When you’re writing fiction or poetry, it might be a good idea to think about which tense to use. Whilst most stories are written in the past tense (for reasons I’ll explain later), it’s certainly possible to write stories in the present tense too. However, with poetry, you can pretty much use either depending on your own preferences and on the poem itself.
So, without any further ado, here are the advantages and disadvantages of using each tense.
Ah, the good old past tense. The tense we all know and love. I’m guessing that if you write prose fiction, then you probably use this tense most (if not all) of the time in your stories. In a lot of ways, it’s perfectly suited to storytelling for the simple reason that it is probably how most stories began.
After all, a story is an account of a series of events which have happened and many of the oldest stories are either historical legends or myths (which take place in the distant past etc..). The past tense has a long and noble tradition behind it and, in many ways, storytelling and the past tense are pretty much interconnected.
But, at the same time, it has its disadvantages – for starters, if your story is narrated in the first person then using using the past tense can distance the reader very slightly from the events of the story. It isn’t really that noticeable most of the time, but it can be if you compare it to something written in the first person and the present tense. However, using the past tense really doesn’t have that much of an effect on third person narration.
I can’t really think of any other disadvantages for using the past tense whilst writing fiction – it’s pretty much the de facto “standard” tense for fiction for a reason. It flows well and it feels fairly natural to both write and read.
However, in my opinion, the past tense isn’t really that well-suited to poetry though. It probably works fairly well in narrative poetry, but I’ve always found that writing good poetry should be a vivid, visual, immediate, intense experience and, well, you can’t really achieve that with the past tense as much as you can with the present tense.
Despite all the good stuff I’ve said earlier about writing fiction in the past tense, there are some circumstances where it’s actually better to write your stories in the present tense. This is mainly because using the present tense adds a sense of immediacy, suspense and intensity to your stories which can be a lot harder to achieve if you use the
present past tense. If you’re writing a thriller novel, then you can use this to your advantage if you want to. Although I should probably point out that some readers just don’t get on that well with reading stories which are written in the present tense.
Likewise, it adds an extra level of subjectivity and realism to stories which are narrated from a first person perspective. After all, we all see the world from a first person perspective and we all experience time in the present tense. So, if you’re writing a stream-of-consciousness story, a story with an unreliable narrator or even possibly any kind of first person story, then it might be worth experimenting with writing it in the present tense.
Writing in the present tense can take a bit of getting used to and it’s something which I’m guessing that most writers don’t really experiment with that often (I mean, I hardly ever write fiction in the present tense). But, for some types of stories, it’s definitely worth using.
As I said earlier, I’ve always found that the present tense really comes in handy when writing poetry though. It might just be me, but I just can’t seem to write poetry in the past tense. I’m guessing that this may be because poetry is meant to be a lot more concise than fiction and because it’s also often meant to be read aloud too.
Using the present tense in your poetry will allow it to flow a lot better and it will give your descriptions and rhymes a level of vividness which they just won’t have if you write your poetry in the past tense. Of course, there are probably numerous poems which contradict what I’ve said in the past two paragraphs – but, on the whole, it’s definitely worth at least trying to write poetry in the present tense. You might surprise yourself.
As with anything to do with creativity, different things work for different people and you should choose the tense which goes best with whatever you’re writing. But I hope that this brief overview has been useful 🙂