Past Tense vs Present Tense

by Darrell Winfrey

If you’re looking for an article detailing the pros and cons of writing in the past tense or present tense, this is not the one.  Do a search for the thousands, possibly millions, of articles already written on the subject.  Some are quite informative, while others are clearly biased against one or the other.  I believe that storytelling is an art form, and the artist should use whatever they feel works for the story being told.

While past tense is more common in fiction, there’s no hard, fast rule dictating one over the other.  What exists right now is more of a trend or convention that could change like many other ‘written in stone’ writing rules from decades ago.  One interesting thing about this trend is that nearly all books written in past tense have their blurbs and synopses written in the present tense.  It’s almost impossible to find a summary written in the past tense.  Doing so might lose that sense of urgency that people try to achieve, but it would still be just as valid otherwise.

What many of these conventions and rules boil down to is audience preference.  Yes, I know some rules serve specific functional purposes, but I’m not talking about those.  There are some readers who absolutely refuse to read a book written in the present tense.  And there’s nothing wrong with that.  What’s wonderful about any art form is that there’s a diverse pool of people out there with a wide range of tastes.  If you have a particular defining style, you’ll eventually find an audience who prefers that style.  The size of said audience can vary, depending on the popularity or obscurity of your work.

As an audience member and creator, I don’t have a preference for past or present tense.  Past tense feels more natural to me because of its prevalence.  But if I’m reading a book written in the present tense, all I care about is whether or not the story is engaging.  There are poorly written books in past and present tense.  Such books should not be used as benchmarks to indict either style.

Here’s a question.  When you’re watching a movie, what tense are the events unfolding on screen?  Some would say it is always past tense because the film was already made.  Many screenwriters, directors, and showrunners would tell you that films are almost always present tense, even if set in the past.  Every script I have ever read is written in the present tense.  What you see on screen tries to pull you in alongside the main character.  Some stories do this better than others.

I happen to write stories for a unique kind of interactive film that doesn’t exist… yet.  Past tense could work in an interactive narrative, but it takes away the ‘in the moment’ feel inherent to the medium.  In recent years, I’ve noticed that a growing audience is interested in unconventional storytelling compared to ten years ago.  My goal is to deliver something entertaining while encouraging people to explore various aspects of the art.  Hopefully, more creators will venture into the interactive realm with their takes on more unique stories.

When it comes to artistry, I hope we don’t find ourselves constraining it to a bureaucracy of rules.  I understand that some artists declare that their art is “representative of this specific style of the such-and-such era with a hint of [insert obscure artist’s name]ian flare.”  That’s fine.  Many other artists just want to express themselves within their personal style.  If none of the work they are most passionate about sells, they have to decide whether or not they’re OK with that.  When it comes to my passion work, one saying I have is: “My audience hasn’t been born yet.”

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