In general, there are three tenses used in books. The first tense is past tense; “he touched the gate,” “she ran down the street.” A lot of older books use past tense. The second tense often used is present tense; “I look at her face,” “a bell goes off.” A lot of modern books are written in present tense. Although present tense is common, it is still challenging to keep the past tense out of the story. A lot of books slip in and out between past and present tense, which if done right, is almost unnoticeable, but if done poorly, can ruin any story.
A few books are written in future tense. Future tense is kind of an awkward tense to write in, which is why few books do it. Usually, a book will only use future tense for part of the book, since it can be strange. “I will chase the dog,” “the baby will soon cry.”
The tense that you choose is not as important as the continuity of the tense that you do choose. When the tense changes in a book, the results are jarring. It is awkward when a book written mainly in present tense switches to past or future tense or vice versa. When you are reading, and suddenly the book switches from past tense to present tense, your brain jumps out of the story and starts to pay attention to grammar. When that happens, your story is no longer engaging and the goal of your story has failed.
It sounds rather dramatic, but the tense that you choose can mean the difference between the life and death of a story.
What Tense is Best?
There are pros and cons for both tenses. In present tense, it is easy to convey action and plot development, but difficult to add descriptive passages or reflective narration. In past tense, it is easy to describe events and explore character themes, but action can feel stilted. If you are unsure of which tense would sound best with your particular plot theme, you can try both. Try writing the same page or chapter with one version in present tense and one version in past tense. Whichever version fits in best with the theme of your story is what you should use throughout the entire book.
What tense is your favorite to read?