It must be exhausting to constantly be told that how you use an author’s toolkit depends on what story is being told, but it’s something that needs to be turned into a mantra. Many key elements tell the reader where, how, why, and when the story takes place. In particular, the when of the story serves an intrinsic basis for, you guessed it, when in time your story happens. This does not mean the historical time period within the setting, but rather if your story is being told from a point of now or then. There are two forms of tenses that an author uses to convey this: past and present.
Writing in the present tense provides your story with a sense of urgency for the now, wherein your reader follows as the story immediately unfolds, instead of reading the events after they occurred. When coupled with 1st person POV, your reader becomes the character as they live the MC’s life and experiences.
A good example of both present tense and 1st person POV is Simon Vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda. The book is told from Simon’s point of view and how he navigates high school being in the closet while being blackmailed by a classmate. Simon speaks in such a way that the reader feels like he is talking to them about the problems he encounters as he encounters them. This helps immensely to give Simon as the MC a voice with attitude and nuance, but it also helps build him as a character through his emotions and thoughts as the story unfolds. In the excerpt below, the audience is privy to Simon’s concern not about himself but of his friend Blue, as Martin Addison blackmails him to out Simon to the whole school.
It’s a giant holy box of awkwardness, and I won’t pretend I’m looking forward to it. But it probably wouldn’t be the end of the world. Not for me.
The problem is, I don’t know what it would mean for Blue. If Martin were to tell anyone. The thing about Blue is that he’s kind of a private person. The kind of person who wouldn’t forget to log out of his email. The kind of person who might never forgive me for being so totally careless.
Simon’s feelings are compounded in the following paragraphs as he expresses his utter disbelief that this “goobery nerd” is blackmailing him to get a date from his friend Abby. The tone of Simon’s voice carries well throughout the book clearly identifying him as the sixteen year old MC struggling through the woes of being a closeted gay teenager. Emotional weight carries more heavily when a reader can embody the character’s thoughts and feelings.
Present tense works quite well with horror, as it helps your readers to feel the darkness encroach on them, or as if they are trapped in a room with no way out (except to finish the book). Another positive to present tense is that it can provide an unreliable narrator, which in turn casts doubt on the narrative. If your audience is following the MC and sympathizing with them, it will be just as jarring when the truth is revealed and the rug pulled out from under both the character and the reader. Similarly, comedy operates on the same vein: you want your reader to be oblivious and unaware of what the punchline is going to be.
In contrast, past tense is used to depict events that have already happened. Past tense can have its own form of tension or pacing, just like present tense. The pacing keeps the reader invested in the story, and prevents your story from petering out like a sad firecracker. Present tense has a natural pacing because neither the MC nor the reader know what is going to happen until it does. In the past tense, the reader understands that the characters have made it past the danger (even without the MC knowing it), but are unsure of the finer details in between. It’s these finer details that the narrator can give or withhold that control the suspense of the story.
One of the greatest advantages that past tense offers is the ability to move freely in time. Another added benefit is it offers a wider scope in which your story may take place, as opposed to the singular path forward of present tense. Because everything has already taken place, the story can be told in any order while continuing to arrive at the same conclusion. By default, most stories are written in the past tense. Theoretically, this grants the readers the ability to read and process it quicker than present tense. Past tense lends itself to any particular genre an author might choose
Commonly, past tense is paired with either 3rd person closed or 3rd person omniscient, because these points of view empower the narrator to jump between the events that have occurred. With 3rd omniscient, you can also view each character’s motivations. In Erik Larson’s The Splendid and the Vile, the events naturally have already happened; this historical fiction retell’s Churchill’s governance during WW2.
Chamberlain realized he had no choice but to resign. He made one last effort to persuade Lord Halifax to take the job. Halifax seemed more stable, less likely to lead Britain into some new catastrophe. Within Whitehall, Churchill was acknowledged to be a brilliant orator, albeit deemed by many to lack good judgment.
As with everything in writing, there are no absolutes. How you combine tenses with genres and points of view is up to you. Present tense offers a simple and straightforward story progression, capable of keeping the reader engaged through the actions of their MC. While past tense can create a veritable maze of intriguing twists and turns, maintaining an air of mystery even after the story is complete. The journey has ended for the characters, but the reader does not know how that has happened; that is where the writer must work to keep a reader invested enough to continue turning the pages. Depending on the point of view, the amount of internal monologues will vary, but the MC motivations and emotions will still be clear in how they proceed through the plot to the end of your tale. Crafting a story takes dedication and focus on fine details, and mastering the proper use of tense will help build the story you wish to share with the world.