Narrative tenses: the basics

by | May 14, 2020

Narrative tenses are the tenses we use to talk about things that happened in the past, for example when we are telling stories or anecdotes. The four main narrative tenses are:

  • the past simple
  • the past continuous
  • the past perfect
  • the past perfect continuous

The past simple is the most common tense for stories. We use it for completed actions in the past:

  • The police broke the door down and went into the building. There, they found a large number of weapons.

We use the past continuous to talk about actions that were continuing at the time of the narrative:

  • The three men were hiding in the cellar.

We also use the it at the beginning of stories or parts of stories in order to set the scene:

  • Kit was sitting on the grass, chatting with his friends.
  • They were enjoying their freedom.

We often use the past simple and the past continuous in the same sentence, when one action interrupts another or when one action is completed while another one is continuing. We link them with the words when or while:

  • When Greta arrived, the others were leaving.
  • I took some photos while I was waiting for Freddie.

We use the past perfect and the past perfect continuous to talk about things that happened before the time we are talking about:

  • It was obvious that Maria had taken the money.
  • I had been living in the house for a few months before I discovered the secret door.


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About Liz Walter

About Liz Walter

Liz Walter is a freelance lexicographer, teacher and writer, living in Cambridge, UK. She worked for many years on Cambridge University Press's range of ELT dictionaries and now works with Kate Woodford on books about the English language. Her other interests include politics, growing vegetables and family holidays in her camper van. She tweets at @LizJWalter