Writing Books/Story Format


I am currently writing a story that takes place many years ago. It is written in first person past tense. While writing, though, I find myself occasionally slipping into present tense. When the narrator is describing a character, I want to write something like:

Fred is a good friend.

Instead of:

Fred was a good friend.

It seems to me that if written in past tense, the reader would have no way of knowing that Fred is still alive at the end.

I could write: Fred was, and still is, a good friend. But doing that for every character seems to be overkill.

Should I always stick with past tense, or can I occasionally jump to present tense to clarify, or does it matter if the reader assumes the character is no longer alive? Part of the problem is that some of the characters are dead and some are alive by the end.

Additionally, the last chapter jumps to present day, but is still written in past tense. Would it be wiser to write it in first person present tense, or should I stick with past tense to remain consistent?

Thank you.

It would be difficult to give a definite answer without reading the story, and I cannot read the story without charging a fee, because I am a professional editor. Still, I will do my best to respond.

Present tense is usually fine for poetry and short stories, but past tense is usually best in novels. Shifting from past to present tense can be confusing to readers, so without reading the story, I will say that in most cases, past tense is appropriate throughout, except in dialogue and direct thoughts.

When a character is the narrator, though, sometimes the guidelines can bend a little. I say go with your gut and write it as you feel it works best.  After you finish and get feedback from an editor or critique circle, you may decide to change it, but then again, you may not. If you can defend your reasons for writing something the way you did, you may be the best judge.

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Bobbie Christmas


Book Doctor Bobbie Christmas owns Zebra Communications, a book-editing firm in metro Atlanta. She not only edits books, she also helps writers power up their prose to increase their chances of success. She is the author of Write In Style (Union Square Publishing), a creative-writing guide that won three awards.


Bobbie has spent more than 40 years in the publishing and communications industry and has run Zebra Communications, a book-editing company, since 1992. The editor of many publications and periodicals, she has worked with book publishers and trade magazine publishers as well as working in marketing communications and corporate communications.

Past president, Georgia Writers Association; past vice president, South Carolina Writers Workshop; charter/lifelong member, Florida Writers Association; Southeastern Writers Association; Atlanta Writers Club; Society for the Preservation of English Language and Literature (SPELL); International Guild of Professional Consultants

Write in Style (Union Square Publishing), A Cup of Comfort (Adams Media Corporation), A Cup of Comfort for Friends (Adams Media), A Cup of Comfort for Mothers and Sons (Adams Media), Haunted Engounters (Atriad Press), Remembering Woolworth's (St. Martin's Press), First-Time Home Buyer magazine, HomeBusiness Journal, Apparel Industry Magazine, Edge Magazine, Atlanta Jewish Times, Time Travel Australia, American Writers Review, Points North, That's Entertainment, Atlanta Parent, Agnes Scott Alumnae Magazine, etc.

Journalism: University of South Carolina plus four decades of working in publishing, marketing, communications, advertising, newspaper and magazine production, book publishing, etc.

Awards and Honors
First Place, nonfiction, Georgia Writers Annual Contest, 2005; First Place, education, Royal Palm Literary Award, 2004; Best in Division, Georgia Author of the Year Awards, 2005; Finalist, Best Books 2005, USA BookNews Third Place, nonfiction, Georgia Writers, 1999; Nominated for Georgia Author of the Year, 1998; plus many other awards

Past/Present Clients
Capital Books, Sourcebooks, Olin Frederick, The Writer's Machine, Russell Dean & Company, Outskirts Press, and hundreds of writers.

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