Narrative tenses are one of those things that you likely take for granted as a reader, but that are all too important for writers. While schools usually teach narrative tenses in English classes, these verb tenses are often forgotten once they’re no longer needed, leaving you without really any thorough knowledge of how each tense works and when it should be used.
What are narrative tenses?
Narrative tenses are verb tenses that are used to talk about things that happened in the past. Different tenses can communicate different things about how and when these actions were taken. There are four narrative tenses: past simple, past continuous, past perfect, and past perfect continuous.
Using the right verb tense as you describe events in your book or build any sort of narrative is crucial to creating immersive stories. The wrong verbs and related words can make a sentence clunky and distracting, pulling your reader out of your story.
Here’s what you need to know about narrative tenses as a writer.
The four narrative tenses
There are four primary narrative tenses: past simple, past continuous, past perfect, and past perfect continuous.
What about future and present tense?
You probably learned about other verb tenses in school, like future or present, but narrative tenses aren’t just any old verb tenses. The term “narrative tenses” is specifically used to tell stories that happened in the past. While many modern authors play with future and present tenses in their novels or short stories (especially present tense in the young adult story space), “narrative tenses” technically only refers to past tenses.
Past simple tense
This is the simplest narrative tense there is. These verbs are used to talk about and describe past events that were fully completed at some point in the past. That’s it.
You’ll find this tense used broadly in most fiction and spoken accounts. A story that’s set in past tense overall will use past simple tense to describe most actions within the plot.
Past simple examples
Here’s an example of how past simple tense looks in fiction, with the past simple verbs highlighted. These sentences are from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum.
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.
Past perfect tense
Past perfect tense is a little more complex than past simple tense. One easy way to recognize past perfect tense, though? Look for the word “had.” Generally, past perfect tense is used to talk about past events or an action that occurred even before the main event of the plot.
Past perfect examples
Here’s another snapshot for context, also from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, with the past perfect verb phrases highlighted.
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.
As you can see when you read this passage, the sun had baked and burned the land, and the house had been painted, at some point in time before the sun blistered the paint and before the rains washed it away.
This tense comes in handy when you’re telling a story, but, in order for the story to make sense in the correct order, you need to provide background information and refer to something that occurred before the main events of the story you’re telling.
Past continuous tense
Past continuous tense refers to something that is occurring at the same time as your story. You can recognize past continuous tense by looking out for the “-ing” suffix.
Past continuous examples
Here, the past continuous verbs in this passage from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz are again bolded.
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.
Here you can see how these actions—bearing, sparkling, rushing, murmuring—are continuously occurring right when the story is happening. They’re not occurring in the distant past. They’re not one-off actions that are completed and done. They continue on.
Past perfect continuous tense
Lastly, we have past perfect continuous tense, which is a combination of both past perfect tense and past continuous tense. These verbs reference an action that occurred in the distant past, but that was continuously occurring for a certain, defined amount of time.
These verbs can usually be identified by both the presence of “had been” and that “-ing” suffix. They also usually include a few words telling you how long the action continued before it ended.
Past perfect continuous examples
Here’s our last excerpt:
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.
In this sentence, the subjects had been walking continuously, and did so until something else in the story happened and stopped this continuous action. The text provides more background information related to the story’s main event.
Choose the right narrative tense for your short story or novel
If you’re writing in the past tense, you’ll very likely use all of these narrative tenses at some point. The key is to know when to use them correctly to describe your characters’ actions in your stories or your own actions, if you’re writing a memoir or personal essay. Once you get the hang of them, you’ll find that using the right narrative tense comes easily and without a second thought.