Narrative Tenses.

This lesson about narrative tenses is part of a complete and free upper-intermediate English course. The exercises for this topic are here.

Banner showing the title of a chapter of English Grammar about Narrative tenses 8past simple, past continuous and past perfect)

Narrative Tenses / Narrative Forms Lesson Contents

In this lesson you will learn all about what narrative tenses are and how to use them to tell stories and anecdotes.

What are Narrative Tenses / Narrative Forms?

“This morning I was listening to the radio when I heard a song that I had never heard before.”

When we tell stories or anecdotes about things that happened in the past, like above, we use a combination of three past tenses:

  • Past Simple
  • Past Continuous
  • Past Perfect

Let’s have a look at each of these tenses and how and why we use them.

The Past Simple

The past simple is the form where regular verbs end in -ed. We use the auxiliary verb “did” for negative sentences and questions in the past simple:

Past Simple +Past Simple –Past Simple ?
He wanted a drink.He didn’t want a drinkDid he want a drink?
Example of the past simple tense in positive, negative and questions.

We generally use the past simple to explain events in chronological order:

I woke up, I got up, I had a shower and then got dressed and went to work.”

The Past Continuous

The past continuous is used to talk about something in progress in a moment in the past. It uses the auxiliary “to be” (was / were) and the -ing form of the verb.

Past Continuous (positive)Past Continuous (negative)Past Continuous (question)
She was waiting.She wasn’t waiting.Was she waiting?
Example of the past continuous tense in positive, negative and questions.

In fact, the past simple if sufficient to tell a basic story, but sometimes we want to describe two things happening simultaneously. To do this we can use the past simple and past continuous together:

“When I was driving to work I saw an accident.”

or if both things are happening for a while we can use the past continuous for both:

“While I was driving to work I was listening to the radio.”

We can also use the past continuous to establish the context of a story:

“This happened to me when I was driving to work.”

“When I was living in Paris, something unusual happened to me.”

The Past Perfect

When we are already talking about the past and want to mention something that happened before that time, we need to use the past perfect. The past perfect is formed with the auxiliary verb “had”.

Past Perfect +Past Perfect –Past Perfect ?
They had eaten.They hadn’t eatenHad they eaten?
Example of the past perfect tense in positive, negative and questions.

So if I lose my keys, but I only notice that i have lost them when I get home, I could say:

“When I got home, I realised that I had lost my keys.”

This use of the past perfect makes it clear that the “had lost my keys” past had happened before the “when I got home” part.

The Past Perfect Continuous.

Sometimes, when we want to emphasize that something had happened repeatedly or during a period of time, we use the past perfect continuous:

Past Perfect Continuous (positive)Past Perfect Continuous (negative)Past Perfect Continuous (question)
They had been eating.They hadn’t been eating.Had they been eating?
Example of the past perfect continuous tense in positive, negative and questions.

Narrative Tenses in Combination.

here is an example of all of the tenses that you have seen in this lesson in combination to tell a short anecdote.

“When I was walking to the shop, I saw my old friend James. I hadn’t seen him for years, so we stopped and talked for a while. He explained that he had been living in London for the past few years and had recently returned home. We exchanged phone numbers and made a plan to meet up for a drink a few days later.”

Narrative Tenses Exercises

Do you think that you understand this topic? Check out the exercises below to check your comprehension!