How to Decide the Tense of Your Story

While story ideas may spark the initial bought of creative thinking—while sparks may get the creative juices flowing—deciding tense is the first step of actually sitting down and writing of your story.

But does it really matter if you write your story in present or past tense? Depending on the genre you’re writing, it totally might. Tense is a little like point-of-view and a little like genre. You can throw as many curveballs as you want, but, at the end of the day, readers may be turned off if their expectations aren’t met. Or, at the very least, addressed.

Tense is the second critical first step in the writing process—right behind choosing the genre of your story—because it dictates how you write your book. Tense tells the reader when things happen in time—in the past, the present, or the future—while point-of-view, or POV, shows us the events of the story through a specific lens.

But in which tense should you write your story? Does it really matter which tense you choose, as long as you write a good book that readers love? If these are the questions burning inside you, writer, don’t fret. Today, we’re exploring tense and how you can choose the best option for your story!

Which tense should you use in your story?

Deciding the tense of your story is easily one of the biggest elements of your novel, aside from genre and POV, and you should iron it out before you start writing the first draft. “Tense” in the writing world refers to verb tense, which writers use to express story actions and their relation to time within your story. In most fiction writing, there are two main types of tense:

With past tense, the action has already happened.

Ex: “I jumped from my seat.”

Why you might use past tense in your story

  • Past tense often comes more easily to newer writers, as stories flow naturally in past tense, versus present tense.
  • Past tense makes it easy to incorporate character backstory and flashbacks without taking the reader completely out of the plot.

Why you might not use past tense

  • Past tense may become choppy and confusing if your story includes a lot of fast action.
  • If you—the writer—feel like past tense simply won’t do your story justice, don’t use past tense. Use whichever tense you feel will best tell your plot.

With present tense, the action is happening right now.

Ex: “I jump from my seat.”

Why you might use present tense in your story

  • Present tense intensifies immediate emotional responses, allowing readers to feel everything as they come, which can draw the readers deeper into the plot and suspense.
  • Present tense makes it easier to reflect a character’s nature and desires.
  • Present tense often makes writing simple, since the present is the present and the past is the past.
  • If you love reading books written in present tense, you may consider writing in present tense as the experience gained from reading it might rub off on your writing style and voice.

Why you might not use present tense

  • Some readers simply don’t like present tense, which means you might be alienating a group of readers who hadn’t even read the first paragraph. In this regard, past tense is a safer option.
  • While simpler, present tense might make flashbacks or retellings more jarring for the reader. Constantly switching from different tenses might cause confusion among your readers if not done well.
  • Present tense often encourages us to write more backstory than our story probably demands, plodding down our manuscript with unnecessary information and exposition.
  • If you find reading present tense tiring or annoying to read, that might show in your writing.

While these are the most common, there’s a third tense I want to briefly mention:

With future tense, the action in your story has yet to occur.

Outside of dialogue tags, future tense is almost never used in fiction writing. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use or understand writing future tense! It’s a great way to set goals and practice writing in different tenses.

Regardless of which tense you decide upon for your story, just know that both are equally prime choices. As with most writerly decisions, the choice belongs to the writer… But do make sure to keep genre norms and reader expectations in mind.

While you—writer—don’t have to decide the tense of your book at the very beginning of your writing process, it will behoove you to decide before you sit down to write. If you don’t have the tense nailed down before writing the first pages, you are setting yourself up for a lot of editing and rewrites later.

Choose the tense in which you want to write your story and make sure you stick to it throughout the initial drafting process.