldnt have picked up on it otherwise.


Tenses are tricky. I have the tendency to write all my stories in past tense, for I always think of story as something that has already happened. But occasionally I will write in present and struggle to stop myself from slipping into past. E.g. "Bats make Michael uncomfortable, especially when he encounters them in the attic." Later on in the story I write: "He[Michael] sat down at the restaurant and studied the faces of the other patrons." I have a tendency to want to begin sentences with he and they seem to be commonly followed by an adjective with an "ed" ending, not mention, in the above example, the word "sat" is also past tense. My question is how do I convert sentences that would normally begin with the pronouns he/she into present tense sentences and still convey the same image?

The comments to this entry are closed.


  • The Elegant Variation is "Fowler’s (1926, 1965) term for the inept writer’s overstrained efforts at freshness or vividness of expression. Prose guilty of elegant variation calls attention to itself and doesn’t permit its ideas to seem naturally clear. It typically seeks fancy new words for familiar things, and it scrambles for synonyms in order to avoid at all costs repeating a word, even though repetition might be the natural, normal thing to do: The audience had a certain bovine placidity, instead of The audience was as placid as cows. Elegant variation is often the rock, and a stereotype, a cliché, or a tired metaphor the hard place between which inexperienced or foolish writers come to grief. The familiar middle ground in treating these homely topics is almost always the safest. In untrained or unrestrained hands, a thesaurus can be dangerous."


  • The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald


    Penelope Fitzgerald's second novel is the tale of Florence Green, a widow who seeks, in the late 1950s, to bring a bookstore to an isolated British town, encountering all manner of obstacles, including incompetent builders, vindictive gentry, small minded bankers, an irritable poltergeist, but, above all, a town that might not, in fact, want a bookshop. Fitzgerald's prose is spare but evocative – there's no wasted effort and her work reminds one of Hemingway's dictum that every word should fight for its right to be on the page. Florence is an engaging creation, stubbornly committed to her plan even as uncertainty regarding the wisdom of the enterprise gnaws at her. But The Bookshop concerns itself, finally, with the astonishing vindictiveness of which provincials are capable, and, as so much English fiction must, it grapples with the inevitabilities of class. It's a dense marvel at 123 pages, a book you won't want to – or be able to – rush through.
  • The Rider by Tim Krabbe


    Tim Krabbé's superb 1978 memoir-cum-novel is the single best book we've read about cycling, a book that will come closer to bringing you inside a grueling road race than anything else out there. A kilometer-by-kilometer look at just what is required to endure some of the most grueling terrain in the world, Krabbé explains the tactics, the choices and – above all – the grinding, endless, excruciating pain that every cyclist faces and makes it heart-pounding rather than expository or tedious. No writer has better captured both the agony and the determination to ride through the agony. He's an elegant stylist (ably served by Sam Garrett's fine translation) and The Rider manages to be that rarest hybrid – an authentic, accurate book about cycling that's a pleasure to read. "Non-racers," he writes. "The emptiness of those lives shocks me."