Tensing up

I used to write short stories by sitting down and starting. Blank page, rough word count in mind, and go.

These days, I’m less inclined to begin without knowing where I’m going. (Yes, I traded in pantserdom for plannerdom.) I’ll start in my notebook, jotting down character or setting notes, poking at plot points. I might even start writing a paragraph or two by hand, to see if it feels right, before I transition to a Word document or OneNote page.

I’ve been working on my February short story for The Accidental Magic Project for about a week now, starting with the above notebook material. I’d actually come up with a potential starting place, and typed up five paragraphs of prose virtually…but then I’d stalled. It didn’t feel quite right.

I went over and over and over the words, looking for the weak spots. I tweaked something here and there half-heartedly. It didn’t feel like the changes were fixing the problem.

Then last night, I was reading it “aloud” in my head, and about halfway through it struck me — I had changed the tense from past to present in my reading.

The story came alive! My main character, Savas, wasn’t just dickish in the past, he was dickish now, and this gave the narrative the immediacy I didn’t even know I’d been looking for. Off I went, speeding towards the plot points I’d outlined in my notebook.

Which brings me to the point of this post: If you’re stuck, try changing tenses. It won’t solve every instance of writer’s block, but it’s an immediate, powerful shift in purpose and perspective.

In present tense, I find that characters’ desires are more pressing, more present. I also find that even when I’m writing in third person, I draw closer to my main character when I write in present tense. (I use present tense exclusively in my [stalled] serial story “A Mutiny of Pirates.”)

Some stories demand the emotional distance provided by past tense. But if you’re sensing that yours doesn’t, give present tense a whirl and see how it goes.