Present tense almost seemed impolite, if I can use that old-fashioned term. The writer, the writing, was pushing into the reader’s face, demanding attention over the story itself. I personally thought using present tense for a novel or memoir, for instance, was like shouting the story rather than letting it speak for itself.
That was then. Now, present tense is ordinary. Half the books I pick up use it. And as a reader, I can appreciate it; it doesn’t feel wrong or awkward or too attention-getting to me anymore. Not at all.
Two things have changed. Writers have gotten better with using it. They choose it when it fits the story. The choice of present versus past tense is informed, not just because it’s current or cool.
We are also a much more immediate culture. Everything is in our face, constantly. Sometimes, way too much. But it makes present tense almost a non-event, compared to ten or fifteen years ago.
To me, it still comes down to an educated, informed decision. Not serendipity. Not because using present tense might get your story more immediacy, which you’re struggling to get otherwise.
To me, stories evolve organically as one tense or the other. I kind of “feel” it when I start writing. But I will go back and forth between tenses if the story isn’t working–something the tense isn’t the right one for the story.
I recently published another short story, “Casting,” which is about an American playwright coming to Paris for her play’s opening and having a fling with one of the cast, a mime from Australia. I originally wrote this in past tense but it felt clunky to me, like it didn’t fit the energy of the story. So I switched it to present tense. It worked much better. I also was nudged, after reading it in present tense, to create a kind of staccato rhythm in the sentence structure. Reading the draft in present tense encouraged this, and it worked. And was soon accepted for publication. (If you want to read the story, here’s the link from Barely South Review‘s fall/winter 2023 issue.)
Over the years, I’ve compiled a personal list of the pros and cons of present and past tense. I’ll share it below, and perhaps it will help you if you are struggling with choices for your writing. Note that these are my take on the differences; your experience might be different.
creates a smoother rhythm
can contribute to slower pace
more tendency to use inflated verbs (other than “said”)
feels immediate, in your face
creates a faster pace, which may or may not be useful to the story
rhythm is more jagged, due to the acceleration, which creates tension
less tendency to use inflated verbs