Past Tense or Present Tense and is it all Right to Mix Them?


I was taught you had to write either past tense or present tense and you couldn’t mix them. Once you picked your tense, you have to stick with it until the end. Recently, I’ve read some work by unpublished writers that switched between past tense and present tense. I found it disturbing and it took my focus off the story. The writer used present tense to increase tension during action scenes making it sound like the action was happening now. The same writer read some of my work and suggested I do the same thing. My question is this, isn’t that breaking grammar rules or am I behind the times? I know Charles Dickens wrote some books that have both past tense and present tense but did he mix them together in the same chapter? I’ve never read any of the books he used this technique in so I don’t know how  it was used. All books I’ve read are either all past tense or all present tense and the few I have read in present tense bothered me. I didn’t like that they were written in present tense and I stopped reading.

I researched this issue online and I agree with the crowd that says you should write fiction in the past tense. Writing your story in present tense isn’t fooling anyone. It’s not happening now. It doesn’t heighten the tension or suspense. I think it’s a cheap trick to be different and used by writers who haven’t yet learned how to write suspense well yet. I know from personal experience it’s also distracting. I’m not living in your fictional world, I’m concentrating on how annoyed I am at the present tense.

Maybe I’m old fashion but I find past tense to be invisible in fiction. Even though I’m on the past tense band wagon, I wanted to make sure my suggestions to other writers are grammatically correct, that you can’t mix them. If there is an English teacher or an English major out there please let me know what the correct answer is so I am not giving bad advise to new writers.

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13 thoughts on “Past Tense or Present Tense and is it all Right to Mix Them?

  1. I wouldn’t say I’m an expert, but my degree is in English, and I know that I had multiple professors mark up papers I’d written when I tense shifted (switched between past and present tense). As a basic rule, you shouldn’t do it. As writers, we know “rules” are more like “guidelines”, and not written in stone, but unless you can pull it off seamlessly, and not rip your reader out of the story, don’t do it. If you’re pulled out of the story, then I’d suggest telling the writer to change it.

  2. I’m thinking the best advise is not to mix them. I’ve never read anything published that uses past and present tense mixed in the same chapter or even in the same book. I have heard that The Time Travelers Wife uses both so I might pick that book up just to see how it’s handled.

  3. I stumbled onto your post because of the previous commentor’s post, which was tweeted by a writer I follow.

    Tense is something I struggle with when writing fiction. I think you are far more likely to see “mixing” of tenses in first person narration, but it takes a talented writer to pull it off effectively. It should serve a purpose, in my opinion (like I imagine it would with the Time Traveler’s Wife, though I haven’t read that).

    I used to think I didn’t like present tense (and young adult fiction) but I recently read The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins, and once I got used to the present, I found it an effective way to bring a sense of urgency to the action.

  4. I just read The Hunger Games myself and it was the first book I liked written in present tense. I plan to read the rest of the series. The present tense didn’t stick out like a sore thumb like other books I’ve come across in present tense. It does seem to me that more authors are choosing to write in present tense, but I still haven’t seen mixing of tenses except where it was gramatically correct like present tense talking about something in the past etc.

  5. Pingback: Thank you Juliette Wade for the wonderful compliment! « So Much To Write, So Little Time

  6. I am having that problem with my novel. I am writing mainly in past tense, first person. But I have heard that when something is a fact and is a constant then I should write it in present tense. For example, if I talk about the characterisitics of a vampire, which will be true to the end of time in my book, shouldn’t I write it in present tense since writing it in past tense seems like it was only true back then? I am working on this one paragraph right now and I have this sentence: “Werewolves are notorious for their resentment in being helped.” In my book this will always be true. It’s a werewolf trait. So if I wrote it like this: “Werewolves were notorious for their resentment in being helped.” Doesn’t it sound like it use to be true but isn’t anymore? I am so confused. What do you guys think?

  7. I think you are right, present information should be in the present tense.

    I’ve been told that first person narrative is the hardest to write but I think it is also the hardest to read because a storyteller may switch tenses or throw in present tense commentary to a past tense story.

    ie. My brother was a terrible liar. And he still is.

    It makes sense when you reason it out but not necessarily when you read it. I find those stories are best read aloud or as though there is a bard in my head telling me the tale.

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