IWSG—The right tense makes all the difference


Every first Wednesday of the month, members of the Insecure Writer’s Support Group share worries, insecurities, triumphs, hopes, and fears. Starting this month, there’s a new feature, wherein participants answer a question. It can either serve as a jumping-off point for the entire post, or be used as merely part of the overall post. This month’s question is:

What’s the best thing someone has ever said about your writing?

I’ve received many compliments over the years, seeing as how I’ve been writing since age four and always went above and beyond in all my writing assignments in school. My fourth grade teacher (the one who forced me out of much of my Aspie shell with her tough love) saw so much potential in me, she had me read my novelette-length stories to the class all the time.


Another really nice thing said to me came from Sarah Wesson, a blogger who worriedly hasn’t posted anything in almost a year. She was a weekly participant in Weekend Writing Warriors and the now-discontinued Six Sentence Sunday, until she had a severe attack of pancreatitis. A lot of us miss her contributions, and really hope she’s okay.

I believe it was on one of my WeWriWa posts about Inessa Zyuganova’s flight from the USSR into Poland with her children in 1937, when Sarah commented that it had just dawned on her that I was writing in present tense. She honestly hadn’t realised this from the jump, and said it was little wonder she always felt pulled right into my scenes and intensely felt the drama.

This is why I made the decision to use present tense (third-person omniscient) for my Russian novels back at the beginning of ’93. I’d recently read Ida Vos’s Hide and Seek, and it was a revelation to discover books could be written in present tense. It made the action so much more immediate, dramatic, intense, right there in the moment, continually unfolding, never knowing what would happen next, wondering if all the characters would make it.

grammar meme pic 24

That was a carefully-considered decision, years before present tense became such a hot trend. I’d also had years of practice with past tense, so I wasn’t jumping into both writing and present tense at the same time. I agree it’s best to have some practice with past tense before playing with present, since you’re more likely to understand how to use it well and when a story calls for that vs. the classic, traditional default of past tense.

I cannot imagine my Russian characters, nor the Troys and the Ryans of my contemporary historical family saga, existing in anything but present tense. Forcing past tense on them would ruin the entire mood and world. It’s just like some actors exist in black and white or silence for all time. I just instinctively knew those stories called for present tense.

Some people refuse to read anything in present tense, and while I agree it’s become very oversaturated and the default among those who think past tense is old-fashioned or never read many books in past tense, it’s kind of snobbish to insist every single story be in past tense. Some stories demand more intense emotions and immediacy, which can only come from present tense. It’s all about choosing it wisely, and knowing what kinds of stories work best in present tense.


9 thoughts on “IWSG—The right tense makes all the difference

  1. Present tense can be awkward if not done well. I’ve rarely attempted writing in the present. Although if handled skillfully it can work pretty effectively. Good luck with that challenge.

    Arlee Bird
    Tossing It Out


  2. I used to hate present tense. It made me so angry when I’d pick up a book I really wanted to read and that was the story telling method. Then I’d get used to it a couple pages in. I don’t mind it anymore–as long as it’s not blatant about being present. (Does that make sense?) I even have one character who REFUSED to tell her story until I let her tell it in present tense. It totally fits her personality, so I get it.


  3. Past tense in the only one I can write. It makes me sense for me as a writer and a reader.

    I love teachers who help us see we have talent. I had a few of those myself now that I think of it. One once wrote on my essay “I can see you’re a writer.” And she added a smiley face. I beamed for the rest of the day. 🙂


  4. Fantastic compliments!!! I enjoy both past and present tense. For some reason, I write in past tense, but really love reading the immediate action/feel of present tense. It’s awesome you can pull it off!!!! 😀


  5. All my stories except one are in the past tense. It feels more organic to me to write this way, but when done right, the present tense could be wonderful. Some of the best books I read were written in the present tense. I guess, it’s simply the writer’s choice. I never could understand readers who refuse to read present tense. It feels so narrow-minded to just dismiss something you’re not used to.


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