ILAC’s Language Doctor Helps You Get Your Tenses Right!

The Three Elements of Story-Telling

– Josh Pirie (The Language Doctor)

Here’s a quick and easy exercise you can do to tell a better story.  I do this exercise with my TOEFL class so they can practice using different tenses when they tell a story. A story is a very effective way of supporting a statement that you make, a statement with which people will ultimately agree or disagree.  For this reason, stories are a very important part of TOEFL!

students reading

OK, first: a short lesson on tenses.  Let’s keep this brief.  There are three time frames: past, present and future.  Each one has any combination of aspects (progressive and perfect).  “Simple” means without aspect, like he goes, he went, or he will go.  “Progressive” (or “continuous”) is an aspect that indicates action already in progress, and gives us he’s going, he was going, or he will be going.  This tells us the action was/is/will be in progress at the time you’re mentioning.  “Perfect” is an aspect that means “before,” and gives us he has gone, he had gone, or he will have gone.  The perfect tells us the action refers to before the time you’re mentioning.

Remember that ‘perfect’ doesn’t mean ‘without mistakes’ – it just means ‘completed (i.e. beforehand),’ like in music, which uses the same term in a ‘perfect fifth’ or a ‘perfect octave.’  A combination of both aspects gives us the perfect progressive (or perfect continuous) he has been going, he had been going or he will have been going.

Let’s say that our story is in the past.  Most stories are.  We know that there are three time frames and four possible combinations of aspect.  So how can we use these twelve combinations, which we call tenses?

Writers know that what happens in the story, the answer to the question “What happened?” is given in the simple.  So, we know that simple past will be used for telling us what happened.  We’ll call this the narrative.  Writers also know that they use the verb “to be” a lot when they want to describe what was going on around the main character.  The verb “to be” is also used with progressives.  So this means we’ll use the past progressive when we want to show what was going on around the action of our story.  We’ll call this the background of the story.  Finally, writers know that there are reasons for things that happen.  Sometimes the reasons are simply this: that’s how the world works!  Simple present is all you need here.  This is called “foregrounding.”  The most common type of foreground, though, is the perfect, which shows us an action that happened before the main action.  So we’ll use the past perfect for the foreground to answer the question “why?” unless the answer is “because that’s how the world works!”  In this case, we’ll simply use the simple present.

So here’s the exercise.  I’d like you to write a 10-sentence story.  I’d also like you to order the parts of the story like this:

(1)  introduce the main character in the simple past (start with “There was/There lived”)

(2)  write down a piece of the narrative (what happened?) in the simple past

(3)  describe the scene around this main character (background, past progressive)

(4)  write down a problem that happened, which is the second part of the narrative, in the simple past

(5)  answer the question “Why did it happen?” with a past perfect (foreground) – try not to use the word ‘because’!

(6)  write down what the character did to solve the problem (narrative, simple past)

(7)  write down some more background (past progressive) to better paint a picture in our heads of what you’re thinking in your head

(8)  write down the final piece of narrative, bringing the story to a conclusion (simple past)

(9)  give one more piece of foreground (past perfect)

(10)  provide one final piece of foreground – a simple present statement that tells us the moral of the story (which is the lesson we can learn from this experience).

Hopefully your story will look a little like mine but will be a lot more interesting:

(1)  There once lived a mouse named Jeremy.

(2)  One day, Jeremy decided to go into the forest to search for some berries.

(3)  The birds were singing around him, the sun was shining and a nice breeze was blowing, making everything seem so calm and peaceful.

(4)  Suddenly, Jeremy fell into a hole.

(5)  A squirrel had dug a hole there but for some reason had forgotten to fill it up again!

(6)  Jeremy simply yelled and yelled until someone came to help him out of the hole.

(7)  The clouds were starting to roll in now and the thunder was rumbling in the distance.

(8)  Jeremy found his berries and returned home, where he shared his meal with his new friend,…

(9)  …the friendly mouse who had rescued him earlier that day from the hole.

(10)  The moral of the story is that one should always look where one is going when one is searching for berries.

In my TOEFL class, in one exercise during our study of tenses and aspects, I have each student write one sentence on a piece of paper, and then pass the paper to the student sitting to the left.  This way, everyone receives a piece of the story, and then helps to continue it based on my instructions above.  The stories are usually silly, but the exercise certainly helps them to see the role of the aspects in their writing!

Happy studying!


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