You know your Spanish is in great shape when you can talk about something that happened to you without getting your verb tenses all mixed up. Getting better at storytelling is one of the best things you can do on your road towards fluency, and in order to do it successfully, you need to master the imperfect, the preterit (pretérito perfecto simple), and the conditional.
Instead of making a list of rules for each tense and going over a few simple phrases, let’s observe them in their natural habitat: the story.
What follows is a Spanishified liberal translation of a moving anecdote that I came across while reading the bestseller Essentialism). It’s an excellent illustration of how these verb tenses work together to move the plot forwards.
Here is paragraph one out of three:
Hace tiempo, Rocío me contó la historia de cuando su padre le había prometido llevarla a ver una película en uno de los cines del centro de Madrid. Rocío y su padre llevaban meses planificando minuciosamente el evento juntos. Se sabían el itinerario de memoria: él saldría un poco antes del trabajo para ir a recogerla al colegio, irían andando hasta la parada de metro más cercana y cogerían la línea 10 hasta Tribunal, luego cruzarían la Gran Vía, pedirían dos palmeras de chocolate en La Mallorquina y harían tiempo comprando fuegos artificiales y bengalas en el mercadillo de Navidad de la Plaza Mayor. Después del cine, cenarían un escalope en el restaurante favorito de Rocío, cogerían un taxi de vuelta a casa y subirían a la azotea del edificio para encender los fuegos artificiales. El repaso continuo de cada uno de los detalles del plan se había convertido en el pasatiempo favorito de ambos.
Some time ago, Rocío told me the story about the time her father had promised to take her to see a movie in one of the theaters in the city center of Madrid. Rocío and her dad had been carefully planning the event together for months. They knew the itinerary by heart: he would leave a bit early from work to go pick her up at school, they would walk to the nearest metro stop, and they would take the 10 line until Tribunal, then they would cross the Gran Vía, order two chocolate palmiers at La Mallorquina, and kill time buying fireworks and sparklers in the Christmas market at the Plaza Mayor. After the movie, they would have a schnitzel in Rocío’s favorite restaurant, they would grab a taxi back home and they would go up to the roof of the building to light up the firecrackers. The continuous review of each of the details of the plan had become their favorite pass time.
- We use the preterit to put the focus on past actions and events that took place at a specific point in the story. In the first sentence, hace tiempo sets the scene and Pret‑1 puts the focus on what happened at that point in time.
We use the imperfect to take the focus away from past actions and events (so it can be placed on something else). Using the imperfect in Imp‑1 is a stylistic choice. The sentence would have also worked in the preterit: Rocío me contó la historia de cuando su padre le prometió llevarla… , but that would imply that the promise was kept. By using the imperfect (or technically, the pluperfect), we add a bit of mystery about whether the promise was kept or not.
Anytime we’re talking about habitual actions in the past, reach for the imperfect. That’s what we’re doing in Imp‑2 and Imp‑4 (don’t let gerunds or past participles throw you off).
Similar to Imp‑1, we’re using the imperfect in Imp‑3 to set the scene. The colon is a convenient way to linger on the description.
We use the conditional to talk about future events from a past perspective. Everything from Cond‑1 to Cond‑9 is describing the plan that Rocío and her father made before it actually happened. An alternative way to tell it would be to use the imperfect form of ir a: iban a ir andando…. The meaning would change a bit, just like the subtle difference in English between they were going to walk… and they would walk…
On to paragraph two:
Esa tarde todo estaba yendo según el plan, hasta que su padre se encontró con un viejo compañero del trabajo al salir de la parada de metro. Llevaban años sin verse y Rocío se quedó observando mientras se abrazaban calurosamente. Su amigo le confesó: «No sabes la ilusión que me hace que nos hayamos cruzado. Justo el otro día le estaba diciendo a mi mujer que llevábamos mucho tiempo sin verte. Te vamos a invitar ahora mismo, y por supuesto también a Rocío, a cenar el mejor pulpo a la gallega de todo Madrid» El padre de Rocío le respondió: «Álvaro, estoy contentísimo de que nos hayamos encontrado. Ese pulpo tuyo, no me lo pierdo ni loco.»
That afternoon everything was going according to plan until her father ran into an old work colleague as he was leaving the metro station. They hadn’t seen each other in years and Rocío watched them while they embraced enthusiastically. His friend told him: “You don’t know how happy I am that we ran into each other. Just the other day I was telling my wife that it had been a long time since we saw you. We’re inviting you right now, and of course Rocío, to have the best Galician octopus in Madrid for dinner.” Rocío’s father replied: “Álvaro, I’m so excited that we ran into each other. There’s no way I’m missing your famous octopus.
- Imp‑5 and Pret‑2 showcase the typical imperfect-preterit one-two punch: the imperfect sets the scene, and the preterit focuses on what happened.
Imp‑6 + Pret‑3 + Imp‑7 is a variation on the same theme. We’re putting the focus on Rocío. Everything else at that moment is secondary.
Pret‑4 and Pret‑5 don’t need sentence-specific imperfect verbs to set the scene because that was already done in the previous sentences.
Likewise, the preterit focus can sometimes be implied. In Imp‑8 and Imp‑9, the punch line would be something like …y de repente, te vi (…and suddenly, I saw you). Another option would be to change Imp‑8 into a preterit: el otro día le dije a mi mujer…
And here is the final paragraph:
A Rocío se le vino el mundo encima. Su ilusión de palmeras y cohetes se esfumó en un momento. Encima, el pulpo le daba asco y ya se estaba imaginando cuánto se aburriría escuchando conversaciones de adultos durante horas. Pero entonces su padre continuó: «Pero hoy no puede ser. Rocío y yo tenemos un montón de planes para esta tarde. ¿A que sí?» Le guiñó un ojo, la cogió de la mano y siguieron andando Fuencarral abajo para continuar la que acabaría siendo una noche inolvidable en Madrid.
Rocío felt the disappointment washing over her. Her dreams of palmiers and firecrackers evaporated in an instant. Besides, she thought octopus was disgusting and she was already imagining how bored she would be listening to adult conversations for hours. But then her father continued: “But not today. Rocío and I have a bunch of plans for this afternoon. Isn’t that right? He winked at her, grabbed her hand and went on walking down Fuencarral to continue what would become an unforgettable night in Madrid.”
- Anytime you want to talk about specific events that happened in the past, like in Pret‑6 through Pret‑11, the preterit is your friend.
Imp‑10 and Imp‑11 are not specific events in the context of this story. You could say El pulpo le dio asco if she was right about to eat it, or se imaginó cuánto se aburriría, but the certainty takes dramatic effect away from the punch line at Pret‑8
In Cond‑10 Rocío hasn’t started getting bored. In Cond‑11, the night hasn’t yet become unforgettable. We use the conditional because, in both cases, we’re in the past, talking about an event that hasn’t yet happened (indeed, it may never happen).
This story is full of useful scaffold sentences. My advice is to spend 30 minutes every day memorizing each sentence. Keep it simple:
- read a sentence out loud
- look away
- try to repeat it
- look back to see what you forgot
- keep doing this until you can hold the whole thing in memory
- move on to the next sentence
A couple of weeks of this, and you’ll be telling stories like a Spanish pro.
Let me know how it goes in the comments.