Tense and aspect in fiction

In this activity we will examine some short extracts from novels. The idea is to look at the tense and aspect forms used, and think about how they are used to unfold the action of the story.

Goals

Lesson Plan

The teacher explains that today, we will look at verbs in fiction.

The Activity page appears in the menu entitled This Unit in the upper right corner of this page. The Activity page includes slides that can be displayed on a projector or smart board. Each slide presents a short extract from a work of fiction. Ask the students to do the following:

Discussion

Slide 1

You might have noticed that the first two sentences set up a scene, and then the third sentence moves the action forward:

Slide 2

Here we first have two uses of the  past tense to describe events taking place in quick succession (called, woke). When the aeronaut wakes up, he becomes aware of the situation ongoing around him. The next verb phrases help to describe this ongoing situation.

The past tense was helps to describe a state of affairs (something was wrong). Here we would not use a progressive: we wouldn’t write something was being wrong.

In the following main clauses, we have past progressives which describe ongoing events (was swinging, were barely managing) and create a dynamic image. There is a simple past (buffeted) in a subordinate clause. (We also have the nonfinite clause, pulling the rope, which describes an ongoing action by the witches.)

Slide 3

You probably identified the examples of past progressive (was speaking) and of simple past tense (remembered, walked). What is different here is the use of several instances of the past perfect: had pointed, had buried, ’d looked. These come after remembered and describe events that the narrator is remembering.

That means that the time frame shifts backwards instead of forwards:

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Tense and aspect in fiction: Activity

It was after supper, and I was reading and smoking at the table. Algie was playing patience and drumming a tattoo with his fingers, and Gus was outside checking on the dogs. Suddenly he burst in. 'Chaps! Outside, quick!'

Serafina Pekkala called to the aeronaut, and he woke at once, groggy with cold, but aware from the movement of the basket that something was wrong. It was swinging wildly as strong winds buffeted the gas-bag, and the witches pulling the rope were barely managing to hold it.

Even as she was speaking I remembered how Big Joe had pointed up the church tower the day we had buried Father, how he'd looked back up at it over his shoulder as he walked away.

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SKIP