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Truth be told, you could write the same exact story nearly word-for-word in past or present tense. The difference lies in the way you’d like the novel to feel.
You see, while present tense’s effectiveness is largely due to its immediacy, past tense’s reflective nature is its great strength. The connotations of past tense are entirely different from present—in present tense the narrator is telling the reader the story as it happens, while in past tense the narrator is retelling the story events to the reader. In past tense, the narrator already knows how the story ends—in present, he does not.
Between the two, past tense is the more realistic tense. By this I mean it’s much easier to believe that the character is retelling their story than it is to believe that they’re announcing their story as it happens. We retell stories to friends and family all the time, and when we do it’s obviously in past tense. Reading novels in past tense, then, feels much more natural—which is a large advantage. While it’s not unheard of for a reader to dislike a book because it was written in present tense, very rarely will you find a reader who disliked a book simply because it was written in past tense.
Let’s take a look at one of my favorite lines from The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger (via allgreatquotes.com):
It was that kind of a crazy afternoon, terrifically cold, and no sun out or anything, and you felt like you were disappearing every time you crossed a road.
I love this line for many reasons, but I chose to use it here because it really punctuates on the strength of past tense. If you’ve ever read The Catcher in the Rye (which I hope you have), you know that Holden Caulfield (the protagonist) is very much a reflective character. Written in present tense, I don’t think his musings would be quite as strong.
But don’t take my word for it. Let’s try translating that line into present tense:
It’s that kind of crazy afternoon, terrifically cold, and no sun out or anything, and you feel like you’re disappearing every time you cross a road.
As if often the case with this type of thing, which you like better comes down to opinion and there isn’t really a right or wrong answer per say, but the difference between the two is pretty clear. The same images are present as well as the same voice and tone—but the feel is different. In the past tense line you’re remembering—it’s as if the memory of that incredibly cold day is your own. The present tense line is more immediate—it’s cold now versus it was cold then.
For certain novels like The Catcher in the Rye where the main character is indeed a reflective character, the choice between past and present tense is pretty clear—as the reflective tense, past tense is the way to go. For other novels however, the choice isn’t as clear and it’ll depend largely on whether you (the writer) prefer an immediate or reflective feel for your novel.
Past tense is a great option and, for some writers, easier to write, but that’s not to say it doesn’t have its own hurdles to overcome. You see, when compared to present tense, past tense tends to be more difficult to establish a connection with the reader. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying at all that it’s impossible to make a connection with the reader with past tense, but as illustrated by my lovely closeness chart from the last post (reposted below), you start off a step further away from the reader as far as closeness goes (in case you missed it, the explanation of closeness is here).
It’s easy to fall into the storytelling trap with past tense—where the narrator is merely telling the story without truly connecting to the reader. It’s a hurdle, and one that can (and must be) overcome, but it’s one that you should be aware of as you work on your past-tense story.
In the end, neither past nor present tense is greater than the other—they both have their strengths and weaknesses and hurdles to overcome. Once you decide how you’d like your novel to feel however, choosing one over the other becomes markedly easier.
What do you prefer to write in—past or present tense? Do you have a preference when it comes to reading?