How to Choose the RIGHT Tense for Your Novel (2023)

One of the first decisions you have to make when you're writing a novel or short story is which tense to use. There are only two viable options: past tense or present tense.*

Which tense should you choose for your novel?

How to Choose the RIGHT Tense for Your Novel (1)

*Future tense is certainly technically possible, but it's used so rarely in fiction we're going to skip it here.

What's the Difference Between Present and Past Tense?

In fiction, a story in past tense is about events that happened in the past. For example:

From the safety of his pickup truck, John watched as his beloved house burned to the ground. With a blank face, he drove away.

Present tense, on the other hand, sets the narration directly into the moment of the events:

From the safety of his pickup truck, John watches as his beloved house burns to the ground. With a blank face, he drives away.

This is a short example, but what do you think? How are they different? Which version do you prefer?

How to Choose the RIGHT Tense for Your Novel (2)

Choose Between Past and Present Tense BEFORE You Start Writing Your Novel

New writers are notorious for switching back and forth between past and present tense within their books. It's one of the most common mistakes people make when they are writing fiction for the first time.

On top of that, I often talk to writers who are halfway finished with their first drafts, or even all the way finished, and are now questioning which tense they should be using.

Unfortunately, the more you've written of your novel, the harder it is to change tenses, and if you do end up deciding to change tenses, it can take many hours of hard work to correct the shift.

That's why it's so important to choose between past and present tense before you start writing your novel.

With that in mind, make sure to save this guide, so you can have it as a resource when you begin your next novel.

Both Past Tense and Present Tense Are Fine

Past tense is by far the most common tense, whether you're writing a fictional novel or a nonfiction newspaper article. If you can't decide which tense you should use in your novel, you should probably write it in past tense.

There are many reasons past tense is the standard for novels. One main reason is simply that it's the convention. Reading stories in past tense is so normal that reading present tense narratives can feel jarring and annoying to many readers. Some readers, in fact, won't read past the few pages if your book is in present tense.

That being said, from a technical perspective, present tense is perfectly acceptable. There's nothing wrong with it, even if it does annoy some readers. It has been used in fiction for hundreds of years, and there's no reason you can't use it if you want to.

Keep in mind, there are drawbacks though.

The Hunger Games and Other Examples of Present Tense Novels

I was talking with a writer friend today who used to have strong feelings against present tense. If she saw the author using it in the first paragraph of a novel, she would often put the book back on the bookstore shelf.

Then, she read The Hunger Games, one of the most popular recent examples of a present tense novel (along with All the Light We Cannot See), and when she realized well into the book that the novel was in present tense, all those negative opinions about it were turned on their heads.

Many of the biggest present-tense opponents (like Philip Pullman) use caveats like this. Some of them even blame The Hunger Games for later, less well-written present tense novels. “Hunger Games was fine,” they say, “but now every other novel is in present tense.”

However, the reality is that it has a long tradition. Here are a several notable examples of present tense novels:

Bleak House by Charles Dickens

How to Choose the RIGHT Tense for Your Novel (3)While present tense was frequently used as an aside from the author to the reader before this, Charles Dickens' novel Bleak House, first published in serial form in 1852, is the first novel that I could find written mostly in it. The story is narrated in third-person present tense, but it also includes sections narrated by one of the main characters in the past tense.

Rabbit, Run by John Updike

How to Choose the RIGHT Tense for Your Novel (4)Rabbit, Run was John Updike's second novel. Now a classic of American literature, it surprised readers with its use of present tense. Updike said he used it intentionally because it was the perfect fit for his jumpy, unstable protagonist.

Rabbit, Run is sometimes praised for being the first book to be written entirely in present tense. But while it may have been the first prominent American novel in present tense, it was hardly the first in the world.

(Video) How to Choose a TENSE for Your STORY

Ulysses by James Joyce

How to Choose the RIGHT Tense for Your Novel (5)James Joyce, the great Irish novelist, has a reputation for literary experimentation, and his novel Ulysses was one of the first to be written entirely in present tense. Ulysses was first published serially in 1918.

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

How to Choose the RIGHT Tense for Your Novel (6)This 1929 novel about World War I uses present tense to give a heightened visualization of the horrors of war.

Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk

How to Choose the RIGHT Tense for Your Novel (7)“This is your life and it's ending one moment at a time.”

Like several of Chuck's novels, Fight Club, published in 1999, is written in present tense.

How to Choose the RIGHT Tense for Your Novel (8)Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney

Bright Lights, Big City is notable both for being written in present tense and second-person. While it's not necessarily something you should use as an example in your own writing, it is an interesting case.

Other Notable Novels

Here are several other notable present tense novels

  • All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
  • Bird Box: A Novel by Josh Malerman (I'm reading this right now, and it's great!)
  • The White Queen by Philippa Gregory (the basis for the BBC TV Series)
  • Cat's Eye by Margaret Atwood
  • Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

There are dozens of other notable and bestselling novels written in present tense. However, comic books are another example of popular present-tense writing, which use dialogue bubbles and descriptions almost universally in present tense.

5 Advantages of Present Tense

Present tense, like past tense, has its benefits and drawbacks. Here are five reasons why you might choose to use it in your writing:

1. Present Tense Feels Like a Movie

One reason authors have used present tense more often in the last century is that it feels most film-like.

Perhaps writers think they can get their book adapted into a movie easier if they use present tense, or perhaps they just want to mimic the action and suspense found in film, but whether film is the inspiration or the goal, its increasing use owes much to film.

John Updike himself credits film for his use of present tense, as he said in his interview with the Paris Review:

Rabbit, Run was subtitled originally, ‘A Movie.' The present tense was in part meant to be an equivalent of the cinematic mode of narration…. This doesn’t mean, though, that I really wanted to write for the movies. It meant I wanted to make a movie. I could come closer by writing it in my own book than by attempting to get through to Hollywood.

Christopher Bram, author of Father of Frankenstein, says much the same, “I realized I was using it because it’s the tense of screenplays.”

2. Present Tense Intensifies the Emotions

Present tense gives the reader a feeling like, “We are all in this together.” Since the reader knows only as much as the narrator does, it can draw the reader more deeply into the suspense of the story, heightening the emotion.

3. Present Tense Works Well With Deep Point of View

Deep point of view, or deep POV, is a style of narrative popular right now in which the third person point of view is deeply embedded into the consciousness of the character.

Deep POV is like first person narrative, and has a similar level of closeness, but it's written in third person. By some counts, deep POV accounts for fifty percent of adult novels and seventy percent of YA novels.

Present tense pairs especially well with a deep point of view because both serve to bring the narrative closer to the reader.

4. Present Tense Works Best In Short-Time-Frame Stories With Constant Action

Present tense works well in stories told in a very short time frame—twenty-four hours, for example—because everything is told in real time, and it's difficult to make too many transitions and jumps in time.

5. Present Tense Lends Itself Well To Unreliable Narrators

Since the narrative is so close to the action in present tense stories, it lends well to unreliable narrators. An unreliable narrator is a narrator who tells a story incorrectly or leaves out key details. It's a fun technique because the reader naturally develops a closeness with the narrator, so when you find out they're secretly a monster, for example, it creates a big dramatic reversal.

Since present tense draws you even closer to the narrator, it makes that reversal even more dramatic.

5 Drawbacks of Present Tense

As useful as present tense can be in the right situation, there are reasons to avoid it. Here are five reasons to choose past tense over present tense:

1. Some Readers Hate Present Tense

The main reason to avoid present tense, in my opinion, is that some people hate it. Philip Pullman, the bestselling author of the Golden Compass series, says:

What I dislike about the present-tense narrative is its limited range of expressiveness. I feel claustrophobic, always pressed up against the immediate.

Writer beware: right or wrong, if you write in present tense, some people will throw your book down in disgust. Past tense is a much safer choice.

2. Present Tense Less Flexible, Time Shifts Can Be Awkward

The disadvantage of present tense is that since you're so focused on into events as they happen, it can be hard to disengage from the ever-pressing moment and shift to events in the future or past.

Pullman continues:

(Video) The Write Question #53: How do you choose the right tense?

I want all the young present-tense storytellers (the old ones have won prizes and are incorrigible) to allow themselves to stand back and show me a wider temporal perspective. I want them to feel able to say what happened, what usually happened, what sometimes happened, what had happened before something else happened, what might happen later, what actually did happen later, and so on: to use the full range of English tenses.

Since you're locked into the present, you're limited in your ability to move through time freely. For more flexibility when it comes to navigating time, choose past tense.

3. Present Tense Harder to Pull Off

Since present tense is so much less flexible that past tense, it's much more difficult to use it well. As Editorial Ass. says:

Let me say that present tense is not a reason I categorically reject a novel submission. But it often becomes a contributing reason, because successful present tense novel writing is much, much more difficult to execute than past tense novel writing. Most writers, no matter how good they are, are not quite up to the task.

Elizabeth McCraken continues this theme:

I think a lot of writers choose the present tense as a form of cowardice. They think the present tense is really entirely about the present moment, as though the past and future do not actually exist. But a good present tense is really about texture, not time, and should be as rich and complicated and full of possibilities as the past tense. They too often choose the present tense because they think they can avoid thinking about time, when really it’s all about time.

If you're new to writing fiction, or if you're looking for an easier tense to manage, choose past tense.

4. No or Little Narration

While present tense does indeed mimic film, that can be more of a disadvantage than an advantage. Writers have many more narrative tricks available to them than filmmakers. Writers can enter the heads of their characters, jump freely through time, speak directly to the reader, and more. However, present tense removes many of those options out of your bag of tricks. As Emma Darwin says:

The thing is, though, that film can't narrate: it can only build narrative by a sequence of in-the-present images of action.

To get the widest range of options in your narrative, use past tense.

5. Present Tense Is More Limited

As Writer's Digest says, with present tense you only have access to four verb tenses, simple present, present progressing, simple future, and occasionally simple past. However, with past tense, you have access to all twelve verb tenses English contains.

In other words, you limit yourself to one-third of your choices if you use present tense.

How to Combine Present and Past Tense Correctly

While you should be very careful about switching tenses within the narrative, there is one situation in which present tense can be combined within a novel:

Breaking the Fourth Wall is a term from theater that describes when an actor or actors address the audience directly. A good example of this is from Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream:

If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber'd here
While these visions did appear.

So, good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.

As with theater, novels have broken the fourth wall for hundreds of years, addressing the reader directly and doing so in present tense.

Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie

A great example of breaking the wall is from Midnight's Children, the Best of the Bookers winning novel by Salman Rushdie, in which Saleem narrates from the present tense, speaking directly to the reader, but describes events that happened in the past, sometimes more than a hundred years before.

I am the sum total of everything that went before me, of all I have been seen done, of everything done-to-me. I am everyone everything whose being-in-the-world affected was affected by mine. I am anything that happens after I'm gone which would not have happened if I had not come.
― Salman Rushdie, Midnight's Children

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

Dickens' novel, A Tale of Two Cities, also uses this technique of breaking the fourth wall and addressing the reader directly. Here's a quote from the novel:

A solemn consideration, when I enter a great city by night, that every one of those darkly clustered houses encloses its own secret; that every room in every one of them encloses its own secret; that every beating heart in the hundreds of thousands of breasts there, is, in some of its imaginings, a secret to the heart nearest it!

Which Tense is Right For Your Book, Past Tense or Present Tense?

As you can see present tense has its advantages and disadvantages.

If you're writing a film-like, deep POV novel with an unreliable narrator in which the story takes place in just few days, present tense could be a perfect choice.

On the other hand, if your story takes place over several years, follows many point of view characters, and places a greater emphasis on narration, past tense is almost certainly your best bet.

Whatever you do, though, DON'T change tenses within your novel (unless you're breaking the fourth wall).

How about you? Which tense do you prefer, past or present tense? Why? Let us know in the comments.


Practice writing in both present and past tense.

Write a scene about a young man or woman walking through London. First, spend ten minutes writing your scene in present tense. Then, spend ten minutes rewriting your scene in past tense.

When your time is up, post your practice in both tenses in the practice box below and leave feedback for a few other writers, too.

Enter your practice here:

(Video) Past vs. Present Tense | Which is right for your book?

Joe Bunting

Joe Bunting is an author and the leader of The Write Practice community. He is also the author of the new book Crowdsourcing Paris, a real life adventure story set in France. It was a #1 New Release on Amazon. Follow him on Instagram (@jhbunting).

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What tense should my novel be in? ›

Past tense is by far the most common tense, whether you're writing a fictional novel or a nonfiction newspaper article. If you can't decide which tense you should use in your novel, you should probably write it in past tense. There are many reasons past tense is the standard for novels.

Is it OK to switch tenses in a novel? ›

You can switch tenses between sections or chapters

Readers aren't confused by this, they don't resent you for it and they don't issue you a rules-of-writing demerit. Writers often change tenses as part of a predictable pattern, for example, alternating one section at a time between present and past tense narration.

How do you select a tense to use when writing? ›

Above all, choose the verb tense that most clearly expresses the idea you want to convey (clarity). In general, use the present tense to describe actions and states of being that are still true in the present; use the past tense to describe actions or states of being that occurred exclusively in the past.

What tense is most fiction written in? ›

Past tense is the default setting for most genre fiction. As the simple past tense is traditionally used for storytelling, it presents fewer challenges to the reader, who doesn't notice the tense that is being used and is immediately immersed in the world of the story.

Which tense does the writer mostly use? ›

The present simple is the most commonly used tense in academic writing, so if in doubt, this should be your default choice of tense. There are two main situations where you always need to use the present tense.

Why do authors switch tenses? ›

Two, know why you're doing is—The most common reason writers give for changing tenses is that they want to slow the action and create immediacy. It can do that—and so much more. You can use a tense shift to move a story out of the plot and into a character's memory.

Can you write a novel in first person past tense? ›

Combining first person and past tense is just as common. It allows for a more traditional 'storytelling' feel, as the narrator is recounting events that have happened in the past from their own perspective. Whichever tense you choose, it's important to stick with it.

Why do authors switch from past to present? ›

Present tense has more “immediacy” than past tense.

But the immediacy of the present tense also allows us to convey a character's change as it happens, not after the fact. In present tense, we are there with the narrator step by step as he changes, and hence the story's climax can be both more immediate and intense.

What is the hardest tense to write in? ›

The present perfect tense is the most difficult tense in English because there are so many unpredictable situations and contexts which throw a spanner into the works of the 'current relevance' argument.

In which tense we should write a story? ›

Past tense – ie, 'he did, she went' – is the most traditional way of telling a story. It's the tense in which Beowulf and the Grimm brothers' fairy tales are relayed to the reader, so it has a long and well-established pedigree.

What is the easiest tense to write in? ›

Present tense simplifies our handling of tenses. Whereas past-tense stories often contain the majority of our language's twelve tenses, most present-tense stories employ only four. It's not always the obvious choice in your writing, but it's actually easier to write present tense than it is to write past tense.

Which POV is rarely used in fictional writing? ›

Examples of second person perspective are extremely rare.

Should I write my book in first or third person? ›

If you want to write the entire story in individual, quirky language, choose first person. If you want your POV character to indulge in lengthy ruminations, choose first person. If you want your reader to feel high identification with your POV character, choose first person or close third.

Why do novels use past tense? ›

Writing a story in past tense allows you to manipulate time, to reveal, and to conceal events. Past-tense fiction creates a more subtle kind of suspense where we may know the outcome of the story but we want to know how and why we ended up there. This is good for more cerebral, reflective characters.

Does Stephen King write in past tense? ›

In many ways you have more flexibility and freedom. Backstory, flashbacks and hindsight are much easier to manage. The acclaimed author Stephen King is very keen on writing in past tense and this works well for him, as his stories often include the use of hindsight, memory and flashback.

What tense is professional writing? ›

There are three tenses that make up 98% of the tensed verbs used in academic writing. The most common tense is present simple, followed by past simple and present perfect.

Can I write a story in present tense? ›

If you're writing a prose story, writing in present tense creates the same effect of making the reader feel like they're experiencing the action of the story as it's happening. This helps the reader to feel more immersed in the story than if it was told in past tense by a single character.

Is it better to write a story in present or past tense? ›

For many writers, past tense is more natural to write than present tense, and it also allows for deep reflection and accommodates a lush descriptive style. If the narrator is also the main character, readers will deduce the character must have survived whatever story is being revealed.

Should a story be written in past tense? ›

If you're writing your novel in past tense, stay in past tense. Changing the tense is not only jarring to the reader, but can make the timeline of the novel confusing. There are some exceptions: dialogue (which would appear in quotation marks) and inner thoughts (which should appear italicized).

What are the rules for changing tenses? ›

All Tenses Rules
TensesTenses Rule
Past Continuous tenseSubject + was + V1 + ing + Object (Singular) Subject + were + V1 + ing + Object (Plural)
Past perfect continuous tenseSubject + had been + V1 + ing + Object
Present Simple tenseSubject + V1 + s/es + Object (Singular) Subject + V1 + Object (Plural)
9 more rows

What tense should a first person story be in? ›

It creates a sense of immediacy: Writing in the present tense makes it feel as though the events of the novel are happening in real time. This can help the reader feel an immediate connection to a first person narrator, since we witness the life events and emotional transformations of the POV character as they happen.

Why do authors use first person plural? ›

The first-person plural is a point of view that can be recognized by the use of 'we', 'ours' and 'us'. For obvious reasons, the collective voice lends itself to collective accounts. Importantly, this first-person plural does not specify much about who is speaking—'we' can be two people or it can be a hundred.

What tense are first person books written? ›

First-person point of view generally gets split up into two types:
  • Present tense. This is where you write, I go to the door and scream at him to go away, all in present tense, putting you in the action at the exact time the character experiences it. ...
  • Past tense.

Why do most authors fail? ›

Many writers fail because they are so utterly afraid of failure. Instead of submitting their writing to different publishers, applying for writing jobs that seem like a high reach, or taking risks, they hold back. The piece is never done, it's never good enough to actually put out to the world.

Why do authors get rejected? ›

[02:25] Reason #1: The category or genre isn't the right fit for the agent or the publisher. Usually, this means the author didn't do their research. [03:40] Reason #2: The submission materials are full of bad mechanics (aka poor grammar and spelling) and lackluster writing.

What is it called when an author goes back and forth in time? ›

Written by MasterClass. Last updated: Aug 23, 2021 • 4 min read. When writing a work of fiction, an author can take the reader out of the present story and jump into an earlier time period in a character's life. This narrative tool is called a flashback.

What is the hardest language to read and write? ›

Let's explore the 10 hardest languages for English speakers to learn, and the challenges they deliver:
  1. Mandarin. Mandarin is spoken by 70% of the Chinese population, and is the most spoken language in the world. ...
  2. Arabic. ...
  3. Japanese. ...
  4. Hungarian. ...
  5. Korean. ...
  6. Finnish. ...
  7. Basque. ...
  8. Navajo.
Sep 16, 2022

Which tense is rarely used in English? ›

The past perfect progressive and future perfect progressive are not commonly used in English. They indicate action which occurs continuously over a period of time, when another action or event intervenes.

Can you write a story in both present and past tense? ›

You might even decide that it feels best to write a book using both, alternating between past and present for different scenes or narrators. As a self-published author, the decision is entirely up to you. The most important thing is: just keep writing! Good luck with your fiction, whichever tense you choose!

Why do people tell story in present tense? ›

Because the storytelling is a little more involving when it is delivered as if it is happening in the present moment. That is why storytellers, particularly those who are speaking rather than writing their stories, will often make use of the present tense.

How should a story start? ›

Starting Stories: 5 Great Beginning Strategies
  1. Strategy 1: Begin with action or dialogue. ...
  2. Strategy 2: Ask a question. ...
  3. Strategy 3: Describe the setting. ...
  4. Strategy 4: Begin with background information. ...
  5. Strategy 5: Have the main character introduce himself or herself.

Why is starting to write so hard? ›

It's hard because doing it well matters, because stories matter, and the details matter, and there are often a lot of details. Sometimes they take years to organize. The feelings and ideas and memories that we put into the writing also matter, and are layered, and we can't force an understanding of them.

How do you avoid past tense in writing? ›

How to Avoid Errors in Tense (Past or Present)
  1. Choose Your Natural Tense. Unless there is a very good reason not to, write your novel in the tense that comes most naturally to you. ...
  2. Check Around Dialogue. ...
  3. Imagine Talking to a Friend. ...
  4. Proofread, Proofread, then Proofread Again. ...
  5. Get a Beta Reader or Hire an Editor.
Oct 24, 2013

Is it okay to switch POVs in a story? ›

Shifting between POV characters

You have two main characters and it's common to switch between each of their POVs to understand the story from both perspectives. A good rule of thumb is to focus the POV on the character with the most to lose in that scene. That way you can get deeper into character development.

Can a book have multiple tenses? ›

It's okay to switch tenses in a novel with a separation between timelines. For example, some authors set different chapters within different timeframes or use multiple tenses in a chapter. You must keep tabs on the timeline you've created for your story to make it work.

Can you change tenses mid sentence? ›

Your verb tense should remain in either the present or the past tense. You don't want to switch tenses mid-sentence. This leaves the reader confused and colludes your message. To clearly convey your message, you need to understand the rules pertaining to tense agreement.

Should I write my story in 1st or 3rd person? ›

Some guidelines:
  1. If you want to write the entire story in individual, quirky language, choose first person.
  2. If you want your POV character to indulge in lengthy ruminations, choose first person.
  3. If you want your reader to feel high identification with your POV character, choose first person or close third.
Mar 11, 2008

How many POV is too many for a book? ›

Having two or three POV characters usually works well. Having more than that can not only confuse your reader but make it hard for you as a writer too. Each point-of-view character needs a unique voice. If you're juggling too many, you might find you run out of ideas or ways to differentiate between voices.

Is it better to tell a story in first or third person? ›

While first-person writing offers intimacy and immediacy between narrator and reader, third-person narration offers the potential for both objectivity and omniscience. This effectively makes both forms of narration appealing to both first-time and seasoned writers.

What are the 3 main tenses used all the time? ›

The tense of the verb tells us when an event or something existed or when a person did something. Past, present, and future are the three main types of tenses.

How do you master tenses? ›

Separate them - Separate the tenses as we've done - the past, the present, and the future. Focus on a single category - Don't go learning all the tenses at once. Take your time, otherwise, there'll be confusion. Start from the past, master it, and then move on.

In which tense should we write a story? ›

Past tense – ie, 'he did, she went' – is the most traditional way of telling a story. It's the tense in which Beowulf and the Grimm brothers' fairy tales are relayed to the reader, so it has a long and well-established pedigree.

What is the rule for have tense? ›

The verb have has the forms: have, has, having, had. The base form of the verb is have. The present participle is having. The past tense and past participle form is had.

Is it okay to write a book in past tense? ›

You might even decide that it feels best to write a book using both, alternating between past and present for different scenes or narrators. As a self-published author, the decision is entirely up to you. The most important thing is: just keep writing! Good luck with your fiction, whichever tense you choose!

How many tenses do English speakers actually use? ›

So do English speakers use all of the tenses in English? Yes, of course, if you're convinced there are only two. However, most summaries of English tenses show that there are 12 tenses, and learners are instructed to study and use them all.

How do you transition from past to present in a story? ›

The convention is even simpler. Put story-time action in present tense and put the entire flashback in past tense. When you're ready to return to story time, simply resume present tense.

How do you keep writing in the same tense? ›

To make your verb tenses consistent, do your best to use the verb tense that corresponds to the perspective from which you are writing.
  1. If you are writing about something after it happened, use the past tense.
  2. If you are writing about something that is still happening, use the present tense.
May 8, 2017


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