A favorite assignment for English classes, this kind of writing is supposedly among the easiest kind to write. A narrative can be defined as a "story," but it could be a true story or a fictional one. You may write to entertain, persuade, or inform your audience, but narrative may have a more practical application. You write a narrative if you are filling out a police report about an accident or a burglary, or explaining your symptoms to your health care provider. In these real life cases, it is extremely important to explain clearly and completely.
Types of narration
You could write about something that happened to you, something that happened to a person close to you, or something that you read or heard about. Your closeness to the story will have a big effect on decisions you make about the writing process.
When writing about yourself, you will obviously use the first person: I, me, we, us. Writing about another person requires the third person, because you're telling about what he, she, or they did. An alternative would be to address your reader directly using "you." This last alternative is not generally recommended. (Save it for how-to-do-it writing.)
That was then, this is now
Another choice you have is whether to use past or present tense. The most normal choice would be past, since the incident has already occurred. If you prefer to give the reader the impression of being in the scene, you may decide to use present tense. This is the way we often tell stories to our friends: "I'm walking down the street and this guy comes up to me and says . . . " But something that works orally may not always be the best choice for a written task. If your narrative is for an assignment, make sure you check it with your teacher first, since this method may not be acceptable.
Whichever you decide to use, make sure to keep the tenses consistent. Don't switch back and forth from past to present. Also, make sure your tenses work together to show time relationships. This may require a review of participles and “perfect” and “progressive” verb tenses. Find a good grammar book that explains sequence of tenses.
One reason that this kind of writing is considered easier than others is that the arrangement is predetermined. In most cases, you will tell the story in the order that it happened. In order for it to make sense to the reader, it should be presented in chronological order. Although this order is obvious, there may be times when it makes more sense to change things around. You may want to save an important detail until last for dramatic effect. For example, you may describe an amazing feat performed by someone, and at the very end you add the shocking news that the person was blind or in a wheelchair or wearing a full-body cast.
Well begun is half done
Another change of order can be effective in order to create an effective beginning. You may want to describe the final results of the story first to get your reader's attention. "You may wonder how I ended up dangling upside down from a tree branch in my backyard" is a much more compelling start to a story than "I woke up one morning and walked out into my backyard."
A variation on this technique can also be used to create a "frame" for your story. Pick out a significant detail from the story and begin with it. Then return to the same idea at the end. Make sure you vary the wording.
Consider your audience
Have a clear picture of your reader in mind. The knowledge and experience your target audience brings to the reading should influence your choice of words. Obviously, you would tell a story differently to a preschooler than you would to an engineer. But other audience differences are more subtle. If you’re writing to sports fans, you can expect them to understand the specific terms you use and the players and league acronyms you refer to. When writing for a broader audience, define those terms.
A good exercise is to write a list of the main events of the story. Then tell it to a friend or colleague. Observe expressions as you narrate. Is your listener getting it? Or does his or her face register confusion? This will help you know whether you’re on the right track. Adapt the storyline accordingly.
Why are you telling the story?
Before beginning to write, have a clear idea of your underlying reason for writing the story. Defining your purpose will help you decide how much to include and how to present it. A narrative used to inform will contain only the bare bones details. If you plan to entertain, you will have to add some humorous points and work on your timing. Think of oral presentations of stories. A stand-up comedian uses a completely different approach than someone telling a scary story around a campfire.
Add descriptive details
A narrative with no details about the people involved or the places where the action is happening is borrrrring. The emphasis should always be on the action. However, without the context of a setting or a feel for the characters involved, the writing will fall flat. Use some of the techniques you have used in your descriptive writing to dress up your narrative.
Your ending should feel like an ending. Avoid simply trailing off or adding a weak phrase like “and that’s all,” or the painfully trite “they lived happily ever after.” When your readers reach the final sentence, they should be well aware that they have been informed, entertained, frightened, or fooled. Everybody loves a story—but it must be a story well told in order to achieve its purposes.
In a narrative essay you tell a story, often about a personal experience, but you also make a point. So, the purpose is not only to tell an entertaining tale but also show the reason for the story and the importance of the experience.
Narrative Essays: To Tell a Story
There are four types of essays:
- Exposition - gives factual information about various topics to the reader.
- Description - describes in colorful detail the characteristics and traits of a person, place, or thing.
- Argument - convinces the reader by demonstrating the truth or falsity of a topic.
- Narrative - tells a vivid story, usually from one person’s viewpoint.
A narrative essay uses all the story elements - a beginning, middle and ending, plot, characters, setting and climax - all coming together to complete the story.
Essential Elements of Narrative Essays
The focus of a narrative essay is the plot, which is told using enough details to build to a climax. Here's how:
- It is usually told chronologically.
- It has a purpose, which is usually stated in the opening sentence.
- It may use dialogue.
- It is written with sensory details and bright descriptions to involve the reader. All these details relate in some way to the main point the writer is making.
All of these elements need to seamlessly combine. A few examples of narrative essays follow. Narrative essays can be quite long, so here only the beginnings of essays are included:
Learning Can Be Scary
This excerpt about learning new things and new situations is an example of a personal narrative essay that describes learning to swim.
“Learning something new can be a scary experience. One of the hardest things I've ever had to do was learn how to swim. I was always afraid of the water, but I decided that swimming was an important skill that I should learn. I also thought it would be good exercise and help me to become physically stronger. What I didn't realize was that learning to swim would also make me a more confident person.
New situations always make me a bit nervous, and my first swimming lesson was no exception. After I changed into my bathing suit in the locker room, I stood timidly by the side of the pool waiting for the teacher and other students to show up. After a couple of minutes the teacher came over. She smiled and introduced herself, and two more students joined us. Although they were both older than me, they didn't seem to be embarrassed about not knowing how to swim. I began to feel more at ease.”
The Manager. The Leader.
The following excerpt is a narrative essay about a manager who was a great leader. Notice the intriguing first sentence that captures your attention right away.
“Jerry was the kind of guy you love to hate. He was always in a good mood and always had something positive to say. When someone would ask him how he was doing, he would reply, 'If I were any better, I would be twins!' He was a unique manager because he had several waiters who had followed him around from restaurant to restaurant. The reason the waiters followed Jerry was because of his attitude. He was a natural motivator. If an employee was having a bad day, Jerry was there telling the employee how to look on the positive side of the situation.”
This excerpt from The Climb also captures your attention right away by creating a sense of mystery. The reader announces that he or she has "this fear" and you want to read on to see what that fear is.
“I have this fear. It causes my legs to shake. I break out in a cold sweat. I start jabbering to anyone who is nearby. As thoughts of certain death run through my mind, the world appears a precious, treasured place. I imagine my own funeral, then shrink back at the implications of where my thoughts are taking me. My stomach feels strange. My palms are clammy. I am terrified of heights. Of course, it’s not really a fear of being in a high place. Rather, it is the view of a long way to fall, of rocks far below me and no firm wall between me and the edge. My sense of security is screamingly absent. There are no guardrails, flimsy though I picture them, or other safety devices. I can rely only on my own surefootedness—or lack thereof.”
The following narrative essay involves a parent reflecting on taking his kids to Disneyland for the first time.
“It was a hot, sunny day, when I finally took my kids to the Disneyland. My son Matthew and my daughter Audra endlessly asked me to show them the dreamland of many children, with Mickey Mouse and Snow White walking by and arousing a huge portion of emotions. Somehow these fairy-tale creatures can make children happy without such 'small' presents as $100 Lego or a Barbie house with six rooms and garden furniture. Therefore, I thought that Disneyland was a good invention for loving parents.”
The Sacred Grove of Oshogbo by Jeffrey Tayler
The following essay contains descriptive language that helps to paint a vivid picture for the reader of an interesting encounter.
“As I passed through the gates I heard a squeaky voice. A diminutive middle-aged man came out from behind the trees — the caretaker. He worked a toothbrush-sized stick around in his mouth, digging into the crevices between algae'd stubs of teeth. He was barefoot; he wore a blue batik shirt known as a buba, baggy purple trousers, and an embroidered skullcap. I asked him if he would show me around the shrine. Motioning me to follow, he spat out the results of his stick work and set off down the trail.”
This excerpt from “Playground Memory” has very good sensory details.
“Looking back on a childhood filled with events and memories, I find it rather difficult to pick on that leaves me with the fabled “warm and fuzzy feelings.” As the daughter of an Air Force Major, I had the pleasure of traveling across America in many moving trips. I have visited the monstrous trees of the Sequoia National Forest, stood on the edge of the Grande Canyon and have jumped on the beds at Caesar’s Palace in Lake Tahoe. However, I have discovered that when reflecting on my childhood, it is not the trips that come to mind, instead there are details from everyday doings; a deck of cards, a silver bank or an ice cream flavor. One memory that comes to mind belongs to a day of no particular importance. It was late in the fall in Merced, California on the playground of my old elementary school; an overcast day with the wind blowing strong. I stood on the blacktop, pulling my hoodie over my ears. The wind was causing miniature tornados; we called them “dirt devils”, to swarm around me.”
This excerpt from “Christmas Cookies” makes good use of descriptive language.
“Although I have grown up to be entirely inept at the art of cooking, as to make even the most wretched chef ridicule my sad baking attempts, my childhood would have indicated otherwise; I was always on the countertop next to my mother’s cooking bowl, adding and mixing ingredients that would doubtlessly create a delicious food. When I was younger, cooking came intrinsically with the holiday season, which made that time of year the prime occasion for me to unite with ounces and ounces of satin dark chocolate, various other messy and gooey ingredients, numerous cooking utensils, and the assistance of my mother to cook what would soon be an edible masterpiece. The most memorable of the holiday works of art were our Chocolate Crinkle Cookies, which my mother and I first made when I was about six and are now made annually.”
Tips on Writing a Narrative Essay
When writing a narrative essay, remember that you are sharing sensory and emotional details with the reader.
- Your words need to be vivid and colorful to help the reader feel the same feelings that you felt.
- Elements of the story need to support the point you are making and you need to remember to make reference to that point in the first sentence.
- You should make use of conflict and sequence like in any story.
- You may use flashbacks and flash forwards to help the story build to a climax.
- It is usually written in the first person, but third person may also be used.
Remember, a well-written narrative essay tells a story and also makes a point.