Writing in Past Tense and Present Tense
There is no golden rule that a novel can’t be written in both past tense and present tense. But there’s an unwritten rule that says you shouldn’t mix them.
So what’s the difference? Which one is right?
This unwritten rule is often confused by writers as meaning that present can’t be used with past and vice versa. But the unwritten rule refers to the writer mixing tenses within the same chapter or scene. This generally doesn’t work well and can look untidy, and it may appear confusing to the reader, unless it’s expressly a flashback and hinted to the reader.
But there is nothing stopping a writer from writing one chapter or new scene in past and others in the present, or some in present and others in the past, if done correctly. This approach keeps things tidy and allows the reader to follow the writer’s intentions.
Present stories sometimes rely on past events to show the reader certain things – we know these as reminiscences or flashbacks, and these are permissible because the past makes up the present (not the other way around). Present stories sometimes need to show things that happened in the past to provide information and backstory to the plot.
But what about past tense stories? It could be argued that if the story is being narrated from sometime within the past, then logically it can’t show things in the present. And to a degree that is true, but when we consider the wider scope on how past and present tenses work, we can actually let the present in on past tense, and this can work because we have to allow for characters that are recounting their past story – normal past tense – but may be living in the present. This means current thoughts and feelings occur at that present time.
You might have a main character whose story is past tense, mixed in with the antagonist, who observes things in the present. You may have a main character whose story is in the past but – years later – reflects about things from the present. There are all manner of ways it can be done. But as long as the writing is tight, succinct, and both voice and style are clear, then there is no reason why writers shouldn’t write from both tenses.
Many novels take this approach where the main character’s story is told in both tenses, making sure that each tense is observed correctly and that the reader immediately knows there is a change.
Careful planning is needed to make it work, so if it’s not executed properly, it may not be effective and can prove distracting or confusing to readers. The approach doesn’t always work, as not every story will benefit from this method, so sometimes writers should experiment to see where it takes them.
So, remember there is no golden rule. If writing in both past and present tense for various characters serves the story, then go with it.Next week: Writing Slumps – how to avoid them