Sometimes writers talk about what “tense” they’re writing in: third-person past, first-person present, or whatever. This is actually called “narrative mode,” not just tense. The tense is the past, present, or future part of the narrative mode. And the narrative mode encompasses more than just person and tense.
Firstly, if you want to get words out as fast as possible, and if you don’t know which narrative mode you want to use, don’t worry about it. You can always fix it later.
But when you do fix it, think about the strengths of each narrative mode and how they would affect the telling of your story. Then (as with any other creative decision) pick the one that you like the best.
Briefly, to construct a narrative mode, you’ll need to choose one from each of the following three:
- Person – First (“I”), second (“you”), or third (“he”).
- Tense – Past, present, or future.
- Voice – Who is telling the story, and what does he know? Is it a body-less third-person narrator? Does the third-person narrator know only what he can observe (“objective voice”)? Or can he see into the thoughts of one (“limited voice”) or all (“omniscient voice”) of the characters. Or is the narrator one of the characters? Can you trust what the narrator says, or might he lie to you? And in what form does he tell the story?
Most novels are written in third-person past, and frequently in the omniscient voice.
Julie Carobini writes in first-person present for the main storyline, and in past tense for flashback scenes. I mention her, because she’s shown that using present tense can work. Here, the present tense places the ongoing action in the forefront, and the past tense puts flashbacks where they belong.
I’m doing something similar in my current novel: Third-person omniscient (past tense) for the main storyline, switching back and forth between my viewpoint characters (as Nora Roberts and Danielle Steel do). But this storyline is interspersed with memoir scenes, as it were, where one of my viewpoint characters writes about his own past, in the first person.
EDIT (May 10, 2010): I’ve expanded this article into a series with 4 more parts:
- Choosing a Narrative Tense
- Choosing a Narrative Person
- Choosing a Narrative Voice
- Examples of Narrative Mode
Bottom line: Narrative mode is simply another creative choice you make, which affects how you tell your story. So it doesn’t matter so much which narrative mode you use, only whether it does for your story what you want it to.