So, which one do I choose?
The present tense is ideal for emotional reads, thrillers, horrors and anything where you want your reader to feel, gulp and sigh with the narrator. For an even stronger effect combine present tense with first person POV (check this post on POV if you don’t know what I’m talking about).
Check out the beginning of I’ll give you the sun to see what I mean:
“This is how it all begins. WithZephyr and Fry -reigning neighborhood sociopaths- torpedoing after me and the whole forest floor shaking under my feet as I blast through air, trees, this white hot panic.”
Things to keep in mind when using the present tense:
- If the narrator is seven, they cannot speak like Sheldon
- The vocabulary has to be appropriate for the place and time the story occurs, even more so than when using past tense. For example, they didn’t say OMG or ugh in 1992
- If combined with a first person POV remember that the narrator can only know what they know, not what’s going on on everyone’s head (again, see post on POV)
The past tense is more flexible and can be used pretty much for any fictional work, which is why is more common.
Things to keep in mind when using the past tense:
- You can make the narration feel more in the now by mixing in dialogue (which will always be in the present tense, here’s the post on writing and formatting dialogue) and thoughts (remember to italicize, here’s the post on formatting in general). You can even talk about things that will happen in the future!
- If you have to describe something that happened before the time of narration, use the past perfect (had+past. For irregular verbs you want to use the past participle–sing, sang, sung). For example…
My older sister had quit her DJ career at Radio Arese City, as she was about to leave for her first year of College in Padua, but she was still quite the musical go-to. Our relationship had gotten much better in the last few years, maybe because I had grown up, or maybe because she was about to move out.
See? In the sentence above “was about to” tells us something will happen in the future, while “had gotten” tells us something happened in the past.
Regardless of your tense choice, BE CONSISTENT! Do not mix present and past, it becomes very confusing! The only instance when you mix them is if you are writing in the present and talk about something that happened before the narration time.
I wrote my novel in the present, can I switch to past or vice versa?
Panic not. Been there, done that. Everything is possible, but you have to be methodical and come to terms with the fact that it will take you at least five rounds of editing to catch all the wrong verbs.
I thought I leave you with an awesome song by Pearl Jam. It’s titled Present Tense and doles plenty of good advice ;)