The Benefits and Drawbacks of Past Tense
When you write, there are numerous things that you need to decide. The tense you use in is one of those things, and choosing the right one for your story will set the tone and pace perfectly. This essay looks at past tense; what it is and the positives and negatives of using it.
Past tense is writing your piece with the view that these events have already happened. You are literally writing about the past. There are four different types of past tense: simple past, past continuous, past perfect, and past perfect continuous.
Simple past tense is used to describe an action or event that both started and finished in the past.
I wrote a book yesterday.
Past continuous tense is used to describe either an action that was interrupted, be it an actual interruption that your character experiences or an interruption of time, or actions that are happening parallel to each other.
I was writing a book when the power went out.
Past perfect tense is used to describe an event that happened in the past prior to another event that you are describing.
I had never written a book before yesterday.
Past Perfect Continuous
Past perfect continuous tense is used to describe a continuous action or event that was completed in the past.
I had been writing a book for hours before I finished.
Each different iteration of past tense can and should be used in your work if you are writing about the past. They should all culminate together.
I quit smoking. I had been partaking of that particular vice for decades before the cancer set in. I hadn’t had any problems until I had that goddamn routine check-up. The scan seemed to go on for an eternity.
You don’t need to worry about the nitty gritty details of which type of past tense you are using for a particular sentence at one time, but it’s a good idea to keep in mind the differences between each and use them to convey the message that you are trying to convey. But is past tense the right one for your story?
Past tense allows you, as the writer, to more freely jump around the timeline of your story. It’s easier to make a non-linear story when you’re writing about past events without the use of flashbacks. Doing this properly can lead to a stronger story telling experience and can feel more fluid or natural than it does in present tense.
Past tense is the more traditional of the tenses. Because of this, and the prevalence of past tense literature, it tends to be slightly more enjoyable for the reader. Don’t get me wrong, a well-written book in present or even future tense is a great thing, just as a past tense book, but it is something to consider your readers when deciding what tense to write in.
Because of the very nature of past tense, you are in a much stronger position to paint the whole picture of an event. When writing in present tense you are in the moment and it isn’t always clear how the event have come about. This is much easier to do in past tense when you can reflect on why events happened, allowing you to build suspense and understanding.
Despite the advantages of being able to paint the whole picture in past tense, it can slow down the pace. Because of how reflective past tense tends to be, you aren’t in the moment as much as you can be in other tenses. This can lessen the impact of your story.
The story has finished. The events that you’re depicting are done and dusted, the reader knows this and it’s a pretty safe bet that the narrator or protagonist survives until the end. This can make it harder to surprise the reader or drop in your twists and turns.
It’s well established that you should show instead of tell. This greatly improves the impact and the quality of your story. It is much easier to slip into telling when you’re using past tense. You’re telling the reader what happened, instead of showing them and really experiencing all of the moment. Because of this, there can be a tendency to have a passive narrator voice that doesn’t connect with the reader as much as the other tenses can.
Past tense is, personally, my favourite tense to write in. I find it the most comfortable of the tenses for me to tell the story that I’m trying to tell. Also, the disadvantages can, largely, be overcome by being aware of them and making sure that your writing is strong enough to make past tense work for you if it’s right for your story.
Next: Present Tense
© 2016 David Chitty
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
David Chitty was born and raised in Thanet in the 90s. He devotes most of his energies to writing fantasy fiction novels.