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Writers: Choose Your tense

Cover of "Bright Lights, Big City (Blooms...

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In yesterday’s post I lamented some choices I made in an earlier draft of a story called The Dangerous Kind. In my latest revision I chose to change the tense. Let’s explore that. 

First off, let’s be clear: some people despise short stories and novels written in the present tense. They would prefer no writer ever did so again. Those people  are demagogues espousing that there’s only one way which just happens to be theirs. If present tense and a little risk aren’t your taste that’s fine, but to declare no one should dare to write in first-person, present-tense or second tense is a declaration against art. Art takes risk and if it plays it plays. 

I loved the novel Bright Lights, Big City. Before it was published I bet there were a lot of people who said, “A whole novel that’s second-person? You do this. You do that for a couple hundred pages? No way.” 

Answer: Way. 

 Jay McInerney wrote Bright Lights, Big City in second-person and made it  great. Don’t turn down a nontraditional way of telling a story because it’s unconventional. Cut it when it doesn’t work. Recently an entire novel which I scanned but can’t say I read was written in first-person plural. It was a brave choice that worked for a lot of critics. (I didn’t read it because of the subject matter, not because it was “We, we, we” for a couple of  hundred pages.) 

So back to my editing problem: In earlier versions of my story, I wrote the whole thing in first person, present tense. The advantage of present tense is that things are unfolding moment to moment before the reader’s eyes. Present tense makes the action immediate. The Dangerous Kind is about two brothers who do not get along. Soon after losing their father to an industrial accident, they go hunting for deer in the woods of Maine. Dire complication ensue. I chose past tense first because of the action involved in the deer hunt and also because the piece lent itself to an uncertain ending. Would the protagonist survive? 

Necessary side note: You can tell a story in first person and still kill off your first-person narrator. I won’t say don’t do it, of course. The only solid rule should be, if it plays, it plays. However, a caution: It has been done a lot so, for it to succeed, it must be done very well. That’s a trick that’s harder to pull off with longer fiction because it’s a downer to read a couple hundred pages and have your hero killed off. It worked in the movie Sunset Boulevard spectacularly well because you’re already disappointed in the narrator’s choices and end up entranced by Gloria Swanson

Back to editing The Dangerous Kind: After getting a rejection on the story from a magazine, I reread the piece with fresh eyes and realized I could shift it into the past tense. The story is ultimately about the choices we make and how even when things work out terribly, maybe that could work out for the best. (I realized recently that’s a theme in much of my fiction, but that’s another post for another day.) Once I decided that the climax of the story wasn’t a murder but an escape, it was okay for the reader to assume the protagonist survived. After that, I opened up to dumping present tense for the more traditional past tense. (I kept the first-person perspective.) 

However, in the final scene, there’s a subtle twist that I think works well. The bulk of the story basically unfolds over the course of a single November day. At the end, I gently switch to present tense so the reader realizes the protagonist is recounting this story, deciding where things went awry and what he’ll do next at the end of that day. He’s sorting out what the day’s events and choices mean to the rest of this life by retelling the story to himself. The conclusion is one-third bitterness, two-thirds hopeful. Because of the shift in tense back to the present, it makes the story more immediate as it closes. 

Tomorrow I’ll show you an excerpt from an earlier draft and how I edited it to make the plot’s engine work. 

Filed under: Books, Editing, manuscript evaluation, movies, My fiction, rules of writing, , , , , ,

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