by Liz Walter
Everyone tells stories. We do it every day, even if it’s just telling our family that we met an old friend in the supermarket. English exams often ask students to write anecdotes or descriptions of past events. An important part of telling a story is using the right tenses because they show the reader or listener how the events in your story fit together. There are four main tenses that are often used for stories – in English language teaching, they are often known as the narrative tenses, because they are used to narrate (=tell) a story.
The most common tense for stories is the past simple. We use the past simple to talk about completed actions in the past. We often use several past simple tenses, one after another:
I saw an old lady. I went over to her and spoke to her.
It is very common to use the past simple when a time is mentioned:
On Sunday, we played tennis.
We had a meeting at 11 o’clock.
We also use the past continuous in stories. It is used for two main reasons. The first is to set the scene before the action of the story begins:
The sun was shining and the birds were singing in the trees.
The second is to talk about things that were happening during a period of time:
The children were picking strawberries.
When we write a narrative, we often need to use the past continuous and the past simple together. We often use when to show a shorter, complete action or event that interrupts a longer one, and while to show an action or event that is completed while another action or event is in progress:
He was swimming in the sea when he saw a shark.
I met her while I was working in Istanbul.
We often need to talk about things that happen before the main action of the story starts. For this we use the past perfect and the past perfect continuous. The past perfect is formed with had + past participle:
She had never seen the document before.
The past perfect continuous is formed with had been + -ing verb. It is used for showing actions or events happening over a longer period of time before the story began:
They had been arguing all morning.
The following paragraph shows a typical way in which these four tenses are used in a story:
I was driving to work when the accident happened. It had been raining all morning and the streets were wet. I probably wasn’t concentrating enough because I was thinking about a problem I’d had at work the previous day. Anyway, I was approaching the city when a deer suddenly ran into the road. I swerved to miss it. The car skidded and I crashed into a lamppost.
I hope this will help you use tenses accurately in your own narratives – let me know if you have any questions!