Past or Present — Which Tense is Best?

When I started writing I used to mix my tenses.  I would initially start a paragraph in the past tense to show you the story and then I would write in the present tense for a sentence or two to give you what I thought would seem like an in the moment view of what the characters were thinking.  While it worked, and it did make sense, it wasn’t the best way to do it for me.

After that I kept playing with things and, despite it being the most basic way to write, I find that I liked to write exclusively in the past tense.

Why do you ask?

Because it gives me a lot more flexibility in terms of what I can say.

Think about it like this.  When you write a novel, you should be showing, not telling right?  Now, while you can do this in the present tense just fine, I like the showing part to be the present tense of the story.

For example, if I write this:

Tears filled the hero’s eyes, and the muscles in his jaw flexed erratically.  After the initial wave of sadness, something else was taking it’s place.  Something harsher, something violent.  Something far more dangerous than anyone saw coming.

It’s pretty clear that the hero is upset, and that someone’s probably going to get at least punched in the mouth correct?  That’s the beauty of showing and not telling, I showed you what is happening by telling you what the hero was experiencing in the past tense.  This more than allows you to make your own very accurate conclusions as to what is coming.

Now if I write it all in the present tense:

Tears fill the heroes eyes, and the muscles in his jaw flex erratically.  After the initial wave of sadness, something else begins taking its place.  Something harsher, something violent.  Something far more dangerous than anyone could see coming.

To me that takes a lot of the flavor and suspense if you will, out of the story.  To me, using the present tense there seems to imply that those things I’ve shown you are the only things there are to see in that moment.  Since the reader feels like they’re seeing everything as they are happening.  It seems like there’s much less anticipation for the possibly violent explosion.

Granted, yes, I understand there will be more words following that brief paragraph that will in fact show you vividly what type of explosion the hero will have, and that anticipation is short-lived anyways, but to me there’s just something special about the past tense there.

It’s as if that psychological distance between what the reader knows and what’s happening in the present moment of the story, even if it is brief, is where the anticipation and excitement for the story grows.  Combine that with the way I describe the sadness being replaced by something else in a vague sense, lets the reader know that there will be some kind of violent explosion, but not to what extent or in what way.

It adds a little mystery and panache to it, it’s a way to keep them guessing without ever once withholding any actual information.

Back to the showing being the present tense to the story, once you see the ramifications of what the hero is going through, then you’re immediately brought back to the present moment and see exactly how enraged the man is, and that’s where I make sure to elaborate on the true rage/whatever the character may or may not be feeling.  But I make sure only to do it after showing you the actions he takes.

I would usually phrase it like so:

The hero lunged at the villain, a war cry on his lips.  Tackling the man to the ground he strips the villain of his gun, and instead of shooting the vile man, he begins to viciously beat him with it instead.  His animalistic rage combined with the sheer agony the villain had caused him, fueled him into a blood lust that cannot be sated, only fed, and through its feeding grow larger and larger.  So large, it will eventually consume even the hero himself.

See what I mean?  I like the fact that I can write the preamble to this beating in the past tense, and reveal very little, and then hit you right over the head with the sheer explosion of emotion and when your eyes are wide from that, I then show you exactly the depths that his rage and violence go to.

Now, I’m sure you’re thinking that this is all well and good for violent scenes and stories.  What about romances, or other things?

Well, you can use this same technique on really anything.  Take out the violence and add in the romance.  Take out the villain and put in a love interest.  Or even better, make the villain be the hero’s love interest!  Take out the violence, and make it a passionate struggle for control over their strangely volatile amorous relationship.  Or take the volatility out of it all together, and focus on softer emotions/mind states.

Whatever you want to do with this, you can do it.  It just takes a creative mind, which if you’re a writer you already have, to find a way to make it work for you.

So what do you think?  Agree?  Disagree?  Think I’m crazy?  Whatever you do think, please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.


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