Does Tense Matter In Fiction?


Can choosing one tense over another benefit your short story?

Let’s look at the past and the present tense, and analyse the pros and cons associated with them.

Present tense

There is a greater sense of urgency and immediacy with the present tense.

It invites the reader to take a journey with your protagonist, witnessing events as they happen in real time. The protagonist can often appear more real, too, especially with emotionally driven storylines.

So what about the drawbacks of present tense?

There’s a risk that banal details will distract the reader’s focus, due to the organic way in which the story’s events progress. This can have an impact on both character and plot development.

It can also mean less flexibility with plot. The brunt of the writing will focus on the here and now, so shifts in time could impact the flow of the narrative.

Past tense

Past tense is the more common of these two tenses in fiction.

One of its major benefits is how it allows the writer (and the reader) to move freely around the story. It’s easier to introduce multiple characters, subplots and navigate through different time frames.

There can still be drawbacks with the past tense, though. Its more meandering style can be at the expense of dramatic tension, it can be harder to evoke the reader’s empathy for your characters.

Also, it’s easy for a writer to suddenly take centre stage, telling the readers what is about to happen rather than showing them through the characters themselves.

Remember, the tense you choose to write in might suit one story idea over another.

Experiment a little with them, but just make sure to be consistent with your tenses throughout.

A good story, whether it’s written in past or present, will always shine.

For more writing advice from “The People’s Friend”, click here.

For more on tenses, check out Grammar Girl’s great advice.

Alan Spink

Alan is a member of the “Friend” Fiction Team. He enjoys working closely with writers and being part of the creative process, which sees storytelling ideas come to fruition. A keen reader, he also writes fiction and enjoys watching football and movies in his spare time. His one tip to new writers is “write from your imagination”.