I have recently picked up several works of fiction and begun to read them. I have found that some are written using past tense while others use the present tense.
What is the significance of using these different tenses while writing fiction?
A lot of it is just convention. Most people seem most accustomed to reading past tense, so it tends to not be noticed by the reader.
There are exceptions to this, however. YA, especially, has a lot of present tense writing, and in that genre it seems to be totally unremarkable.
Fans of present tense often argue that it gives a sense of immediacy to the story, while opponents say that it is jarring and intrusive to their reading experience.
Personal anecdote: My first two books were written in present tense; I don't remember giving it much conscious thought, that's just how the words came out. There was some negative feedback from readers, although the books overall were fairly popular. I thought the critics were crazy, but I wanted to sell, and so for the next couple books I tried past tense.
When I went back to the present tense books, after having immersed myself in the past tense, the present tense DID seem awkward and intrusive to me! I got over it quite quickly (within the first chapter of rereading), but it wasn't automatic. So I do think there's a significant element of just being what people are accustomed to that determines their preference.
Here's what I'm familiar with: a lot of people see present-tense as a description of something happening right now, while past-tense is a narration of events that have already concluded. So:
I think a lot of people find past-tense more natural because present-tense storytelling is not something you encounter in day to day life. In real life, people tell you things that have happened; it's rare to be subjected to a real-time report. Think of the exceptions - e.g. sports commentaries and on-the-spot new reports; they can be very exciting, but they're rarely personal or possessing narrative structure. And those kind of reports would probably be exhausting to listen to for too long of a stretch.
Fiction presents things happening "now" in a medium used primarily to describe things already over. That's where the issue comes from. But in most cases, I think that readers prefer the comfort of more familiar phrasing over the increased accuracy of using a more appropriate tense. The familiarity makes the inaccuracies accepted and invisible.
As Kate said, current convention favors past-tense writing, so all other considerations aside - anything else may feel somewhat jarring or unusual to many readers. And both are popular, familiar and accepted enough that you can really pick whichever feels most comfortable and appropriate for you, as long as you remain consistent within a single piece.
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I write blog posts in the present tense even if I'm writing about something which happened in the past, because it's funnier to be "present" as the gag is unfolding.
I prefer novels in the past tense, but it's just a preference, and I could get used to a story told in the present tense.