Sunday, March 15, 2009

Present tense, or past?

Writers often like present tense when they write about something they've witnessed; present tense makes the scene feel more fresh, more there somehow. But past tense is powerful, too, and to me, present tense has to clear some hurdles before it gets in the paper.

If I come across present tense in a story I'm editing, I'll ask at least a few questions about it -- why use present tense? What are you accomplishing? Can you sustain present tense all the way through the story?

That last one is key. If the writer's answer is no, I usually advise the story be written all in past tense.

However ...

I've edited two stories in the past couple weeks, both of which opened with a scene in present tense. One was Melissa's story on Eric Sajko, and the other was Jeff's on Sean Brame. I thought past tense worked better in Melissa's, and she changed the present-tense scene to past. I thought the present-tense scene worked in Jeff's, and it's in the paper.

I remember talking with Melissa and saying, if you wanted to do the opening in present-tense, I think you'd have to set it off as its own part of the story, to put us in that scene as a way of making a point or showing us something important about the story; then make a clear break to a new and different part of the story. You couldn't write in present tense for several grafs and then suddenly shift to past in the middle of the story. It just doesn't work.

In Jeff's story, the opening scene is set off; it shows us something important about the story and it does so by allowing us to be in the scene as it unfolds. And there is a significant break in scene/topic when you move into the second section.

Bottom line is, I'm comfortable that both stories were well-served by decisions on verb tenses. Both are very good; both have descriptive scenes with good action verbs and bright observations rendered in fresh language by the writers. They were both a pleasure to read, let alone edit.

Read the openings to both stories, and let me know what you think.