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I'm writing a short story but I'm not sure whether to write it in the past or the present tense.

This is the opening paragraph:

Sophia was awakened by the rattling sound of her washing machine. She groaned, rubbed her eyes, and glanced at her watch. It was just 2:00A.M. Barely conscious, she sat on the corner of her bed. It took her a moment to realize that she wasn't washing her clothes. That'd been something she'd decided to do in the morning. Besides, she would never think of doing the laundry at this time of the night. Sophia started to feel a sudden panic. Maybe someone entered the apartment, she thought. But it was ridiculous; who would enter someone's apartment in the middle of the night to wash the person's clothes? She stood up from the bed and walked towards her door. Then, she stared at the knob for a moment, gave it a turn, and exited the door.

Sophia is waken up by the rattling sound of her washing machine. She groans, rubs her eyes, and glances at her watch. 2:00A.M. Barely conscious, she sits on the corner of her bed. It takes her a moment to realize that she isn't washing her clothes. That was something she'd decided to do in the morning. Besides, she would never think of doing the laundry at this time of the night. Sophia starts to feel a sudden panic. Maybe someone entered the apartment, she thinks. But it's ridiculous; who would enter someone's apartment in the middle of the night to wash the person's clothes? She stands up from the bed and walks towards her door. Then, she stares at the knob for a moment, gives it a turn, and exits the door.

I've been rewriting my stories in the present tense recently, but I can never decide which one to use.

What works better in this case? (And how do writers decide which one to use?)

(By the way, does it grab your attention?)

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Interesting question! Within the story, what context will these paragraphs be in? Do you have any particular concerns? Knowing things like this will enable people to give you answers that are more detailed and useful than answers that boil down to explaining the effect present and past tense have on the reader. (Better yet would be a longer excerpt.) –  Neil Fein Jan 26 '13 at 4:32
    
@Neil Fein How about now? –  Alexandro Chen Jan 26 '13 at 4:41
    
Definitely helps. Are you going for a sense of immediacy, or perhaps putting reader more into the character's head? Because if you want the latter, using first person might accomplish that more effectively. –  Neil Fein Jan 26 '13 at 4:57
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@Neil Fein I guess I want some sense of immediacy in the opening paragraph. I'm not sure about the rest (I haven't thought about the rest of the story). I think I don't want to use first-person since I want to hide the main character's true feelings (e.g. she's scared of getting engaged). –  Alexandro Chen Jan 26 '13 at 5:06
    
I finished the short story: alexandrochen.com/existential-fiction/washing-machine (in case someone wants to read it). –  Alexandro Chen Jan 27 '13 at 10:53
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3 Answers

up vote 5 down vote accepted

The second one is stronger but that will wear off as soon as the tension loosens its grip. Generally, past tense is easier to read, feels more natural for smooth storytelling. It's the default mode.

If that's a short story, you can keep it in present tense. If you want a novel with slower passages, better either pick past tense or work on smooth switching of tenses - the point of switch, to be smooth, needs some special attention. Writing whole novel in present tense? I'd give it a pass.

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I agree with SF. Let me add:

It is conventional in English to write or tell stories in the past tense. Anything else is unusual. Any time you do something unusual, if you do it well and use it appropriately, it grabs the readers attention. In this case, it gives a sense of immediacy. But if overused, it becomes distracting and/or comes across as a cheap gimmick.

I've read lots of stories where the author tries to use some clever little gimmick like this to liven up a story. Sometimes it works, but usually it doesn't. In general, I think you should try to make a story interesting by having an interesting story, not by introducing a gimmick. What is the difference between skillful use of language and a cheap gimmick? If I could give a simple answer to that, I'd probably be a lot richer and more famous than I am.

I haven't seen the rest of your story, so maybe it works in this case. But my advice would be: don't. Or at least, be slow to do this. Stick with the conventional past tense. Because once you write one paragraph in the present tense, you're pretty much forced to write the entire story in present tense or there will be jarring breaks when you shift tenses. You paint yourself into a corner where you have to beat the gimmick to death. Some gimmicks are easy to slide in and out. Like, you can write one paragraph where all the sentences are two words long to give some effect, and then shift to more normal sentences in the next paragraph. It's tougher to do this with past vs present tense.

Maybe you could write the whole story in present tense and it wouldn't become annoying, but I doubt it. Maybe you could find a way to make a smooth transition.

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I'd say the past tense, the first entry would be the better one, because even a few minutes after the event, just after Sophia's woken up, is already in the past.

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