Storytelling: Narrative Tense

Narrative tense tells the reader WHEN a story is taking place, such as present or simple past tense.

This does not necessarily limit verb tense entirely, but it means a large portion of the story relates events in that tense.

How to Choose the Right Narrative Tense

What narrative tense a story is told in can greatly affect how events are related and how easily a reader can connect with the storytelling. Consider each tense carefully before choosing the best fit for your story.

Present tense:

Present tense tells the story as if it were currently happening. This provides immediacy for the reader. It is, however, less common and requires an adjustment period for readers, and some readers dislike it regardless of the story or characters.

Using present tense can make the right story seem more unique or novel, when done well. It creates a level of intensity that can be hard to achieve when using past tense because the reader feels as though they are experiencing or watching events in real time more easily.

Believability, however, can be more difficult because the writing has to convince readers that the events could be happening right then.

Simple Past Tense:

Simple past tense tells the story as though it has already happened.It is the most common tense and is easily accepted by readers. Because it is so common, it requires no adjustment period for readers to acclimate to the style. It’s also accepted in most genres.

It does create more distance between character and reader, because the events have already taken place. That distance can be a good thing for particularly intense subject matter. Some readers simply do not want to feel they are in the story as it is happening, as with present tense, and like having the distance.

Other Tenses:

There are three other narrative tense, which include past continuous, past perfect simple, and past perfect continuous. These tense, however, are not typically used to write an entire story or novel, but are used in particular instances when they are needed.

Past continuous describes action in progress, such “They were walking.”

Past perfect simple describes action that occurred before a character entered the scenes, such as “They had walked.”

Past perfect continuous describes action in progress that occurred as a character entered a scene, such as “They had been walking.”

While it is important to know these tenses and use them appropriately, they are not typically a factor in choose the narrative tense for an entire story or novel.