There are two conscious decisions an author must make before beginning a piece of writing—selecting the tense of the story and the point of view. These two things can set the tone of the piece, determining whether the reader is close to the action or further removed. The more immediate the action and the reactions from the character, the closer the reader is to the piece; the further away from the action, the more reflective the characters can be. The tense and point of view of the story are what drive the narrative and the reader's experience.
A Crash Course in Tenses
In this situation, “tense” refers to the tense for the majority of the narration. Simpler than verb tenses, narrative tenses can be pretty much broken down into two types:
Daniel runs around the corner, breathing hard, too afraid to look back. Are they still following him? He doesn’t even know.
and Past Tense:
Daniel ran around the corner, breathing hard, too afraid to look back. Were they still following him? He didn’t even know.
[Yes, you can also write parts of fic in Future Tense: Daniel will run around the corner, breathing hard., but doing a full fic that way is unwieldy and not for the faint of heart.]
So, What’s the Difference?
As was mentioned above, tense is a great way to set the tone of a story, whether it’s an action-packed adventure or a sleepy, romantic interlude. Take a look at these two examples:
Jack fires his weapon, the discharge joining the cacophony of the weapons fire from the other SG-teams. He hits more often than he misses, the Jaffa collapsing as they crest over the ridge. SG-1 isn't going to fall back today.
Jack fired his weapon, the discharge joining the cacophony of the weapons fire from the other SG-teams. He hit more often than he missed, the Jaffa collapsing as they crested over the ridge. He focused on the fact that they were the enemy, that they chose to worship Apophis and helped him enslave thousands of people. But since he'd met Teal'c he sometimes wondered if the Jaffa he'd killed could have been an ally, could have been another Teal'c. These thoughts weighed on him in private moments, but in the heat of battle he forced himself to focus: SG-1 wouldn't fall back today.
Present tense is more immediate; it’s happening right here, right now, and the reader is right in the middle of the action. Past tense is further removed, since the events have already happened. In present tense, there often isn't time for reflection. Because the action is happening immediately—it's happening in real time—the character can't think about what the action means or make connections to other events. Past tense allows for that reflection. The action can be paused, the character can explain, reflect, bring up another story, and then the action can resume.
Subconsciously, we, as readers, know that stories in past tense are just that—stories. Someone’s telling us about something that’s already happened (whoever that someone may be), so we know that no matter how bad it gets, someone’s going to get out of the situation alive and well enough to talk about it. Present tense, however, relates the events as they’re happening, so there’s no guarantee that anyone’s going to make it out.
This doesn’t mean, though, that a heart-stopping action scene can’t be written in past tense. Just because the narrator is temporally removed from the action (telling a story, rather than experiencing it for the first time), the narration can still achieve the same visceral reaction of present tense. To create the immediacy of present tense in past tense, use less reflection.
How Do I Choose?
Generally, action works best in present tense if you want it to be immediate. This works for fight scenes:
Jack hears the staff weapon discharge and then there’s a burning sensation high up on one shoulder. Of course they’d shoot him in the back, he thinks as he goes down.
and also love scenes:
Daniel barely resists the urge to cry out. The walls are thin and he doesn’t want Sam to hear.
So, if your story is going to have a lot of one or the other that might be the way to go.
Past tense is great for character study:
Daniel looked out the window, watching the rain. Three months. Jack had been trapped on Edora for three months, and they were no closer to finding a solution than the day they’d lost him.
and stories that have a slightly slower pace.
That being said, sometimes you realize half-way through that the story needs to be written in a different tense. Don’t fight it. Like point of view, fighting a tense can often make your writing stilted and forced. Any tense can work for any story, so don’t despair if your PWP feels right in the past tense.
[This is also a great time to bring in a good beta, to make sure that you’re sticking to one tense, rather than winding up with a mush of more than one.]
Also, a warning: there are some people who don't like present tense, for whatever reason, to the extent that they won't read stories written in anything other than past tense. Whether they're right or not, it's just good to be forewarned.
Point of View for Beginners
Point of view comes in three basic flavors: first person, second person, and third person. As always, though, it’s a little more complicated than that.
Most of the time, you’ll use first person, third person limited, third person omniscient, or third person objective. Second person is very rarely seen outside of roleplaying guides because it has a very specific use in literary fiction.
One of the main differences between the points of view is the information each one will give you. First, limited third, and second involve getting into the character’s head to fully explore his or her motivations, reactions, and experiences. A tighter POV also provides characterization because how Daniel (a scholar) describes something will be different than the way Jack (a soldier) or Sam (a scientist) describe something.
The coffee burned my mouth, but I kept drinking. No way was I going to answer Daniel's question. If he didn't remember what happened when Ba'al captured me, I wasn't going to tell him.
Third Person Limited:
The coffee burned Jack's mouth, but he kept drinking, unwilling to answer Daniel's question. If he didn't remember what happened when Jack was captured by Ba'al, Jack didn't want to tell him.
Second Person (not for sissies):
The coffee burned your mouth, but you kept drinking. It wasn't Daniel's business to ask about what happened when Ba'al captured you. It wasn't your fault Oma took his memories, including the worst moments of your life. Ba'al broke you. You asked Daniel for death. Daniel doesn't need to know that.
First and limited third provide the same distance between the character and the actions, and the character and the reader. Second person contorts this distance, allowing the character to have a greater distance from the actions, and bringing the reader closer to the character. In the second person example we have Jack thinking less than complimentary things about himself, distancing himself from his thoughts. However use of "you," brings the reader closer to the story, speaking directly to you.
A tight point of view locks you into that one person’s head. You can change POV from one section to the next (with some kind of break between sections), but unless you retell the exact same event from the perspective of each and every person there (very boring, don't bother), you’re only going to get part of the story. If you want a bit more freedom, an omniscient third person narrator can dip into each character's head in turn, giving you a little bit of everything.
Third Person Omniscient:
The coffee burned Jack's mouth, but he kept drinking, unwilling to answer Daniel's question. Daniel knew he'd been there during Jack's incarceration, but he still didn't know how he'd helped Jack and that bothered him. Jack wasn't giving anything up, and not because Oma erased Jack's memory; Jack just didn't want to tell him.
Another option is to be completely removed from the thoughts of the characters. Objective third is completely outside of the characters' heads, relaying only a description of events.
Third Person Objective:
Jack drank his coffee, staying silent. Daniel fidgeted, his question about what happened when Ba'al captured Jack going unanswered for long moments. Finally Jack lowered his cup and changed the subject.
An important note on changing POV: It is not necessary to label which character has the point of view in a section. If done correctly, it should be clear within a sentence or two who’s thinking. Labeling the section indicates that either your work can’t stand on its own or your readers are too stupid to figure it out. It’s never good to assume your reader is an idiot, and a good beta can help make sure your narration is clear.
Also, never change POV within the same section. It's fine to go from limited third on character A in part one to limited third on character B in part two, but switching without the warning in a section or chapter break is just confusing and off-putting. If you want multiple points of view in one confined area, use omniscient third.
How Do I Decide Which POV to Use?
Like tenses, each point of view has its time and place.
First person or limited third is best if you want just one perspective. Which one you choose depends on subject matter, personal preference, and how that particular story feels. Sex can sometimes be difficult from first person, and difficult subjects to address (rape, torture, etc.) can sometimes benefit from a step back. Think of it this way: if first person is right in your character’s head, limited third is one step removed.
I can’t believe him. The smug little bastard’s run off with my bathrobe.
Jack gestures to the video camera, and Daniel realizes that the little red light is off. Jack's smirk sends all the blood in Daniel's brain to collect somewhere else. Were these pants always this tight?
Another time that first or limited third is good is when a story is being narrated by an “outsider” who is also a character in the story. An outsider can be used to explore what things look like. It is very similar to the reasons you might use objective third, however we also learn something about this outside character based on what he or she observes.
Omniscient third is good for stories with multiple main characters (stories that center around a team or group in which each person is equally important) so that you know what everyone is thinking.
Daniel hovered at the edge of Jack's stoop, not entirely sure why he'd thought this was a good idea. Jack had told him to come by if he wanted to talk, but maybe he hadn't meant that.
Jack opened the door. "You've been there five minutes. Staging a sit-in?" He smiled as he said it, glad Daniel had taken up his offer. He didn't like talking, sure, but that didn't mean he didn't want to talk to Daniel.
Omniscient third is less personal than first or limited third because you get snippets from multiple characters rather than everything from just one person.
And? So? Therefore?
To come back to the original question—whether one tense is "better" than another in a given situation—the answer is not really. Yes, different tenses and points of view lend themselves to certain kinds of stories, but there is no hard and fast rule about when to used past tense rather than present or first person rather than third. The biggest deciding factor is the story you are telling. Selecting a tense and point of view to complement that story will make all the difference.
Many authors tend to stick to a certain tense and POV combo, one that he or she is most comfortable with, and it usually works. But it’s good to go outside one’s comfort zone sometimes and try something new.
(Many thanks to theemdash for help with examples.)