Past or Present? Learn Which Tense is Best for Your Narration

If you google VERB TENSE, you’ll find lists ranging from 12 to 16 confusing forms. Fortunately, writers of middle grade and young adult literature only need to concern ourselves with the two main tenses, PAST and PRESENT. To help you determine which tense is best for the narration of your story, I’ll review the possibilities and limitations of each.

Famous V-Day photo taken by Life Magazine photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt

PAST TENSE:
Use this tense when describing action that occurred in the past, whether recent or distant, especially when writing about a well known and documented event like V-Day, August 14, 1945, the official end of WWII. Flashbacks, by definition, should always be written in past tense, as these reflect scenes recalled from a character’s past.

The majority of MG and YA books (fiction and non-fiction alike) are written in past tense. Think about how natural the dialogue tag “she said,” sounds, and you’ll understand why. 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. This makes it especially appropriate when describing difficult topics to young readers. But If you want your readers to experience nail-shredding worry about the survival of the main narrator, give PRESENT TENSE a try, at least for a chapter or two, to see if it works for your writing style and plot.

WATCH OUT!!
Writing in PAST TENSE lends to long narrative passages, which can easily lead to telling, not showing. These can work if the narrator’s voice is especially compelling and revealing. But to SHOW, not TELL, sprinkle in as many active verbs (growled, baked, jumped) as possible instead of the more passive verbs was and were.

Shadow Magic (Shadow Magic, #1) by Joshua Khan

Rest assured, PAST TENSE can still offer action-packed suspense. An outstanding example of this is SHADOW MAGIC by Joshua Khan, a darkly compelling MG fantasy written in PAST TENSE with alternating points of view and differentiated dialogue. The bulk of the plot takes place in the fictitious land of Gehenna, land of the dead, whose existence is the stuff of nightmares to those from other lands. What I truly loved, however, is how the traditional symbols of good and evil are completely reversed. In the following scene, the giant, fearsome bat is young Lady Shadow of Gehenna’s loyal steed. Yes, the plot gets quite intense, but we know the main characters will survive in some fashion or another.

The bat turned to face the line of soldiers and widened its mouth, revealing its bloody fangs and hissing out a warning… “Put your weapons away!” shouted Lady Shadow as she raced across the flagstones, waving furiously.

(from page 119)

Explore, Outer Space, Sci-Fi, Fantasy

PRESENT TENSE:
Do you want readers to believe your story is unfolding before their eyes? Do you want readers to feverishly turn pages throughout the night in their drive to learn the fate of main characters or of the world in which they live? Is your plot contemporary or set in a different galaxy? Are you itching to write something fresh and new? If you say YES to any of these questions, give PRESENT TENSE a try.

The 1st Person POV is tailor-made for this tense, followed closely by 3rd Person Limited. These POVs allow for delving into the character’s deep inner thoughts and unique perspectives whether your narration choice is PRESENT TENSE or PAST TENSE. Regardless which POV you choose, PRESENT TENSE works especially well for mysteries, horror, science fiction, and realistic contemporary fiction.

For many writers, PRESENT TENSE is awkward to write, especially if you end up with a lot of “I say” and “she says” dialogue tags. To avoid that pitfall and help your story sound as natural as possible, remember you can also identify a speaker by describing that character’s actions.

With PRESENT TENSE, you’re still able to use highly descriptive and poetic language and insert flashbacks when it benefits your plot. Shorter memories can be woven into your plot, but take special care when switching from PRESENT to PAST and back to PRESENT within your narration.

WATCH OUT!!
The most serious limitation of PRESENT TENSE is this: you can’t summarize the plot in advance or provide any kind of perspective on action that has not yet occurred! If you love to drop hints on what’s to come, PAST TENSE narration will likely be your best bet.

A fantastic example of the use of PRESENT TENSE narration is GOLDEN BOY by Tara Sullivan, a chillingly realistic story of an albino teen named Habo whose “otherness” is one of the reasons his family must move from Tanzania to Mwanza. Life was hard enough for Habo before, with his poor eyesight, pale skin and hair, and the cruelty he endured from his own family, but in Mwanza, albinos are hunted for their body parts, as they are thought to bring good luck. When Habo gets chased by a fearsome machete-wielding man, I was terrified for him, especially since I know the horror of hunting albinos exists in reality.

With the first step I feel a terrible shift in my chest. This leaving is not like leaving for the river or school. This leaving is the kind of leaving you do at a gravesite. It’s a leaving that is also giving up.

(From Page 12)

DARE TO MIX IT UP!

Now that you fully understand the pros and cons of narrating your story in PAST or PRESENT, feel free to experiment, as long as you do so purposefully and not accidentally. It’s difficult to mix up tenses effectively, but look no further than to OUT OF MY MIND, a masterful MG novel by Sharon M. Draper to see it done well. Main character and narrator Melody, an 11-year old girl who can neither talk nor walk, is judged incapable of learning by many, including teachers and doctors who really should know better. But at the start of chapter 1, readers quickly learn the depth of her intelligence and fascination with words.

Out of My Mind: Draper, Sharon M.: 8601200543971: Books - Amazon.ca

Words have always swirled around me like snowflakes – each one melting untouched in my hands. Deep within me, words pile up in huge drifts.

(from page 1)

Chapters start in PRESENT TENSE but often switch back and forth with PAST TENSE, and as you can see in the quote above, PRESENT and PAST TENSE are also deftly woven together in adjacent sentences. In essence, much of the story is told using flashbacks, but the flashbacks are seamlessly interlaced with the present-day circumstances facing Melody. For most of us, interrupting the flow of an active scene with a flashback is a giant no-no. This book is a marvel in many ways, and I highly suggest you read it!

Simple Future Tense (Formula, Usage & Examples) - ExamPlanning %

FUTURE TENSE:

You may be wondering why I didn’t include this tense in my list of narration choices. While MG and YA passages are commonly written in FUTURE TENSE, it’s hard to imagine an entire novel written that way. But picture books are another story entirely (pun intended). Some wonderful examples include IF YOU GIVE A MOUSE A COOKIE by Laura Numeroff, WHEN A DRAGON MOVES IN by Jodi Moore, and IF I BUILT A CAR by Chris Van Dusen.

I hope you now have a better understanding of whether PAST or PRESENT tense is better for your novel’s narration. For more in-depth information about some of the other important topics brushed upon in this post, check some of my earlier Writers’ Rumpus posts:
FLASHBACKS: A TRIP DOWN MEMORY LANE: This post will help you better understand flashbacks and how to integrate them into your stories effectively.

SHOW AND TELL FOR WRITERS: Learn the difference between TELLING and SHOWING and examine passages from books that effectively TELL then SHOW.

DARE TO CHANGE YOUR POV: This post contains a detailed description of each POV (Point of View) with examples. It also includes mentor texts that effectively use dual POV’s.

DESCRIPTIVE WRITING TOOLBOX: If you’re looking to add more descriptive details to your stories, this post shares a toolbox-worth of possibilities for you to choose from.

10 comments

    1. Thanks, Hilary! I recommend writing a page or chapter in both tenses to discover which fits your story and writing style best.

      Like

    1. Thank you, Marcia! I’m a teacher at heart, and I strive to make my teaching posts clear and compelling.

      Like

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