I've been chatting to kvtaylor about some pieces I intend to submit soon, and we've been exploring tenses. It's a very interesting discussion, and I thought I'd expand on it here.
For clarification before we being: 'past' refers to imperfect, perfect, pluperfect and the rest, for example, and 'first', 'second' and 'third' person can be singular or plural.
Now, as the monologues I wrote for my degree reveal, I like to play with voice as much as tense. Unusual combinations of the two, and so on. Of course, they're all quite short (the limit for the three combined was 5000 words, which naturally kept them brief). Tense is interesting to experiment with in short pieces, but in long the unfamiliarity of certain combinations can create an unintended challenge for the reader.
For example, when it comes to the Present tense (Third Person limited) in longer fiction, I've tried it in something about 20,000 words long, and it's tiring to read (which, in that, is deliberate, considering the point of view). It's not something I'd try in a novel or novella without a very definite reason before beginning. In something novel length it'd have to be a bit Joycian. This is a shame, because if readers and writers could grow more accustomed to it, it could be well employed in stories requiring suspense, especially when it's first person.
First Person Past is a combination that I struggle to enjoy. It often destroys suspension of disbelief. Memoirs of a Geisha brought this to my attention during my teens, with the protagonist's ability to remember conversations that happened decades ago word for word. Now I can't help but notice it. It's more bearable in something like a detective story, or perhaps speculative fiction, where the disbelief is suspended rather higher, but it's still painful. If you've chosen first person past, there are some sacrifices you have to make, and dialogue is invariably one of them.
Some tenses suit voices better than others. First Person Future is just surreal. First Person Past, as mentioned, has its issues. First Person and Present Tense slot together in much the same way as Third and Past (though that's a combintion of convenience and familiarity). Second Person and Future works, but it's noticeably pretentious, and not something I'd do often. Second Person Present (and imperative, as second person present is wont to be) also works, but I suspect Second Person Past would, again, crush any suspension of disbelief. After all, the reader knows that they didn't experience what you described.
Second is probably the most engaging voice, and I do enjoy it, but it's always a conscious decision. First allows for the most identification (it's best used when playing with characters one would not immediately identify with, in order to make the reader question themself), but is often abused. Third can be used for anything; and paired with any tense.
Present is good for suspense, and can raise interesting questions about reliability, too. Past is so often used due to familiarity, without any thought of reliability or identification or voice, which is a shame. Future dares people, but is usually abused in deliberate pretention - like second, it's best used sparingly (Stephen King and Peter Straub use both well in brief segments of Black House, as I recall). All three tenses, though, are flexible in intention: you can use them to create intimacy or distance depending on how you pair them with voices.
I'm glad I wrote the three monologues, to deliberately play with tense and voice combinations, and I'll probably do some more chopping and changing in future pieces to see if I can make certain combinations work. Otherwise, I must admit, tense is usually instinctive for me - it is only on very rare occasions that I make a conscious decision, such as when I've used the future. Voice defaults (I'm almost ashamed to admit) to third, though some pieces have a reason to be in first (like Unsent Letters, being a kind of epistle itself). Second tends to come on me by surprise, but it is fun to write.
- I'm having real trouble posting this. Blogger tells me it's there, but also tells me it's still loading, while on the blog itself sometimes it appears and sometimes it doesn't. Le Sigh.