Explaining narrative tenses (1) for proficiency: E6-03G

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Narrative tenses for proficiency-level students: 1. Setting up a story





At one point during my teaching career, I noticed that students who could use the various past tenses in separate grammar exercises still could not write English narratives with correct use of the tenses. I then became interested in providing instruction specifically designed to help students with this skill. So these explanations and exercises on past tenses are focussed particularly on learning to write extended texts in English.

The version below assumes students to be already familiar with the basic form and use of the past tenses.


Setting up a story


“It’s Friday evening, 7pm. I’m sitting in my kitchen eating a sandwich and listening to the radio. I’ve had a hell of a day…..

This morning, my alarm went off. I grabbed for it in the dark and fell out of bed. I got to my feet – somehow, found the alarm clock and saw the time. It was 4.30am. Apparently, I had set it for 4.30, instead of 6.30.”


We can represent the time relations of the various tenses using what are called time lines. The image below shows the lines for the different constructions used in the story so far:

Note: the technicalities of use of the various tenses featured here are to be found in the explanation files related to those tenses.

Representing the story with ‘time lines’


 [click on image to enlarge]









Analysing the diagram

  • We begin in the present tense. This is a device sometimes used by story writers, and in this case, because we are students of English, it helps us to orient ourselves.
  • The second tense used is the present perfect – ‘I’ve had a hell of a day.’ Here, the writer looks back over recent events and summarises them.
  • After these preliminaries, the writer settles into the story itself. Here, the past simple is employed. This is the main tense used in story-telling: it is the ‘default’ tense of story-telling. If we leave it for whatever reason, we will invariably come back to it.
  • The lower section of the diagram shows the relation of the past perfect to the past simple. The past perfect is used when the forward development of the story is interrupted, and it is necessary to go back to a previous moment in time. The narrative does not tell us at what time the writer had set his alarm clock, but in the time line, it is imagined as being at 11.30 the previous evening (night).



    We have begun with a short and simple introduction. However, many questions can be asked, and many explanations are needed to complete this work – this is only the beginning. You can find the next file on narrative tenses here. If, on the other hand, you are ready to practice drawing some time lines, you can try the exercise at P6-03G





























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