When describing events in the past, I've seen two different styles used:

  1. The plane caught on fire.
  2. The plane crashed into the building.

(past tense)

  1. The plane catches on fire.
  2. The plane crashes into a building.

(present continuous?)

I think the second sounds more narrative and indeed I think I've seen it used more in documentaries. Which style is more appropriate to use in which contexts?

  • Most narratives (your typical novel, for example) are written in Past tense, as you may have already noticed. There's nothing inherently "wrong" with making the stylistic choice to use Present tense if you want, but in practice most people usually don't. – FumbleFingers Jul 28 '20 at 16:22
  • It is up to you. If you want to tell the story as if it is currently happening (to immerse the reader/listener), you use the present tense. Otherwise, you use the past tense (this is the most common). – user392938 Jul 28 '20 at 16:22
  • I've seen narratives written in just about every tense there is—including the future tense (even when describing something in the past). It's entirely subjective. – Jason Bassford Jul 28 '20 at 17:12
  • @David "Catch on fire" seems to be perfectly acceptable, although not as common as the alternative: ell.stackexchange.com/q/37029. I am aware of the differences between the two tenses and the fact that the past tense is ordinarily used to describe events in the past. My question was about the contexts/stylistic reasons why one might prefer the latter, which I think makes it more appropriate for this site. Your suggestion to post on ELL is not helpful and makes unreasonable assumptions about me. – aviraldg Jul 28 '20 at 20:35
  • Whether or not you are an English native speaker, ELL is appropriate for questions at this level. The tour should make it clear that ELU is not, and is not a site for stylistic advice. However, as you asked, if the sentence means the same without the preposition in standard English it is poor style to use it. KISS. – David Jul 28 '20 at 20:48

In your example, it really depends on what you want to say, as other have said, but here is something to consider:

Say you are writing a scene where a plane catches fire and the plane crashes into the building. The entire book/story/?? is written in past tense...then "The plane caught fire and crashed into the building"

But say you are writing a scene where some is listening to a recording or watching a video. Then you can write it either way:

  1. Sally watched as the plane caught fire and then crashed into a building.

  2. Sally watched the video. On the screen the plane catches fire and crashes into a building.

IMO: The second example takes the reader into Sally's mind as she views the video and makes her and the reader more "present." (pun mildly intended.)

Try writing the paragraph both ways and consider which one feels better to you (maybe get some feedback on each).

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