Hello fellow writers! When it comes to writing commercial historical fiction, your options are pretty much limited to:
- Present Tense: I kill the dragon
- Past Tense: I killed the dragon?
But which one should you choose? Here are some things to consider.
Which is more common in fiction?
At the time of this writing, past tense is the most commonly used tense for writing historical fiction. However, that’s starting to change. Philippa Gregory, a giant in the industry, writes almost exclusively in first person present tense. Because many readers are graduating from Young Adult fiction, where present tense is popular, they’re more likely to accept it. However, if you want to write the most saleable, accessible fiction that you can, past tense is probably your best bet.
Advantages of Past Tense
- Past tense is more expected in fiction–it’s less likely to startle your reader or editor
- You can play around with time, skipping ahead to what the narrator now knows. (Example from my novel, AMERICA’S FIRST DAUGHTER: In the faint light of the rising dawn, William Short, my mother’s kinsman stepped forward. Ah, William. How strange it is to realize now that he was always with us. From the very start. From that first frantic moment when I learned what it truly meant to be the daughter of a revolutionary.)
- You can infuse childish thoughts with present day perspective. (Example: I was too young to understand the import of those words. But of course now, I know what he was really trying to tell me.)
Disadvantages of Past Tense
- Past tense lacks immediacy–it’s harder for the reader to feel in the thick of things b/c it happened in the past and the danger is over.
- Brings up questions about when exactly your narrator is telling this tale.
- Past tense occasionally causes tortured grammar when you have to say something had had happened…
Advantages of Present Tense
- Present tense lends immediacy. Plunges the reader directly into the story.
- Present tense simplifies your grammar.
- Present tense forces you to bring the world into sharp focus as the narrator is experiencing it.
- Present tense can strengthen your writing voice.
Disadvantages of Present Tense
- When paired with third person point-of-view, it can be stilted and unnecessarily distancing
- Present tense isn’t as common and therefore some readers think it’s somehow ‘wrong’ to write a story this way. It “pulls them out” of the story and they will refuse to read on.
- There’s no such thing as hindsight with a present tense narration; you can’t offer perspective of a future, wiser character looking back on his or her story.