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Writing tips: past or present tense in your novel

In: How to

We have already discussed main rules about usage of past, present and future tenses in English. Now we are going to discuss how to apply your knowledge in practice. “What tense should I use?” It is one of the most frequently asked questions when writing a novel or an essay. Are you going to narrate in present or past tense? It is always better to think twice about this issue before you start writing.

Authors tend to use Past tense when writing their novels. Eventually, they are telling stories that had already happened in their imagination or in everyday life. However, present tense has its own advantages too. Let us examine benefits and drawbacks of each tense that can be used in the narration.

Past tense and its benefits

  • An author can manipulate time using past tense in narration.
  • Writer can easily change the tempo of the whole essay and the sequence of events.
  • Narrator creates a mystery and anticipation. Since the story is told from the past, we know that there will be a continuation.
  • It is easier to write a story in the past, because there are much more forms of the past tense than the present tense.
  • Using past tense, we can describe a wide range of people and their pasts creating a vast scope for spectacular irony and conception.

Disadvantages of the past tense

  • Describing the events in the past tense, we create an effect that they are finished.
  • Past tense is more difficult for the beginners, because they should think about sequence of tenses and “had had” problem.

Present tense and its benefits

  • Present tense creates a feeling of spontaneity, because all events are happening “now”.
  • The actions are close to the real life, as they are permanent and in motion.
  • Narration in present is good for those characters who escape their past and live in the moment.
  • An author does not need to decide which tense to use. Present simple and Present continuous are mostly used.
  • Narration in 1st person fills up the gap between an actor and a narrator. The actor can experience only what the narrator knows.

Disadvantages of the present tense

  • Present tense gives not much scope for compressing or expanding of the events.
  • Present tense emphasizes immediate events and distracts from understanding a wider context.
  • Mystery can be created only if the future is unknown, so there is less chance for creating a tension and thrilling irony.
  • Usage of present tense tends to restrict the range for depth of characters’ background.
  • Narrating only in the present makes us feel as if we lose connection with the past and how it pushes us forward and makes us arrive at a decision.
  • Usage of present tense and the 1st person creates a feeling that narrator is an actor, while someone must be observing and someone is experiencing.

As we can see, both has its benefits and drawbacks. That is the reason why most authors tend to combine past and present in their stories. The best solution is to use present tense for the most recent events, and describe old events with the help of past tense. 

If you still have questions and cannot decide what tense to use in your essay, feel free to contact us. We have a team of professional editors who can rewrite your novel and improve its quality.