Creating Atmosphere in Writing with the Past Progressive

“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

—Anton Chekhov

Writing is a skill that English learners usually find challenging. Not only do they need to understand and apply grammar, spelling, and punctuation rules, but they also need to know how to compose a paragraph, essay, or story. How can we make writing easier and more enjoyable for our students?

Creative writing can be fun. One way to motivate students to write is to teach them ways to start a story. Using the past progressive (also known as the past continuous) is a great way to create atmosphere and set the mood of a story.

Create Atmosphere with the Past Progressive

If your students need a refresher with this not-so-common verb tense, remind them how the past progressive (was/were + -ing verb) is used in English (see Simple Past Vs. Past Progressive for teaching tips).

Then tell your students they can do one or more of the following to begin their stories:

1. Describe the Weather

Common verbs: rain, pour, snow, howl, blow

  • The rain was pouring down from the sky while the storm was raging.
  • It was snowing heavily and I could barely see a thing.
  • The wind was howling through the trees.

2. Describe the Scene

Common verbs: hurry, walk, rush, talk, greet

  • Everywhere I looked, people were rushing by at top speed.
  • Traffic was at a standstill, and commuters were laying on their horns in frustration.
  • When I arrived, the group members were greeting one another enthusiastically.

3. Describe Clothing and Accessories

Common verbs: wear, carry, sport

  • The man was wearing a long, dark trench coat, which only added to his air of mystery.
  • She was carrying a red briefcase. That’s the first thing I noticed as my lawyer rushed into the courtroom.
  • The opposing team’s coach was sporting a goatee and a smug look on his face.

4. Describe the Action

Common verbs: drive, go, run, walk, talk

  • John Smith was driving along a long, winding road one foggy afternoon.
  • Oh, to be a teenager again! My daughter was talking to her friend on the phone for hours last night.
  • We were running late as usual, and we were arguing.

5. Add a Surprising (Short) Action*

*Remind students that the short action will be in the simple past tense (whereas the longer, continuing action will be in the past progressive tense).

Common verbs: appear, ring, hit, crash, go out

  • Last night, the Johnson family was watching TV at home. All of a sudden, the power went out and they were plunged into darkness.
  • My husband and I were driving along aimlessly when the car in front of us suddenly swerved off the road.
  • Maya was walking home along a dark, deserted street when a huge UFO appeared in the sky.


Have your students write five different story-starting sentences using the past progressive. Get them to write one from each category (above) if you like. Then ask them to pick the one they like the most and have them continue writing a short story to hand in or read out in groups.

How do you motivate your students to write? Share your methods in the comments section below.


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