We all tell stories. We don’t always write them down, but we tell each other what happened at work, on holiday or when we were younger. Whether our stories are spoken or written, they use the same range of grammatical structures. The vocabulary changes, but the structure of the story will need the same group of verb tenses.
Here, we explore these tenses and show you how you can use them to make the sequence of time clear in your story, as well as adding other elements, such as atmosphere and description.
Read a specially written story, “Waiting for Archie” by Vanessa Clark, and follow her notes as she explains which tenses she has chosen in each section of the story.
Waiting for Archie
At the airport, Ken chose a table in a cafe with a good view of the arrivals hall. He sat down and ordered a coffee. He opened a packet of cigarettes, then closed it again and to curse sth.etw. verfluchencursed the smoking banVerbotban for the hundredth time that day. He threw the packet down on the table and turned his chair so that he could watch the passengers arriving.
It was busy at the arrivals gate. Taxi drivers were standing in a line, holding up their signs with customers’ names on them. Two teenage girls were carrying a “Welcome home, Mum!” sign and were looking for their mother in the crowd. A nervous young man was walking up and down, checking his watch every few minutes.
Passengers were streaming through the gate. Some were hurrying, carrying very little luggage and looking for the taxi rankTaxistandtaxi rank to get home after a meeting in Bonn or Barcelona. Others weren’t going so fast. They were wearing shorts and T-shirts, and were carrying sombrero hats and other souvenirs after a week in the sun.
The person Ken was looking for didn’t fit either of these descriptions. Archie Scott wasn’t here on business or on holiday. In fact, Ken wasn’t really sure why Archie was coming. That was the problem.
Ken hadn’t seen Archie for more than 30 years. They had worked together a long time ago. They’d done a job together — a big job. In 1970, the Westland bank had been robbed. A gang of three men had broken in and stolen £3 million in cash. They had driven away in a van, with Ken at the wheelam Steuerat the wheel.
All three men had disappeared. Two of them — Charlie Morland and Archie Scott — had been identified, but the police hadn’t been able to find them. The third man, the driver, had never been identified. Poor old Charlie hadn’t lived long. He’d died in a car crash in Spain five years later. But Archie was still alive. After hiding in Scotland for a time, he’d gone abroad. He’d made a new life for himself in the Middle East, in a country without an extradition treatyAuslieferungsabkommenextradition treaty with the UK, so criminals knew that they couldn’t be sent home.
Now, all these years later, Archie Scott was a powerful businessman. He organized business deals between this Middle Eastern country and British companies. He attended important meetings. He was invited to the emir’s palace. He was photographed with politicians and princes. His name and his face were everywhere, but the British police could do nothing at all about it. They could only watch powerlessly as Archie became more and more successful.
Archie had a wonderful life, but he could never return home.
Tips for telling stories:
Typical time phrases for starting a story are ones with “last”:
last Friday, last summer and one day last week, as well as phrases with “ago”: a couple of days ago, a few weeks ago and many years ago.
Sequencing words can help to show the order in which events occur in your story.
The most useful ones are: first, next, then, before, after, finally and in the end.
Here, we have focused on telling a story in the past. It is, however, possible to tell a story in the present.
- Ken sat down and ordered a coffee. The airport was busy. Passengers were arriving.
- Ken sits down and orders a coffee.The airport is busy. Passengers are arriving.
You can feel how the second example seems more immediate and intense. You’re there with the characters; the action is happening now. Using the present tense can add suspense to your story.
Ken took a piece of paper out of his jacket pocket. It was a newspaper article, only a few days old. The report explained that relations between the UK and the Middle Eastern emirate were warming. It said that the two countries to be engaged in sth.etw. führen, an etw. teilnehmenwere engaged in dialogue. The journalist thought that a bilateralgegenseitig, beiderseitigbilateral extradition treaty was near. He asked whether this would lead to the extradition of Archibald Scott. The reporter also wondered if Archibald Scott had been involved in the negotiationVerhandlungnegotiations and suggested that this might give Scott immunity from prosecutionstrafrechtliche Verfolgungprosecution. Ken asked himself the same questions. The day after this report had appeared in the newspaper, Ken had received a postcard with a picture of a camel on the front and three words on the back: “Am coming home.”
That was why Ken was here now, at Terminal 4, waiting for Archie. Why was Archie coming home? Would he be in handcuffsHandschellenhandcuffs, to accompany sb.jmdn. begleitenaccompanied by police officers? Would he be alone? Was Archie about to to give oneself upsich stellengive himself up? Was he about to give up his secrets in exchange for immunity from prosecution? Was he going to give Ken’s name to the police, after all these years, to save his own skin? What was Archie going to do?
Notes — speculation about the future
In this section, the narratorErzähler(in)narrator speculates about the future. As the whole story is set in the past, the speculation is about the future in a past context. It speculates about what would happen next. In normal conversation, there are several different grammatical structures we can use to speculate about the future:
- Will it happen?
- Is it going to happen?
- Is it about to happen?
When we put these phrases into a past context, they become:
- Would it happen?
- Was it going to happen?
- Was it about to happen?
Suddenly, Ken to catch sight of sb.jmdn. plötzlich sehencaught sight of him. Tall, tannedsonnengebräunttanned, fit and well-dressed, Archie walked through the arrivals gate with only one small trolley caseRollenkoffertrolley case. No handcuffs, no police escort. He looked left and right, then he smiled as he to spot sb.jmdn. sehen/entdeckenspotted a man approaching him. The two men met in the middle of the hall, not far from Ken’s table, and shook hands warmly. “Welcome back to England, Mr Scott. Your car is waiting. We’re very much looking forward to working with you.” At his table, Ken put down his coffee cup. He took a cigarette out of the packet and to light sth.etw. anzündenlit it. Well, he had nothing to lose now, had he? The past was about to to catch up with sb.jmdn. einholencatch up with him.