This post was originally published at Novelicious.com and is now at WritingTipsOasis.com. WritingTipsOasis.com acquired Novelicious.com in June 2022.
Along with point of view (POV), deciding on which tense to use to tell your story is one of the big decisions. It affects the feel of the story, as well as the things you can easily describe.
As such, it's easy to tie yourself up in knots over making the 'right' decision. Which, let's be honest, can easily turn into the perfect excuse for not writing the story at all…
I'd advise that you get started in whichever tense (and POV) feels most natural and see how it goes. It can always be changed later. If this kind of airy-fairy, go with the flow, approach makes you feel ill, try writing the opening scene or page in different tenses and see if that helps you come to a decision.It's very important, however, to stick to the tense you've chosen. When editing your work, look out for any slips and correct them. They'll make your writing difficult to understand and appear amateurish.
You have two choices for tense: Past or present. (Yes, you could write a story in the future tense, but that would be odd.)
Past tense tells your reader that something has already happened. For example:
'I ran into the shop.'
Present tense shows that the thing is happening Right Now:
'I run into the shop.'
The advantages of the present tense (especially when combined with first person POV as in the above example), is a sense of immediacy. It's also a very natural style as it mimics the way we talk.
It can, however, be quite relentless in effect and can be difficult to sustain over a novel.
Past tense is a popular choice in fiction and, as such, it lends your narrative a comforting, 'storytelling' vibe.
It's also very versatile. Past tense can refer to something that has just happened, so you still get the immediacy of 'the events are unfolding before my eyes', but it can also refer to further away in time.
To differentiate between something that just happened and something that happened before, you'll need to use constructions like: 'I was in the cafe on Green Street and had just finished my coffee when this guy walked in.' Although all of the events are in the past, it's clear that the coffee drinking happened before the man arriving.
If you're worried about identifying tenses in your writing, you could brush up on your grammar with a book or internet resources, but don't get bogged down in the technical side.
Ultimately, it doesn't matter whether you know that a tense form is 'past' or 'past perfect', what matters is that your writing makes sense and is consistent.