Past Tense or Present Tense?

The other day I had lunch with two writer friends, and we started talking about point-of-view, which segued into the difficulties of writing first person pov, which segued into writing past tense or present tense. Lately I’ve read several books written in the present tense. It usually takes me a page or two before I forget that it is present tense, but when it’s done well, it does have a very immediate feel.

I’ve noticed, over the years, the trend is to put the reader closer and closer to the action. We’ve moved from the narrator or omniscient pov to close pov, where you’re in the head of the point-of-view character. Now, by switching from past tense to present, it’s as if the reader is the person and is right there.

My friends and I talked about how difficult it might be to write in the present tense, so I decided to give it a try today. Here’s the opening of a short story I’ve been working on.

First as I have it written using first person past tense.

I pulled up in front of the bank and parked directly behind a dark-blue car with a broken taillight. The clock on my car’s dashboard showed five to twelve. I’d timed it close, but I’d made it before the bank closed.
     I grabbed the endorsed checks, cash, and deposit slip I’d put together before leaving my house. I didn’t bother locking my car door. Here in Zenith, with the population less than seven hundred, it really isn’t necessary.
     A brisk wind scattered a flurry of leaves across the walkway leading to the bank, but I barely noticed. My mind was on all I had to do before my wedding. In four more hours I would be P.J. Kingsley, wife of Kalamazoo County Deputy Sheriff, Wade Kingsley.
     A wife . . . and in five more months, a mother.
     I’m sure I was grinning when I opened the door and stepped into the bank. I think I’ve been grinning ever since Wade proposed.
     To my surprise, neither of the two tellers said “Hi.” One or the other usually gives a greeting whenever anyone steps into the bank. Anne, the older of the two did give me a quick glance, but her expression didn’t look welcoming, and she immediately looked back at the short, chubby man standing on my side of the counter.
     He had on some kind of hat that from the back appeared to have ears . . . but not Mickey Mouse ears. I was in the process of trying to figure out what kind of hat it was when he turned toward me and I knew.
     It wasn’t a hat.
     Halloween wasn’t for another two weeks, but what I was looking at was a mask: a panda bear mask that covered his entire head except for eye holes and a couple smaller holes where his nostrils would be. I was so surprised by the mask that it took me a second to notice that Panda Bear was pointing a gun at me.

Now, let’s see if I can change that to present tense and what you (reading this blog) think.

I pull up in front of the bank and park directly behind a dark-blue car with a broken taillight. The clock on my car’s dashboard shows five to twelve. I’d timed it close, but I made it before the bank closed.
     I grab the endorsed checks, cash, and deposit slip I put together before leaving my house. I don’t bother locking my car door. Here in Zenith, with the population less than seven hundred, it really isn’t necessary.
     A brisk wind scatters a flurry of leaves across the walkway leading to the bank. I barely notice. My mind is on all I have to do before my wedding. In four more hours I will be P.J. Kingsley, wife of Kalamazoo County Deputy Sheriff, Wade Kingsley.
     A wife . . . and in five more months, a mother.
     I grin when I open the door and step into the bank. I’ve been grinning ever since Wade proposed.
     Neither of the two tellers says “Hi.” That surprises me. One or the other usually offers a greeting when someone steps into the bank. Anne, the older of the two, gives me a quick glance. Her expression isn’t welcoming, and she immediately looks back at the short, chubby man standing on my side of the counter.
     He has on some kind of hat that from the back appears to have ears . . . but not Mickey Mouse ears. I’m trying to figure out what kind of hat it is when he turns toward me.
     It isn’t a hat.
     Halloween isn’t for another two weeks, but I’m looking at a mask; a panda bear mask that covers his entire head except for eye holes and a couple small holes where his nostrils should be. I am so surprised by the mask that it takes me a second to notice that Panda Bear is pointing a gun at me.

That wasn’t as difficult as I thought it might be (that is if I did it correctly), and I like the immediate feel. Hmm, I wonder if I should try the entire story in present tense?

How do you feel about present tense? Writing it or reading it.

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22 Responses to Past Tense or Present Tense?

  1. Diana Stout says:

    I just finished writing a book that is entirely in first person, except when she’s talking about the past. The story is more personal; we’re seeing everything through her eyes, ears, and other sensations, which isn’t about showing; it’s about feeling, and isn’t that why we read books, to feel something different?

  2. Melissa Keir says:

    Sometimes I like the present tense and others I like the past… It’s sort of like playing with different voices and characters. I love to challenge myself and set things up differently just for fun!

    You did a great job on the writing of both!

    • Maris SouleMaris Soule says:

      Thanks, Melissa. That’s the first time I’ve tried present tense. I may give it a try with my next story. I, like you, enjoy challenging myself.

  3. Hi Maris, good taste of writing in present tense. I kind of like it. It has a certain personality and that feeling that as you read it you’re living it.

  4. ann bennett says:

    You’ve written both so well. I like the voice in your writing.

    If I had to choose, it would be past. It is how I relate to a story. However, Times change.

  5. Maris SouleMaris Soule says:

    “Times Change.” That’s what I’ve been discovering. I’m seeing the present tense used more and more often.

  6. Elorise Holstad says:

    I could be wrong, but I think that present tense shows up more often in ‘literary’ novels. Genre works, not so much. But, in my opinion, both styles worked in your examples! I like both of them equally; they both have an immediate, happening now, feeling.
    E.

    • Maris SouleMaris Soule says:

      Elorise, I have seen the present tense more often with literary novels, but I have a scifi that I’m reading that’s also written in present tense and a romance writer I really like has published several of her books using present tense. So maybe it started with literary novels, but it’s working it’s way into other genres.

  7. Terry Odell says:

    Although it’s supposed to be the opposite, I find present tense more distancing than past, especially 1st person present. Very few authors have been able to pull me into a story with this approach. It makes me feel as if the character is pretending, talking to herself … I don’t know what, or why; it’s just a quick turnoff for me. Cuts down on my TBR pile, for sure.

    • Maris SouleMaris Soule says:

      Thanks for your comment, Terry. I think there are many readers that feel the same. Many don’t like first person. Adding present tense makes it even worse for them (and I guess you.)

  8. Lucy Kubash says:

    I enjoyed seeing how changing from past to present tense made a difference. While I still prefer past, I can see that certain stories might lend themselves better to present. I’ve read some YA (contest judging) written in present, and I think mystery/suspense works in present. And challenging ourselves keeps us on our toes!

  9. I prefer past tense to present, but I had one particular thought after reading both selections. I think both are written well, but I think that if you had started out writing the story in first person you would have written it differently. Changing the tenses alone doesn’t work. If you’re writing in present tense, you are noticing different things, commenting differently, thinking in a different way. I think the narrative material would be different if the story was written in first person the first time you wrote it.

    • Maris SouleMaris Soule says:

      Actually, Susan, both examples are in first person. All of the P.J. Benson mysteries are in first person. However, I think you are right. If I initially wrote the scene in first person present tense, I believe I might have started it a bit different.

  10. Diane Burton says:

    I’ve done both–1st person POV past tense (The Case of the Bygone Brother) and a novella in the present (Christmas in Space). Past tense works better for me. With the novella, I kept slipping into past tense. But I agree about the immediacy of present tense. I do like 1st person POV, writing and reading it. The reader does feel closer to the action. One drawback is the reader doesn’t know what the other characters are feeling/thinking–only what the MC assumes. If done well, it’s great.

    • Maris SouleMaris Soule says:

      You’re right, Diane, about 1st person POV creating a closer bond between the MC and reader, but creating limits. With the book I have coming out next year, I used 3rd person and multiple POVs. That allowed me more latitude with the the story, but I had to be careful I didn’t bring in so many characters that the reader would get lost.

  11. Paula says:

    I enjoyed reading both excerpts. The posting was especially timely because I’m reading a first draft for someone. They’re writing in first person as in your first example. I’m not all the way through the reading, but have only found a couple times when the writer ‘slipped’ and changed POV. It certainly keeps one on his or her toes, doesn’t it?

    • Maris SouleMaris Soule says:

      Paula, “slipping” is easy to do. Eat Crow and Die is the third book I’ve written using only 1st person POV, so I should be so used to it I wouldn’t slip, but while working on the first draft of EC&D I wrote a great scene where there’s a character on the beach watching the Coast Guard boats as divers investigated where Wade’s boat exploded. I wrote a page and a half before I realized I couldn’t use it because I wasn’t in P.J.’s POV.

  12. Thanks for finally writing about > Past Tense or Present Tense?

    – Maris Soule < Loved it!