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The grammatical tense is the verb form of time, indicating when an event occurs relative to when it is being discussed.
There are two main tense forms used in prose writing: Past and Present. Some prefer one over the other, while others may combine the two as a storytelling strategy. There is also a Future tense, but this is seldom favoured outside poetry or experimental prose.
Writers tend to recommend for others to learn to keep their tenses consistent, or find a beta reader who can.
Though there have been debates about what elements of style work and don't work for fanfiction, many people in fandom have agreed that tense does not matter as long as it works for the story.
Past tense is often recognized as the more traditional style of storytelling, and much more reader friendly. The past tense is also easier for writers to transition between different timeframes within a story, such as with past events that the character already knows about but the reader doesn't.
The past tense is the most commonly used tense within the publishing industry. Editors and publishers tend to favor it, both for its readability and conventionality. The history of using the past tense in storytelling travels so far back to oral storytelling that many tend to consider it the "default" style. It is, at the least, frequently recommended for long-form stories and novels, while for short stories the usage of present tense is slightly less controversial.
For many, it sounds more natural and conversational. As the past tense is the manner of style one speaks when telling stories, it is also often easier to keep consistent, since most people are usually more familiar with it, whether they know it or not.
There is not much controversy with past tense, despite its comparative lesser use in (recent) fandom.
Writing in the present tense has become a noticeable trend in much more recent fanfiction. This may be the result of its use by a handful of writers, leading to others either consciously or subconsciously emulating them due to its success. As fanfiction writing styles tend to change with communities and fandoms, the more frequent use of the present tense appears to be the result of 2000s fandoms and digital media.
Of course, it may also just be a writer's natural way of writing.
The strategic use of the present tense delivers immediacy within a story, becoming immersive and personal for readers. This allows the reader to be in the environment and judge it for themselves, which may be a beneficial strategy to the common adage of "show, don't tell." Present tense, especially when used well, may also indicate a mature and experienced writer - though is a steep fall if unsuccessful.
There are many shortcomings to the present tense, however. Combining it with the usage of the first person POV may result in a style that is hit-or-miss, as well as creating difficulties for the writer to add detail beyond the POV character's limited scope; and such detail can then be read as excessive infodumping if handled poorly. Thus, the present tense is frequently recommended with the third person, limiting possibilities. Because of this, readers have complained that a lot of recent fanfiction sounds the same, especially if combined with other recent trends such as overtly short paragraphs and excessive dialogue. The present tense may not be the sole perpetrator, but it does at least contribute to the pattern.
Critics of the present tense in fanfiction and original fiction alike also note that present tense gives easy way to either purple prose or beige prose; that it makes narrator sound uncertain; or, simply, that it can be pretentious. Due to its unreliability, some readers do indeed avoid present tense overall.
This may be becoming a minority opinion in fandom, though, as its popularity grows.
In the publishing industry, the present tense is even more controversial. Many publishers and editors recommend against using the present tense, especially old age publishing industries. Whether it is simply a trend or a reputable strategy is still being debated.
I looked for an article on Fanlore.
Referring to the past in past tense (using pluperfect tense):
I looked for an article on Fanlore because I had been curious about something.
I am looking for an article on Fanlore.
Referring to the past in present tense (using past tense):
I am looking for an article on Fanlore because I was curious about something.
Further Reading & Discussion
- Fanfiction#Writing Style
- "Tenses and Point of View in Fiction: Is Present Tense More Desperate?" by melayneseahawk at fandom_grammar on LiveJournal (1 August 2008) (Accessed 26 September 2017)
- "What is with all the present tense narratives, lately?" by tarnagona at antishurtugal on LiveJournal (8 May 2012) (Accessed 26 September 2017)
- "Ah, the simpler past." by janissa11 at LiveJournal (10 May 2008) (Accessed 26 September 2017)
- thread on sherlockbbc-fic at Dreamwidth (March 2011) (Accessed 26 September 2017)
- thread at fail_fandomanon (December 2014) (Accessed 26 September 2017)
- "TIL that there is a "past tense" vs. "present tense" controversy in the literary world" in /r/books on Reddit (2014) (Accessed 26 September 2017)