Knowing Narrative Tenses


 Any description of a past event or any piece of story-telling would require you to use narrative tense.

Mastering your knowledge and application of the same in your everyday life, and your IELTS writing and speaking practices could be a big boost to your IELTS scores.

In this post, we would be dwelling on a few basics of the concept.


Types of Narrative Tenses:

There are four primary narrative tenses, and you can use one or more of these types of events in IELTS Writing and Speaking.

Sample the following sentences. While the second sentence is in Simple Past Tense, the first and the third are a combination of simple past and past continuous tenses.

  • The farmer was  plowing  the field when rain came calling with a high intensity.
  • When I  lived  by the countryside, I used to enjoy my mornings better than I do now in the city.
  • The dog  continues  to bark at the sleeping man; but the man was fully unconscious to all the happenings around him. It turned out that the man was not sleeping but rather was lying dead!


 1. Past Simple

The past simple can be used for events and actions that began and finished in the past -- more precisely, a string of events in a person’s life.

Consider this biographical note about Helen Keller, for instance. Most of the sentences are in Past Simple.

Helen Adams Keller (June 27, 1880 – June 1, 1968) was an American author, political activist, and lecturer. She was the first deaf-blind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree. The story of Keller and her teacher, Anne Sullivan, was made famous by Keller’s autobiography, The Story of My Life, and its adaptations for film and stage, The Miracle Worker. (Source: Wikipedia) 

The past simple also finds application in dialogue formats and story-telling. Sample this conversation:

– When Sheela went shopping, she took her mother along.

– “Did you have your medicines this morning, mother?” Sheela asked.

– The mother did not reply.

– Sheela fell quiet for a moment.

“What made you forget your medicines today, mom?” Sheela asked with a wry expression.


2. Past Continuous

The role of past continuous tense as a narrative tense is particularly to provide background information of a situation/action, etc that continued for some time.

I was watching cricket when my father arrived from New York.

Ronita was taking a walk in the park when she heard the ambulance siren go off.     


 3. Past Perfect

In its role as a narrative tense, the Past Perfect tense states that one event occurred before another, clearly bringing out which happened first.

My colleague had gone out when I reached office.

When they arrived we had already started playing. 


4. Past Perfect Continuous

Past Perfect Continuous finds good use in essays and stories, especially of a historical nature. This narrative tense can help you best describe an event/situation/action that has been happening.

Used in the context of events of the past, the past perfect continuous tense (also known as the past perfect progressive tense) implies that an action/event that started in the past continued up until another time in the past. The past perfect continuous tense is structured in the following pattern: had been + the present participle form of the verb (-ing form) (had been+reading)

Example It had been pouring incessantly for several hours and the trees were 

glistening with water.


Tense blending in narration:

Two primary types of narrative tense blendings are applied to narrate events/actions of the past:

1. Past Simple and Past Continuous

The combined use of past simple and past continuous comes into play when one action is indicated to interrupt another.

The road was brimming with lights when I reached home this evening.


2. Past Simple and Past Perfect

The Past Perfect can be used together with the Past Simple to describe an action/event/situation that happened before another past action.

  • The farmer realised (past simple)that the strong gale of wind the previous night had blown (past perfect) away a lot of crops.
  • Bela knew (past simple) that Roni hadn’t wanted to come to the party, but she also knew that he hadn’t had (past perfect) any other choice.

That’s all in narrative tenses today. Can you identify how these tenses are playing out in your writing and speaking


Related Resources:
Quiz: Narrative Tenses


Exercise: Narrative Tenses




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