“I saw a polar bear playing in the zoo”. A simple past tense that shows an action that happened and finished in the past, it is informative but yet it cannot be seen as a story. If I told you that it’s a story, you’d see it as bald and tasteless compared to an interesting and attractive narrative. “One day, I decided to visit the zoo for the weather was so fresh and sunny, it was so warm and refreshing, as I was walking there, I saw a polar bear playing and it was so funny and mesmerizing”. As you can see, the second sentence has something beautiful in it, a narrative that makes a simple past event so interesting, so attractive and appealing. So, what do you know about the narrative tenses? And why are they important in storytelling?
Narrative tenses are separated into four basic tenses, they can be used in the active or passive forms.
The simple past is an action that happened in a specific point of time in the past, that action was done and finished. E.g.
I read an interesting article last week/yesterday/ a few minutes ago…
Я прочитал интересную статью на прошлой неделе/вчера/несколько минут назад...
The past simple consists of a simple rule: Subject + Past Form of the verb, and this of course depends on the type of verb; we add “ED” to regular verbs and irregular verbs change the form. E.g. Walk-Walked / Speak-Spoke.
The past simple requires a specific point of time in the past.
I was walking in the park when I heard a strange noise.
Я шел по парку, когда услышал странный звук.
The first example shows that the subject was doing a progressive action that was faced by an interrupting action. In this case, the main event was the interruption. The progressive action is written in the past continuous while the interrupting one is written in the past simple. I could have just written “I heard a strange noise in the park”, but I used the example to show that I was setting for a scenery for the main event to happen, and that’s exactly why most of storytellers rely on using the past continuous to set a scenery of other actions before the main event happens.
She was watching a movie while she was eating popcorn.
Она смотрела фильм и ела попкорн.
The second example clearly shows that the girl was doing two progressive actions in the past at the same time, one in which she was watching a movie, and one in which she was eating popcorn. That’s one of the reasons why we use the past continuous.
Они веселились в школе.
They were having fun at school.
For the third example, it’s just a solo progressive action in the past that shows that the event was progressive and taking some period of time while happening, and that’s the third reason for why we use the past continuous.
The structural rule of the past continuous is pretty easy to grasp: WAS/WERE + Verb (ing).
Use the past continuous only with ACTION VERBS not with STATIVE VERBS.
I was understanding.
I was loving.
I had seen this movie before anyone else saw it.
Я посмотрел этот фильм раньше, чем его увидел кто-либо другой.
In this example, there are two actions that happened in the past but they didn’t happen in the same time. In this case, the first action or even must be written in the past perfect, while the second one should be in the past simple/past continuous.
The past perfect seems easy, but while writing, it needs focus by keeping track of the sequences of events.
In narrative tenses, writers tend to use this tense a lot to make you live in the story, it is not an information overload, but it is a skill to attract the readers to find it more interesting to follow up with its course of actions.
The rule here is so simple: HAD + PAST PARTICIPLE (some people call it VERB 3).
Sometimes the first action and second action can be inverted, but keep the same grammar structure following the same sequence of events.
She had been to Paris before she went to university.
Она была в Париже до того, как поступила в университет.
She went to university after she had been to Paris.
Она поступила в университет после того, как побывала в Париже.
Lastly, this tense sometimes troubles learners’ minds, but that’s okay, with this explanation, it’ll be easy for you to understand it as simplified as it is.
I had been walking around the city until I found a famous restaurant.
Я гулял по городу, пока не нашел знаменитый ресторан.
If we try to put this event in our thoughts, we would understand that the first action was being done for some time in the past until the second event happened, and the first action of course ended exactly by the time the second one took place.
That’s exactly why we use this tense, to describe an event that took place in the past progressively until the exact moment when the second event took place. The second event is in the past simple of course.
The rule is as simple as the previous ones: HAD + Past Participle of “BE” + Verb (ing).
The same rule of ACTIONS VERBS is required on the past perfect continuous, do not use STATIVE VERBS with it.
Once these tenses are combined coherently, an attractive and beautiful sequence of events come all together for building a clear and involving narrative, a storytelling for our readers and children to enjoy. Try it out, put together some course of actions from your own past experience and tell us your stories, practice your English and share your skills.
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