Let’s begin at the beginning.
No, wait. Let’s not.
When telling a story, we often begin close to the climactic event and its resolution. Indeed, this was one of Kurt Vonnegut’s rules for writing a story: Start as close to the end as possible. However, the reader may need to know about something that happened before. If we’re already in the past, we need to go one step further back, into what some call the “superpast.”
The past perfect tells us what happened before the events we’re already reading about in the past.
When Dorothy stood in the doorway and looked around, she could see nothing but the great gray prairie on every side. Not a tree nor a house broke the broad sweep of flat country that reached to the edge of the sky in all directions. The sun had baked the plowed land into a gray mass, with little cracks running through it. Even the grass was not green, for the sun had burned the tops of the long blades until they were the same gray color to be seen everywhere. Once the house had been painted, but the sun blistered the paint and the rains washed it away, and now the house was as dull and gray as everything else. — The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, by L. Frank Baum
Now, we know that Dorothy stood, looked around, could see, and that the nothing broke the country that reached. All of these actions are in the past that we are watching as we read. If the story were told in present tense, events before the moment we’re in would be reported in the past, but since we’re already in the past, we need our superpast.
So, let’s look at a couple of sentences to see how and why these tenses are used.
The sun had baked the plowed land into a gray mass, with little cracks running through it.
This explains why she’s seeing everything as gray. What happened before this moment of observing the colorless scenery?
Even the grass was not green, for the sun had burned the tops of the long blades until they were the same gray color to be seen everywhere.
Why was the grass not green? The sun had burned the tops.
Baum continues to give backstory into the characters of Dorothy, Aunt Em, Uncle Henry, and Toto, but that’s not where he chooses to start, as he wants us there, on that day, a few minutes before the cyclone. The superpast allows us to do this in our own writing, as an event from years before the main action might be very important, but lacking context that we need to give by starting closer to the end.
Now, let’s come closer to now, and look at the two past tenses, the past simple and the past continuous (or past progressive).
The Past Simple
The past simple has several uses. I’ll break it down into four:
Completed actions. Well, of course, right? The continuous is completed, isn’t it? Not in our minds, it isn’t, but we’ll come back to that.
Toto jumped out of Dorothy’s arms and hid under the bed, and the girl started to get him. Aunt Em, badly frightened, threw open the trap door in the floor and climbed down the ladder into the small, dark hole. Dorothy caught Toto at last and started to follow her aunt. When she was halfway across the room there came a great shriek from the wind, and the house shook so hard that she lost her footing and sat down suddenly upon the floor.
Jumped, hid, started, threw, climbed, caught, started, came, shook, lost, sat down. We see this succession of events happen and come to completion.
Toto jumped out of Dorothy’s arms and hid under the bed… (And now he’s under the bed, actions completed.)
Aunt Em, badly frightened, threw open the trap door in the floor (the door is open now) and climbed down the ladder into the small, dark hole. (She’s in the hole now.)
Habits in the past. What did the character routinely do that tells us something about his or her character?
Uncle Henry never laughed. He worked hard from morning till night and did not know what joy was. He was gray also, from his long beard to his rough boots, and he looked stern and solemn, and rarely spoke.
It was Toto that made Dorothy laugh, and saved her from growing as gray as her other surroundings. Toto was not gray; he was a little black dog, with long silky hair and small black eyes that twinkled merrily on either side of his funny, wee nose. Toto played all day long, and Dorothy played with him, and loved him dearly.
In two short paragraphs, we already have an idea of who Dorothy and Uncle Henry are. Since Uncle Henry is a character we see very little of, Baum uses Henry’s routines as a contrast to the child, Dorothy, who has not yet been hardened by the gray world she had been forced into.
Duration in the past. Exactly what it says. How long did you live there? I lived there for 6 years.
“It was a terrible thing to undergo, but during the year I stood there I had time to think that the greatest loss I had known was the loss of my heart. While I was in love I was the happiest man on earth; but no one can love who has not a heart, and so I am resolved to ask Oz to give me one. If he does, I will go back to the Munchkin maiden and marry her.”
The Tin Woodman tells Dorothy that he stood there during one year (specific duration.) While he was in love (non-specific duration), he was the happiest man on earth. Therefore, it doesn’t matter if we know how long the duration was, what’s important is that we know that the action has a beginning and an ending.
Facts or generalizations in the past. The use of the word “fact” here doesn’t mean what you think it does. For our purposes, what one believes to be a fact is a fact, because that’s that person’s truth. I could say, “You always hated me,” and be totally off, but since I believe it, it’s a fact to me.
Ok, let’s get off the amateur philosophy and back to Dorothy and friends.
Dorothy lived in the midst of the great Kansas prairies, with Uncle Henry, who was a farmer, and Aunt Em, who was the farmer’s wife. Their house was small, for the lumber to build it had to be carried by wagon many miles. There were four walls, a floor and a roof, which made one room; and this room contained a rusty looking cookstove, a cupboard for the dishes, a table, three or four chairs, and the beds. Uncle Henry and Aunt Em had a big bed in one corner, and Dorothy a little bed in another corner. There was no garret at all, and no cellar—except a small hole dug in the ground, called a cyclone cellar, where the family could go in case one of those great whirlwinds arose, mighty enough to crush any building in its path. It was reached by a trap door in the middle of the floor, from which a ladder led down into the small, dark hole.
Facts all. Dorothy lived, Uncle Henry was a farmer, and Aunt Em was the farmer’s wife. The house was small, there were four walls, no garret, no cellar.
The Past Continuous
The Past Continuous is our past in motion. There are several uses for this tense as well, and these are the two that are probably the most important for our purposes.
Interrupted action. This is where we use the past continuous as background to a more important or dramatic event, which is in the past. If I tell you I cut my finger, you’ll probably ask me how (if you like me at all), and I’ll give you the action in progress that was interrupted by the slicing. “I was preparing dinner when I sliced my finger.” The action may or may not be truly interrupted. If I say, “I saw a UFO while I was walking down the road,” maybe I stopped walking, maybe I simply said, “Cool,” and continued. The importance of the walking in my narrative has run its course, interrupted by the UFO. After slicing my finger, I probably didn’t continue preparing dinner.
This was to be an eventful day for the travelers. They had hardly been walking an hour when they saw before them a great ditch that crossed the road and divided the forest as far as they could see on either side.
Of course, in this example, Baum uses the past perfect continuous, but the same rule applies. The walking is continuous, interrupted by the ditch they saw.
Simultaneous action. We use the continuous tense to demonstrate that the two actions are happening at the same time, not one after the other.
But, seeing they were bigger than the Lion, and remembering that there were two of them and only one of him, the Kalidahs again rushed forward, and the Lion crossed over the tree and turned to see what they would do next.
If Baum had used saw and remembered, we might think that they saw first, and then remembered. With the continuous, we get the feeling of the memory coming into being as they are looking at the Lion.
Atmosphere. This is where the writer may choose the continuous when the simple past would also work. It gives us a sense of action or movement in the scene.
The cyclone had set the house down very gently—for a cyclone—in the midst of a country of marvelous beauty. There were lovely patches of greensward all about, with stately trees bearing rich and luscious fruits. Banks of gorgeous flowers were on every hand, and birds with rare and brilliant plumage sang and fluttered in the trees and bushes. A little way off was a small brook, rushing and sparkling along between green banks, and murmuring in a voice very grateful to a little girl who had lived so long on the dry, gray prairies.
Instead of saying stately trees that bore rich and luscious fruits, he chose the continuous, as it contributes more to the atmosphere. He moves to the past simple in the next sentence, then returns to the continuous in the last, giving us a variety of tenses, as too much continuous might sound redundant.
Since most fiction is written in these tenses, it’s important to understand their uses, to help us choose what best moves our story along, to keep the reader reading.
The narrative tenses, by Viv Quarry