A crazy thing happened today. Review-Worm.com posted a question on Twitter: “Is it better to write in the simple past tense or the more trendy present tense? What are your thoughts?”
Had you asked me this question two years ago, I would have answered without hesitation—present (as evidenced by my first book: the Legends of Amun Ra series, The Emerald Tablet, is written in present tense.)
Why? Because I like the way it sounds. Something about “he runs” rather than “he ran” sounds more immediate, more vibrant to me. Maybe I’m weird, but to me the present tense makes the action real.
If you ask me that question now, I would say simple past is the way to go. Why the change you ask? Simple, I say, because it’s less confusing and obtrusive to the reader when you do a tense shift. Watch and learn kids.
“Mary sees the picture on the nightstand. It reminds her of her mother, full of hope and life. When Mary was twelve, she saw her mother get hit by a car. She screamed a dreadful shriek. Mary almost fainted…”
See what happened there? We went from the present tense “Mary sees” and “it reminds” to the simple past “was twelve she saw” and “she screamed.” You noticed the tense shift didn’t you?
Now watch what happens when we go from simple past to past perfect. (If you don’t know what past perfect tense is, it is when something occurred before another action in the past. It can also show that something happened before a specific time in the past.
“Mary saw the picture on the nightstand. It reminded her of her mother, full of hope and life. When Mary was twelve, she had seen her mother get hit by a car. She had screamed a dreadful shriek. Mary had almost fainted…”
See that? The difference and tense shift was so subtle you may not have noticed, especially if you didn’t know the rules of grammar.
So why will everything I write be written in simple past? Simple, I say, because I don’t want ignorant people coming up to me and saying my tenses are wrong when I go from present to simple past. It’s a simple thing really, if you know the rules of grammar.
P.S. I do want to stress that writing in either present or simple past is perfectly fine and correct. Doing a tense shift from present to simple past is the same thing as going from simple past to past perfect. Great literature has been and will continue to be written in both tenses. But when you’re writing a book, you need to decide which one up front.