Writing in Past Tense or Present Tense

There seems to be a new decision to be made in today’s book market besides writing in first or third person and that is writing in past tense or present tense. You can pick up various books in most genres and see that all possible combinations are being used from first person present tense to the tried and true third person past tense. So how does one choose which is best for them?

What’s a First Person and Who’s the Third Person?

The easiest way to determine the point of view (POV) of a text is to pick out the pronouns being used. The use of Me, Myself, I and We denotes first person POV. The use of You and Your denotes second person POV. The use of John, He, Him, Sally, She, Her, and as a couple They, Them is third person POV. Memoires tend to be written in the first person, much of fiction is written in the third person and many how-to books and blogs use the second person.

Don’t Wrinkle Time

My husband and I took our kids to see A Wrinkle in Time this weekend (loved it!). Let me tell you how much I wish I could just fold space and time when my flight is delayed on a long trip home. However, wrinkling time when you are writing a book must be done methodically.

You can purposefully switch from present tense to past tense as you tell a story that bounces back and forth, but it has to be in well-defined sections and done sparingly enough that we are not bouncing back and forth so quickly that we get time-traveler’s airsickness. When not done purposefully, switching tenses within the same paragraph and even passage can be confusing for the reader.

Examples of Tenses that Worked

The Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon is also time travel fiction story written in the first person solely in the past tense despite the main character going from present to past to present to past. Love Warrior by Glennon Doyle is a memoir exploring her life from childhood to present all written in first person present tense. Pilot to Profit by Lisa Larter is a business book where stories are told in the first person past tense and advice is told in second person present tense. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle is a classic fiction novel written in the classic third person past tense. All four books draw the reader in so well that you don’t even realize the tenses unless you stop and pay attention.

The important thing to remember is Consistency. As long as the point of view and tense is purposeful and doesn’t bounce around like a tennis ball at Wimbledon, you should be just fine. Remember to keep the reader in mind, and have fun writing.

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