Usually stories are told in Past Tense: "So Froggy put on his socks, pulled on his boots, put on his hat, tied on his scarf, tugged on his mittens and flopped outside into the snow - flop, flop, flop."

Given the pictures of this story, pointing to one of them I would describe it to my child as: "Froggy is putting on his socks." Describing the next picture would be: "Froggy is pulling on his boots." So, picture by picture, it sums up to a story telling in Present Continuous.

In other languages, there is often a possibility to use a Present Tense to tell a story. Is a Present Tense one of idiomatic choices for story telling in English? If yes: which one - Simple or Continuous/Progressive? Or maybe both?

In case of the example above, could I rephrase the story as: "Froggy puts on his socks, pulls on his boots, puts on his hat..."?

  • Yes, it is quite common for the present tense to be used, especially since the stream-of-consciousness narrative became popular with early modernism in the first part of the 20th century. Usually it is the simple present, but there are plenty of examples of the continuous as well. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Nov 1 '18 at 21:13
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    The "historic present", also called the dramatic present, and narrative present. – Michael Harvey Nov 1 '18 at 21:15
  • Are you talking about children's literature or adult literature? (Or either one?) Your example about Froggy putting his boots on suggests the former. I ask because a children's author might deliberately choose the present tense as a literary device for a bedtime story, something that, say, Tolkien or Rowling might have had a harder time accomplishing in their multi-volume tomes. – J.R. Nov 1 '18 at 21:36
  • @J.R. In this case I am talking about children's literature. But I'm not sure if I got your point right about having "a harder time accomplishing in their multi-volume tomes." Using Present Progressive - "Froggy is pulling on his boots." - obviously prolongs the sentences, but using the Simple Present does not: "Froggy pulls on his boots." So, your point was directed at Present Progressive only? – Min-Soo Pipefeet Nov 1 '18 at 21:54

Using the present tense has quite a dramatic effect, as if the narrator is present and describing the events that happen in real time. In fact authors use a mixture of tenses: Past, present, future, perfect and continuous, as required.

So use a present tense narrative only for a special effect. Normal storytelling has the narrator reporting on events, and is done mostly in the past tense.

A blog post that discusses present tense narrative, with examples

  • Hm, I've found out that all "Plot" sections in Wikipedia are written in Simple Present, e.g. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gone_with_the_Wind_(film)#Plot So, Simple Present seems to be the standard tense for plots. Don't plots fall into the category "storytelling"? – Min-Soo Pipefeet Nov 2 '18 at 21:51
  • They are rather more "commentary". The person is describing the plot of the film as they see it. Commentary is normally done in the present tense. – James K Nov 2 '18 at 21:53

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