When no one was looking, she opened the door: Using narrative tenses

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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!

37 thoughts on “When no one was looking, she opened the door: Using narrative tenses

  1. Eth May

    This is good for me that is second language to help how to use correct grammar. Next step please give advise how to use construction for question, informative and interrogative. Thanks

  2. Ary Pelegrino

    I was checking my inbox when I saw a message from Cambridge Dictionaries among many others. I had been working hard since then and I was really tired. I had no intention to read any of them, but I was compelled for some reason to open About Words in order to relax a little bit in things that I liked so much, English. So, while I was reading the post “Using Narrative Tenses” I felt satisfaction, because I perceived how it was good and instructive. The author knew to put complicated things into word; her approach was fantastic as she knew to present the subject from simpler to more complex, giving us excellent contextualized examples. Finally, I realize after a long journey of work that I had had pleasure to read such a wonderful post and I was looking forward to presenting my compliment to Ms Walter.

  3. Anil Kumar BK

    “It is used for showing actions or events happening over a longer period of time before the story began”: Misleading. It could be used when talking about something that had been happening before a certain point of time IN the story.

  4. rajchander1

    Thanks a lot!
    I’ve been thinking to practice narrating stories for 2 or 3 months but never actually did it.
    Now I feel it’s the perfect time to do practice with the effective stuff you posted.

  5. Alex

    Nothing better to read an article explaining some key points straight from the horse’s mouth. Best wishes from Brazil.

  6. Arabinda ghosh

    Your guidance in this regard about teaching and learning English is very much helpful for we peoples. your generosity of good teaching English towards weaker sections is very much respected…

  7. Chouhao

    I was always confused of these past tenses.
    An article provides fabulous examples of how and when to use them.
    Thanks a lot, it does help!

  8. Lorenzo Moscato

    I have a question. You wrote:
    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/have + past participle”

    As fas as I know, the past perfect is formed with had + past participle. Have + past participle is a present perfect, which can’t be used in this context.
    Am I right?
    Thank you.
    Lorenzo Moscato.

  9. Christine

    So glad I read your explanations of the English language with past and present examples. I am learning Spanish and it’s helpful to know the fundamentals of my own language as a memory jogger. This has helped me with similar grammatical situations in Spanish.

  10. Mateusz

    Dear Liz Walter,
    Your articles are alwyas helpful, on account on being informative, clear and concise.
    Many thanks,

    1. Liz Walter

      I can’t imagine a situation where the first sentence would ever be used – we usually use progressive tenses with ‘when’ and ‘while’. The second is theoretically possible, but only if you mean that she was actually in the process of opening the door – not if she had already finished opening it.

  11. Hailton

    I started my english course a few month ago and that topics is great for help me with the grammar structures.

    1. Liz Walter

      It depends on the whole context. For example, you can say: I’d had a problem at work the previous day.
      Or I’d been at work the previous day.

  12. minhua chen

    It seems that the past continuous tense is the same as the past perfect continuous tense accroding to the above explanation.So,how can I differentiate between them and use the same correctly?

    1. Liz Walter

      I apologise, that was a mistake, and I’m trying to work out how to make the correction! Present perfect continuous is ‘have/has been + -ing verb’, past perfect continuous is ‘had been + -ing verb’.

    1. Elizabeth Walter

      See my post of Dec 2016 for this.
      It means I had had. (I know it looks strange, but this is the past perfect form of ‘have’.)

  13. It has helped me reading these wanderful bits; it takes me back to my times as a student
    of English back to the fifteens and sixties as l arrived in the
    United kingdom. am now back in Spain where was born, use my time now, reading, among
    other things……..enjoying my retirement.
    Again, many thanks
    Peter Gonzalez.

  14. Nata Liya

    Why “had had” is being used about previous day, rather then just past simple or past progressive, as “previous” day is similar to “yesterday”, and when the time is mentioned we usually use past simple or past provressive

    1. Liz Walter

      Hi, Nata. Because it is describing something that happened before the main event the person is talking about.

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