It’s not something we tend to think about in too much detail. Either a writer tells a story in the present or the past tense. If you’re a writer, you’ve probably experienced the anguish of working on multiple projects at once, trying to switch between the two tenses and failing miserably every time.
If we do think about it a little deeper, tense becomes less of a random choice and much more of a significant part of whatever story we’re trying to tell. Have you ever noticed? Let’s take a minute to notice.
Past tense sets the narrator and reader up to reflect on obstacles the characters have already overcome
It’s devastating, both as the reader and the writer, to see even fictional people go through tough times. But the only reason characters have to suffer through the majority of every story is the same reason real life isn’t all rainbows and unicorns: there’s always something to learn from overcoming even the worst obstacles.
Knowing a narrator is telling a story after the fact (‘I remember when … I’ll never forget how … to this day I …”) can serve as a constant reminder that the tragedies they’re facing throughout the book don’t last forever. There is a somewhat happy ending. Reflecting on the past means the narrator is far enough away from it all to be able to process it. That’s a good thing!
Present tense sets the narrator and reader up to grow and conquer obstacles together
While stories told in the past tense are all about looking back, present tense narratives (regardless of the POV) are all about growth and change in the moment. Here, the reader doesn’t know what’s going to happen next, but neither does the narrator. There’s no “I’ll never forget” because the future is unknown on both sides. It’s kind of cool, in a nerdish kind of way.
Telling a story this way might actually help a reader connect with a character in a completely different way. In the present, you’re putting your narrator and reader on the same path at the same speed. Unless you have multiple POVs, it’s less likely your reader knows something your narrator doesn’t. It’s like unraveling a series of secrets between two friends. It’s a special bond (er … until the book ends).
Whichever tense you choose, there’s opportunity for both you and your potential readers to make connections with the characters and their fictitious lives in different ways.
As long as your choice makes sense with your overall storyline—if you’re writing in the present, for example, you’ll have to be a bit more sneaky with your foreshadowing [upcoming post alert]—it’s just another fun device to play with when constructing your stories.
See? Writing IS fun. Most of the time.
Image courtesy of Flickr.