Narrative tenses are the grammatical structures that you use when telling a story, or talking about situations and activities which happened at a defined past time.
When narrating past events, DO NOT mix past and present tenses (avoid using the present perfect and present simple), as these will confuse the reader/listener about when things really happened.
Here are the most common narrative tenses and how they are used:
- The Simple Past Tense.
a) to express a completed action at a definite time in the past. The separate events which occur in sequence in a narrative are expressed using this tense.
E.g. I woke up (1) at 8am, had a shower (2) and ate some breakfast (3). I left for work (4) at 9am.
b) to express past events.
I went to school in São Paulo until my family moved to Rio.
- The Past Continuous Tense.
As with all continuous tenses, the past continuous gives the idea of activity and duration.
The past continuous is used:
a) To describe the situation in which the events of the narrative occurred.
E.g. When I woke up at 8am (1) the sun was shining (2) and the birds were singing. I had a shower (3), ate some breakfast (4) and left for work at 9am. (5)
b) to express an activity in progress at a time in the past.
E.g. What were you doing when I phoned you?
- The Past Perfect Simple Tense.
The past perfect simple is used
a) to show that an action or situation happened BEFORE the events in the narrative described in the simple past.
E.g. When I woke up at 8am (1), the sun was shining and the birds were singing. I had slept (2) really well the night before. I dreamt about the time I spent living in Switzerland when I was a teenager. I had a shower (3), ate some breakfast (4) and left for work at 9am. (5)
NOTE! If the subject of two verbs is the same, you don’t have to repeat the ‘had’ auxiliary.
E.g. When I arrived, he’d finished his dinner and left the room.
b) Making a narrative more interesting to read.
It is generally seen as bad literary style to have too many verbs in the same tense. In English it is always best to avoid repetition where possible.
E.g. I woke up at 8am and left for work after I’d had a shower and eaten some breakfast.
CONJUNCTIONS (After, As soon as, Before, By the time, Once, till, When, Unless, Until)
With these conjunctions of time, the past perfect shows that the first action MUST BE COMPLETED before the second action begins, otherwise the past simple is used.
E.g. After….she finished, they left / she had finished, they left. (She had to finish first)
As soon as…we arrived she said “hello”. / I had done it, I sent it to her. (I had to do it first)
She wouldn’t sign the contract before…. seeing it / she had seen it. (She had to see it first)
They wouldn’t go unless….she came with them / they had seen it was safe.
(It was important to finish checking that it was safe before going)
- The Past Perfect Continuous Tense.
a) The past perfect continuous is used for longer activities that were happening continuously up until a specified time in the past.
E.g. He looked very tired (1), he had been working very hard (2) over the past three weeks.