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To Write in the Past or Present?

Glenna Mageau, Award Winning Author, Speaker, The Write Success Coach

Past or Present – Which is Right?

There is a lot of debate about whether to write in the present tense of the past tense. The truth is that it is truly personal. There are audiences for both types of books.

Most books are written in past tense. It has usually been the way to draw the reader into a book and give them that experience, the learning, the adventure, the escape they are looking for. But things have changed with books, books are being written in present tense. And actually have been since the ’60’s. Some people are vehemently opposed to it and some embrace it.

To me there really is no right or wrong with writing in the past or present, it really comes down to personal preference. And to some degree what your audience likes to read.

So what is past and present writing?

There are two main ways to write a book, it is either in the past or present. There is also writing in the future but I’m not aware of any books written that way. If you know of one please put it in the comments below.

To write in the past, you are writing as though something has already happened. 

To write in the present, you are writing as though that something is currently happening.

 

Some examples.

 

Past Tense

She rode her horse through town like the demons were knipping at her heels.

Present Tense

She rides her horse through town like the demons are knipping at her heels.

It doesn’t sound like I imagined it would!

Often we mix tenses, especially in Fiction

Normally I would say pick a tense and stick with it as it can get confusing to shift between past and present tense. However when writing and you write in past tense all the action and adventure that is going on, you are actually writing the dialogue in present tense.

 

How do you choose?

It truly is personal preference. The concept behind writing in the present tense is that then the reader will feel like they are right there with the character and feel like they are part of the adventure. As though, it is happening right now.

Personally that doesn’t work for me. I am not a big reader of present tense. It feels a bit awkward to me. I much prefer past tense. It might be because that is the way I was taught and have read those kind of books my whole life. For me reading a book in the past tense, when it is written well, can pull me in and make me feel like I am living the adventure with the character.

There are many readers, though, who do enjoy present tense.

My experience writing past and present

I write all of my suspense/thrillers in past tense. I prefer reading in the past tense and I prefer writing in the past tense.

Until recently the only experience I really had with writing in the present tense was writing the book blurb or book description, which needs to be in present tense.

Recently though, I had the experience of writing my script for Captured Lies in the present tense. Although I had never written a screenplay before, which itself was a steep learning curve, writing in present tense was very challenging. I would write half in present tense and half in past tense. I went through and caught so many instances of that and I thought I had done a good job. Then I had a professional editor go through and yup they still caught a few more. Thankfully it was only a few.

“The first draft is the skeleton, the rewrite is the flesh.”

The real challenge for me

The funny thing about writing my script in the present was that my published book, I was basing it on, was in the past tense. Most scriptwriters just write a script they don’t use a book.

It was quite challenging. It would have been much easier to write in present tense had I not been constantly going to the book and reading sections in the past tense, to ensure that I was following it as closely as I could. I would write quite a bit and then look back over what I had written only to discover half was in present tense and half in past tense.

 

The really funny thing that happened

Interestingly enough, the funny thing that happened was that I would get in the mindset of writing in present but then I’d go and read the book. Not a big deal, right? Except that when I’d read the book, I’d think ‘oh my god, do I have a lot of mistakes in my book. How’d that happen, I had it professionally edited?’

It would  take a moment for my brain to catch up and go, ‘oh yeah, it’s supposed to be in past tense’. I can tell you it was very confusing.

So I don’t reccomend writing in both tenses at the same time or at least be hyper dilligant about being aware that you are.

aim for the senses

Both have their own challenges

You really will need to experiment with both to see what you like to read and what you like to write. Both, writing in the past tense and the present tense. have their challenges. I highly recommend trying both just to see the difference and how it will challenge you to write things differently.

 

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