Writing in Past vs Present Tense

I believe whole-heartedly that every option of tense gives a different feel to a story, and that each has different results in the reader's mind. The same is true for the point of view the book is written in.

Third Person Past Tense
All of my medieval romance novels are written in the past third person tense. The third person is closely within the lead character's brain. So it's not an omniscient power that can see inside the hearts and minds of others. It is about her views, her expectations, how she sees the world. The stories are written in past tense.

So here's an example. (It also happens to show dialogue presentation in a group :) ) Morgan is the heroine.


Morgan nodded silently to the others as she sat for dinner, taking a spot between Oliver and Christian. The two made room for her without comment, but Oliver gave her a gentle pat on the leg as she settled herself, and she felt the concern in his gaze. She kept her eyes lowered, willing herself not to look across the table to where Sean sat between Lady Donna and Cassandra.

Lady Donna turned to Cassandra. “So, how are you enjoying your visit here at the keep?” Morgan wondered if it was her own wistful thinking which found a slight emphasis on the word “visit”. She reached for a piece of bread from the woven basket, slowly breaking it apart.

“Your home is simply beautiful,” Cassandra enthused with a smile, looking around her. “It seems the type of place one could easily stay at forever and never become tired of it.”

Morgan found herself ripping her piece of bread into quarters … eights … Oliver’s hand gently came on top of hers and she paused, taking in a deep breath.


In terms of dialogue, you see that Cassandra's attribution comes after her sentence, but that's because the previous wording has already made clear who Lady Donna is talking to and therefore who is expected to speak next. It means we can dive right into her response and keep that flow going.

The story is presented in third person, with Morgan referred to by name. We're not "deeply" in her head, we are hovering just outside it. We do hear her thoughts, and see things from her point of view, but there's still that slight distance.

It's past tense, so we are watching a story unfold, but we know it's a story. We know it's happened in the past and we're observing the tale unroll like a long carpet runner. I like that sense as this is set in medieval times and often it involves them talking about epic tales within the story. It gives the story a "historical" feel.

First Person Past Tense
OK, so then style #2. When I wrote Aspen Allegations, my modern-world murder mystery, I very deliberately made it FIRST person rather than third person. It took me a little training to do :). I would occasionally slip back into third person since I'd been doing my writing that way for so long. I left it in past tense, to keep its "story" aspect. But now we're lodged deeply in the heroine's brain and everything we see is absolutely from her point of view, period. I wanted that sense of being behind her eyeballs.

So here's an example from Aspen Allegations. Again, it's a group, so it also shows how the dialogue is kept clear. Interestingly, the heroine is also named Morgan here :).


The snow was falling more steadily now, and it gave a Currier-and-Ives feel to Ramshorn Pond. The trees ringing the water were laced with white, and the steady downward flow of sparkling confetti seemed to vanish like magic in the darkness of the water’s surface. There was a strange car parked in Matthew’s driveway. When he pulled open the door I could see that Jeff was already there, setting up the computer on Matthew’s kitchen table.

Jeff turned with a smile. “It’s good to see you again, Morgan,” he greeted. “I am glad you’re able to help us with this. And I hope you don’t mind, but I invited –”

There was a movement from the kitchen, and Jason stepped into the room, holding a tan mug of steaming coffee. My cheeks flushed and my smile grew of its own accord.

His eyes were warm on me as he nodded his greeting.

Jeff went on, plugging the power cord into the back of the CPU. “Jason was telling me all about your meeting with Sam yesterday. Fascinating stuff. I suppose high school is never easy for anybody, no matter what era they grew up in.”

“I imagine not,” I agreed.

Joan’s voice carried from the kitchen. “Some tea for you, Morgan? How about cinnamon?”

“Cinnamon would be lovely.”


Again in terms of dialogue, there is up-front attribution when the first speaker speaks, or when a new speaker joins the sequence. There is no attribution or post-attribution when a response is given by the "expected" person.

In terms of our point of view, we are within Morgan's head. We are viewing the world through her eyes. That makes scenes more "immediate" when things are happening to her. We're not at a distance. We're right there with the things happening to "us" the reader. That becomes even more important when we get to later, "dangerous" scenes.

First Person Present Tense
Then we come to an even more immediate way of writing things. That would be first person in the PRESENT tense. Now we're not reading a story, we're living in the moment. Things are direct and happening and there's a sense that Lord only knows what might happen next. After enjoying the first-person-past of Aspen Allegations I decided that my futuristic sci-fi novel that I was working on should be set in the first-person-present, to get that sense of living on the edge. This was even harder for me, in the sense that I kept slipping back into third-person-past and first-person-past as I wrote it :). I was constantly going back and changing the "I scampered" to "I scamper" and so on. It did get easier over time.

So here's a passage from Into the Wasteland. It's set in a near-future wasteland of North Dakota which is now a prison state. Sort of like Escape from New York but it's the whole state that was walled off. In this scene the heroine comes across a remote village of a Dakota tribe which was enveloped by the wall when it was put into place. Yes, I chose another group scene as my example :).


An elderly man steps forward, his face ridged with wisdom. “Welcome to Oyate,” he greets me. “Today is a special day – it is the birth day of Born-in-Battle, one of our youngest. Please, come join us.”

A young boy, about four, with ink-dark eyes in a beautifully embroidered deer-skin tunic, runs past the adults to take my hand. He stares up at me. “Hawk!”

A woman with the complexion of soft sienna steps forward, a gentle smile on her lips. “Come now, Born-in-Battle. Let our guest rest a while.” Her features match the youngster’s so closely that it’s clear she is his mother.

His gaze is insistent on me. “Hawk!”

I bring my eyes up to his mother in curiosity. “Hawk?”

Her eyes hold mine with quiet placidity. “The embroidery on your jacket,” she points out.

I glance down, and nod. I’d forgotten completely about that.

The child pulls on my hand with steady effort. “Come! Come!”


So we are immersed in the moment here. We are seeing every new thing fresh, with wide eyes, and we have no idea what is going to happen next. There is a Zen-like freshness to it which I enjoy immensely. There's a different "feel" to the words. Again it's like poetry. How the phrase rolls into the mind. It's the specific words chosen, creating an image. It's the tense of the language, how it distances us from or draws us into the scene.

Interestingly, apparently the Hunger Games are written in present tense. I haven't read them, and I don’t want to right now, because apparently they're also set in a desolate future and I don't want in any way to be influenced by that writing. But it's interesting that quite separately that author and I both decided to write near-future wasteland stories with the first person present tense. Maybe there's something about that "living on the edge" that calls to that style.

John Updike's Rabbit Run was written in the present tense and again it gives it that sense of you "being there right in the action". So is The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger.

So I do believe quite enthusiastically that all formats are valid, all have their own strengths, and choosing which one to use is like choosing which form of poetry to use for a given thought. The form effects how we read the words just as much as the words themselves do. I highly recommend reading poetry as a way of building up that sense of how word choice, word form, and word presentation can greatly affect the way the reader ingests the material.

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