One of the first things you should do as a writer before embarking on a new project is to decide:
Should I write in the present or past tense?
Saying this, I am a big advocate of ‘Write first, Edit later. ‘
And so I have myself written something , where the tenses were all over the place. However I take great satisfaction in correcting everything in the editing process.
Does it really matter what tense a writer chooses? Sometimes, it doesn’t, but most of the time it does.
So what tense do you use?
Initially you need to determine what kind of writing you’re doing and its purpose.
My quick and dirty tips are as follows:
(Spoiler alert there is no dirt)
Writing in the Present tense does make your writing more intense, so is ideal for writing action and drama scenes. It is also nice to liven things up by splashing in some flashback via the past tense, where you tell what happened in the past. Don’t lay the flashbacks on too thick though.
(So I lied, there is a little dirt with the deviant above)
Present tense works better in short stories (preferably Flash fiction 750 words or less) and if done well, can relate a powerful message. With present tense, especially flash fiction stories, you’ll need a nap after you have read the story, as done correctly the present tense can lead you on a roller-coaster of emotions. But you’re on the edge of your seat, never bored.
Writing any short stories over 750 words and you probably want to use past tense. Furthermore, if you’re writing a novel, it’s even more advantageous to write in past tense, although some novelists do choose present tense. However, even novels written in present tense often develop the story using past tense.
Mystery, suspense and crime novels are great examples of this. Although many are written in present tense, the authors are also able to cleverly weave in past events without changing the tense of the entire novel.
Using the present tense gives more intensity to your work as well as a working in a different rhythm to your writing. But as the present tense is akin to a continuation of speeches and monologues, it can wear the reader out if it’s not done with care or if its applied to liberally. That’s why writing an entire novel in present tense is a tricky affair. All I can say is if a novelist is adamant of choosing the present tense, they need to mix things up and throw in some flashbacks to balance it out.
Lastly….’ Consistency is Excellence’.
It is critical that you keep your tenses consistent in the section you are writing. Please for the love of all things literary do not switch tenses halfway through a paragraph, page or chapter when the theme is common and it does not include flashbacks. Please just don’t do it.There is nothing more frustrating and confusing (or annoying) to your readers than forcing them to flip back and forth, wondering what tense your story is being told.
I hope that this helps you with your writing.
Neil Sehmbhy is a an author who lives in a town that likes to think of itself as a city. Author of the forthcoming Corporation, Sunder novels, you can follow him on Twitter @NeilSehmbhy