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When it comes to writing your story, is present tense ever preferable?

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By David A. Cathcart

Right now I’m editing a novel by a writer who can’t seem to make up his mind regarding whether his story should be told in past or present tense. As a reader, I have a strong preference—past tense. As an editor, I have an even stronger preference—consistency!

My personal frustrations aside, this brings up a legitimate question. When it comes to writing your story, is present tense ever preferable?

Let’s start with the pros. On the one hand, present tense can lend a sense of immediacy to your work. The narrator hasn’t survived the tale and then relating events after the fact. Everything is unfolding in real time. This means the outcome is still far from certain, and so there’s the potential to keep your readers on the edge of their seat. Incidentally, film and television scripts are always written in present tense partly for this reason.

Another pro of present tense is … wait a second, I actually can’t think of any. So let’s look at the cons.

For starters, present tense is off-putting because we so rarely encounter it. So you will have an extra initial hurdle to overcome in addition to hooking your readers with a strong plot, compelling characters and so on. If you’re really clever, you may actually be able to turn this con into a pro by using present tense to make your novel stand out. But I’d much prefer to see your story do that rather than some sort of gimmick.

Second, unlike past tense, which allows you to jump back and forth in time because everything in the story has already happened, present tense restricts you to the present moment. Even if you jump back and forth between parallel storylines, it’s always going to be a lateral move. So by choosing present tense, you are automatically limiting yourself.

Third, as I’m discovering with the novel I’m editing (and numerous other ones before it) present tense doesn’t come naturally to writers any more than it does to readers. Therefore, a novel or story written in present tense will inevitably contain more mistakes as the writer unconsciously slips back and forth between present tense and the more comfortable past tense. I’m not sure how powerful a con this is. Perhaps it’s really more of a caveat for those wanting to experiment with the present tense.

Speaking of experimentation, just because readers aren’t used to present tense, and just because a cranky editor tells you to avoid it is no reason not to use it. Present tense is a perfectly legitimate storytelling device. But if you’re going to use it, know why you’re making that choice and how it makes your story better.

Whatever tense you choose, be consistent! Otherwise your writing is going to create a lot of unintended tense-ion down the line …

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