Narrative Tense and POV


Narrative Tense (1)

This lesson is adapted from an article by Beth Hill that appears on The Editor's Blog.

Narrative tense refers to the manner in which you present the actions of your story world. Do narrator and viewpoint characters see actions and events as happening in the past or do they act as if the events are happening right now?

Do they say—

  • Marlboro raced through the forest. [Past]


  • Marlboro races through the forest. [Present]
  • Tilly, aching for one sight of her lover, waited at the abandoned cottage and watched for riders on the old north road. [Past]


  • Tilly, aching for one sight of her lover, waits at the abandoned cottage and watches for riders on the old north road. [Present]
  • feared the man who was my father; his voice alone demanded respect. [Past]


  • I fear the man who is my father; his voice alone demands respect. [Present]

Past Tense

Most stories are told using the simple pastwas, walked, drank, hoped. Stories using the past tense are written the same way stories have been told for years—once upon a time, sometime before the present time, these marvelous characters existed and lived out a fantastic adventure. They did these things, these events are over, and someone can’t resist telling you all about these happenings and adventures.

When I say most stories, I mean the great majority of stories. Oral stories as well as written fiction are told using the past tense. It’s common to readers, it’s common to writers, and it’s been the prevalent format for storytelling for years and years and years.

It’s so common that readers don’t notice it; they simply jump into the story’s adventure.

Present Tense

The present tense—is, walks, drinks, hopes—on the other hand, is rare. Yes, we all know wonderful stories told using present tense. Yet in comparison to the number of novels that use the simple past, present-tense novels are few in number. Present-tense narration is also much more recent a practice.

While the present tense is not common in fiction, some writing uses present tense as a matter of course—

Literary Present Tense

This term refers to the style of writing used in book reports, book reviews, and essays about literature—all of which sometimes require you to summarize the events in another person's story.

Thus, for example, let's say you have read a Harry Potter book, and in this book there is a line which reads:

Harry Potter went to the Chamber of Secrets, and he saw a monster.

Now your teacher has asked you write a book report (or your editor has asked you to write a book review). In this case, when describing this event in the story, you would use present tense, like this:

In the second chapter, Harry Potter goes to the Chamber of Secrets and he sees a monster . . .

It's just one of these quirky traditions about writing: When writing about fictitious characters in someone else's story, use present tense. Once again, this use of present tense is called the literary present tense.

Key Point

Use past tense most of the time.

Use present tense when discussing the events in someone else's book.