Tense: Past or Present

You can’t wait to tell your friend about your young son’s latest antics. How do you tell the story? Past tense or present tense? Probably present:

He climbs on the counter and pulls all the plastic bowls out of the cabinets. Then he drops each one on the floor.

But how would you write it? Probably past:

He climbed on the counter and pulled all the plastic bowls out of the cabinets. Then he dropped each one on the floor.

Past tense feels more natural in writing. That’s true not only in fiction, but also in the anecdotes we use in nonfiction.

Flaws of Present Tense
It’s difficult to maintain present tense throughout a piece. Since we normally read stories in the past tense, we risk falling back into past tense without even realizing about it. This leads to inconsistent writing.

It can also come across as forced. We may struggle to make present tense work when it really doesn’t.

Effective Present Tense
Sometimes you can use present tense effectively. Create a scenario in the reader’s imagination, as I did at the beginning of this article. You and your reader imagine it together. This works best in nonfiction.

In fiction, one of your characters could use this technique. For example:

Lindsey said, “Consider this, Amber. You walk into a classroom full of kids and they’re all quiet.”

This is present tense within the past tense.

Your readers understand that your story—fiction or anecdotal—occurred in the past, so tell it that way. It will write—and read—more naturally.

A writer/editor for Lighthouse Christian Products, Deborah Christensen served for almost 18 years as the editor at CSB ministries, working with magazines and curriculum. Her articles have appeared in many magazines.

Image credit: marigranula / 123RF Stock Photo

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