Writing/Speaking Tips – Narrating past events (cf Story-telling, Jokes, Articles)

November 27, 2012

Narrating Past Events/Experiences

When we are telling our friends about a past event in our lives — a past event, like a party you went to, or a past experience, like a trip you made, a love relationship you had, or an anecdote, like a childhood memory, a fun memory of a meeting or lesson)…

  1. How many different tenses do we use? (consider modals in a parallel block)
  2. When do we switch from the past to the present?
  3. Extra quetion you can skip if it makes you feel puzzled: A different kind of question you should also consider is: what language functions do tenses perform? For instance, we use the present simple to speak about habits and routines, things that are generally speaking true or permanent in our knowledge system… This means: tenses do not only mean time! If I were rich I’d set up a co-operative. “Were” and “‘d set up” are not only a past simple and a conditional tense: they’re also indicating what I am saying is hypothetical. (Modals are amazing for this “language function” thingy!)

Listen to yourself and to other people when you/they are doing this.

Notice the use of tenses. Visualize time! Do the same when you are reading. If you read a story in the past, underline present tenses in red (you can use orange for the present perfect, which is a present which includes pasts!), underline past tenses in blue (you can use dark blue for the past perfect and past perfect continuous, and light blue for the past simples and continuous) — and future phrases/tenses in green, if those come up. Do the same with modals: red for present forms and blue for past forms. Last, use pink for the imperative, or purple!

Mull this over, OK?

Notice that we tell jokes in the present.

And we tell stories (e.g. fairy tales) in the past. In story-telling narrators tend to use the pasts to make us understand the story happened before they are telling it, and they just use the presents when they play the role of any of the characters in the story. It is true that at times people tend to use the present even if they aren’t pretending to be one of the characters. It‘s called the dramatic present and it‘s meant to make the narration more lively. As language students taking a communicative exam which is also rather academic, you should try the safest option here and stick to the past for the narration. However, the truth is — you will not be asked to tell a story! I’m just trying to develop your sense of the different functions different kinds of texts have. Story-telling is similar to when we tell stories based on our lives/experiences. And this is the reason why I‘m mentioning it here.

What about plots in movies we see or books we read? Aha! This one‘s the trickiest of all for you English learners. This year Intermedio 2’s — and Avanzado 2’s, too — should be really good at doing those, both in Book and Movie Reviews (written texts) and in a monologue (a talk on the movie/book) or in a dialogue (an interaction). Well, you won’t learn unless you learn to notice / to listen to yourself and visualize time as you speak. Let’s consider other types and then come back to this one and sort things out. In practice!

When we talk about our life stories we switch from past to present in moments we want listeners to focus. Notice how you do it in Spanish. It‘s tricky when you try to do it in English, mostly because you feel insecure. The safest option is for you to stick to the pasts. But as you practice listening to yourself at home, in your weekly monologues (or talks) — remember to record yourself, you will learn much more than you think — you‘ll develop a sense of when it is OK to switch to the present. If you are not doing your weekly monologues, just tell the story in the past.

In articles, well, there are so many kinds! Here‘s an exercise on a news story. A news story is factual, right? It‘s not literature. It‘s about offering information keeping one’s opinion to oneself, sort to say. It’s about letting people know about what is happening in the world — trying to avoid interpretation.

You can post your questions if you like. Or ask in class.


  1. […] how the victim gets/is murdered!)! I actually wrote a poem based on the final scene!  If you read my first post on story-telling, this’ll be a good follow-up. Read it — notice the tenses, especially, the fact that […]

  2. […] posting it here because so many people check out this post Writing/Speaking: Narrating past events […]

  3. It is perfect time to make some plans for the future and it’s time to be happy. I have read this submit and if I could I want to counsel you some attention-grabbing things or advice. Maybe you could write subsequent articles relating to this article. I wish to read more issues about it!

  4. T’m really interrested in your blog.would you like please to send me some short texts that i can use for exams about narrative texts or short storries..thanks in advance

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