What Tense Should You Write Your Novel In?

Writing a novel, but not sure which tense to use? Bryan takes you through all of the tenses, what they mean for your novel, and helps you decide which one will best suit your writing style.


In my view this is one of the most important questions a writer should ask themselves. Not only will the choice of tense alter the story, it will key on the writer’s strength or weakness. It’s rare for us to be good at everything but if you are at the top of your game with past, present and future tense, please send me your autograph.

So…what exactly is a tense and why does it matter? Let’s dive in and find out.

An Overview of Tenses For Beginners

What is a verb tense?

A verb tense tells a story at a certain point. Either it has already happened (in the past), it is happening right now (in the present), or it will happen in the future. There are very few examples of literary writing in the future tense, but they do exist.

Your tense choice will change your book. Different tenses give you different feelings and different proximity to characters, so choose wisely before you start. It is not easy to change tenses once you’ve started!

Past Tense

Past tense, as you might guess, depicts past events: actions that have already happened. 

Example: I ran yesterday or I had a long talk with my dad.

It’s one of the most common ways of writing. Most readers like it because they’re looking at the characters’ past and discovering all the mistakes they made. A past tense narrative adds tension and mystery and all that good stuff that leads to the big reveal.

The past tense is made up of a true past tense and several auxiliary verb tenses:

The simple past tense: “I did”

The habitual past tense: “I used to do X”

The past perfect tense: “I had done X”

The past perfect progressive tense: “I had been doing X”

As you’ll see from these examples, you will naturally use some of them more than others when writing your novel in the past tense.

Present Tense

This is real time writing and I have to be honest, I’ve never tried it but I am curious what it would be like. I call it a short story way of writing where the story and the reader are inches apart. 

If your strength is short stories, this may be your thing, but a full length present-tense novel might be challenging. 

Here’s an example:

Bob goes to work every morning.

Lisa likes to play the drums.

Here’s a full length sentence:

I open the door and yell at her to stop bothering me. I am watching a movie and her voice is distracting me.

Side Note: I had to edit the example above. I’m so used to past tense that’s how I wrote it at first.

The worry I have by writing this way is the fear of running out of momentum. The present tense works best for stories that happen over a shorter amount of time. By doing so it would create tension and maybe a little mystery. For some people this works, but for me writing in the present tense feels challenging.

One of the best examples of present tense writing is The Hunger Games: the present-tense narrative keeps you right there in the moment with the characters. The Hunger Games uses the first person present tense, so you only get Katniss’s point of view. In this way, you get a sense of immediacy and intimacy with the main character that you don’t get with any other narrative tense. 

The present tense is also made up of several verb structures you can use to vary your writing:

The simple present tense: “I do X” (this one is used less commonly in English).

The present tense continuous: “I am doing X”

The present perfect tense: “I have done X”

The present perfect progressive: “I have been doing X”

Future Tense

I’ve never tried it and I doubt I ever will, but in order to write about it I had to do some research. In other words, Isabella put me to work.

Paybacks are hell, boss!!!

To help me on this, she gave me a link but instead of being lazy and telling your to click and learn, I read it instead and here’s what I found out:

The biggest hurdle is verbs. There are no future verb tenses in English. Instead, the English language uses auxiliary verbs.

Here’s an example: The word ‘Will’ is an auxiliary verb. Such as –  I will not talk to you ever again. 

Another way of thinking: Any sentence that refers to something that may or may not happen in the future is a form of a future tense. 

One of the biggest drawbacks I found is how it takes the reader out of the story and as a writer, that is one drawback you do not want. 

Overall I think this kind of writing style is best kept at a minimum. Kind of like a spice and we all know what happens when you add too much.

Where are you in your career?

Some of us are risk takers and I admire all of you who are. They have the courage to try new things, win or lose. They dip your toes in the unfamiliar ready to take a chance. If this is you, try writing in a tense you are unfamiliar with. Maybe a short story or, if you’re brave, a full length novel. You might fail or you might create a bad-ass super star novel.

Wherever you are in your career, experimenting is always an option but there is one guarantee to all this: The more you write the more you will recognize your strength in whatever tense you choose. 

If you’re just starting out in your writing career, write in the tense that feels most natural to you, and make sure you just stick to one!

What genre are you writing in?

I am finishing up my third novel and there are times when I wonder what genre it is. I added comedy, thriller, mystery and drama. I guess you could say I’ve packed it full of all things real life, but what is it?

I rarely think of the genre I’m writing. I let the readers or editors decide. It’s too hard writing a novel to have to worry about anything else. My advice to you is to write what you’re drawn to and worry about the genre later. I am drawn to the broken person. The emotionally beaten. At the same time I enjoy creating unintentional comedy used as a defence mechanism. Some have described my genre as romantic/comedy while others have labelled it realist literature.

If you’re writing a genre that needs you up-close to the action, consider using the present tense. If you’re writing something more thoughtful or slow-paced, past tense will probably work better.

Whatever the genre, my advice is to write your book and let others decide. The last thing you want is for someone to tell you to write a certain way. Write your way.  

Which point of view are you using?

My strength is first person. I love the unreliable narrator. I like the clumsiness, the comedy, but most of all the naive innocence. I enjoy looking through their eyes and being a part of their world. By doing so I capture a glimpse of their strength and fears and needs. The drawback to all this is the narrow vision it creates but that’s the chance I am willing to take.

As for you, the question you’ll need to ask is how much of your story are you willing to tell? Do you want a small dose or a large portion? To answer that question you’ll need to know your story before you start. What is it about? What are you trying to say? But most of all, how much of yourself are you going to give the reader?

If you’re using a narrator, it’s likely you will need to use the past tense, because your narrator is telling a story that already happened. The same goes for writing in the third person, although you have more wiggle-room with that one. If you’re writing in first person, the world is your oyster!


As you can see, I am a big believer in following your strength. We’re all good at something and once we figure out what that is we have the opportunity to be pretty good at it. What tense should you write in is a great question, but another question you should ask is this: What tense am I good at?

To answer that question you will have to experiment. You will succeed and fail and land in between. But somewhere along the way you’ll find your answer and when you do that is when you’ll get to work on an amazing story only you can tell. 

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