A Student's Brief Overview of Narrative Essays
Tips for writing narrative essays. Writing an effective narrative essay involves drawing the reader into the experience you are narrating, recreating it.
by Katharine Hansen, Ph.D.
A narrative essay essentially tells a story. A good way to think of a narrative essay is to consider a variation on the word "narrative" -- narrator -- and think of yourself as the narrator of a story of someone's experience -- probably yours. Professors often assign students to write narrative essays about their own experiences. Some students find writing about themselves quite easy and natural, while others become unhinged at the idea of having to chronicle their own experiences. Students often think nothing in their lives is story-worthy; if you are one of those consider these prompts for narrative essays:
- My most memorable ...
- How I got interested in ...
- How I achieved ...
- How I failed at ...
- How I realized ...
- My most frightening experience ...
- My best experience with ...
- My worst experience with ...
- My happiest time ...
- My first experience with ...
- The weirdest ...
- My favorite ...
- How I handled ... (for example, change, conflict, danger, uncertainty)
As you can see, thinking about firsts, bests, worsts, and mosts will help you develop a topic if your professor hasn't assigned one.
Since most narrative essays are written in first-person (I), another way to jump-start your thinking about your topic is to write "I" followed by a verb ("saw," "felt," "wept," "went," "smiled," "wanted," for example) and see if that simple phrase sparks any thoughts of experiences to write about. One more way, not only to find narrative-essay topics, but also to see excellent examples of narrative essays is to scan Reader's Digest, a magazine that your parents or grandparents may subscribe to and is probably available in your library, or go the Reader's Digest Story Website. Another source for examples is the radio show "This American Life," which you can hear on National Public Radio, download from the official site, watch in video form on Showtime, or purchase from iTunes.
Like a descriptive essay, a narrative essay should draw the reader into the experience you are narrating, essentially recreating the experience for the reader. It should also contain sensory details the way a descriptive essay does. Finally, like the descriptive essay, the essay offers a central theme, point, or purpose, creating for the reader a dominant impression -- often an observation, insight, or universal truth about human nature or the human condition. Sometimes the story's purpose is even a lesson learned or moral (as in, "the moral of the story is ...").
Beyond what you would find in a descriptive essay, however, a narrative essay contains the elements you find in story-writing: plot, character, point of view, climax, and ending. Often an element of conflict is also present, and the narrative essay may include dialog. Weaving together these experiential elements are details that support the point of the story and move it forward.
Because narrative essays usually involve personal reflections, emotions, and experiences, they especially lend themselves to prewriting. If you have a topic for your narrative essay but still feel uncomfortable about writing about yourself, think about the many ways you tell stories in everyday life by talking on the phone and in person with friends and family. You probably also write stories regularly through e-mail, instant-messaging, and even texting. If thinking about those experiences still doesn't loosen you up, consider telling your story into a tape recorder before you write it. Or write about the experience in a stream-of-consciousness manner until the story structure begins to emerge. Because stories unfold in a specific sequence, your narrative essay also will benefit from your having constructed an outline before you write.
An effective way to structure a narrative essay is as follows:
- Introductory paragraph setting up the type of story you will be telling and hinting at the purpose or point of the story. Setting and characters may be introduced in this paragraph or in one that follows shortly.
- Middle paragraphs offering event-driven and/or character-driven description and details that move the plot forward and build toward the climax.
- Conclusion explicating the purpose or point of the story.
Final Thoughts on Narrative Essays
Experts caution that not all narrative essays are written as stories, citing book reports as prime
examples of narrative essays not written in story form. If your professor assigns a book report,
you can be fairly certain that it should not be written as a story. But if you are assigned another
type of narrative essay, be sure to ask if it's not clear that your professor wants a story format.
Return to A Student's Brief Overview of Expository Writing.
Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key academic terms by going to our College Success Glossary.
Katharine Hansen, Ph.D., is an educator, author, and blogger who provides content for EmpoweringSites.com, including MyCollegeSuccessStory.com. Katharine, who earned her PhD in organizational behavior from Union Institute & University, Cincinnati, OH, is author of Dynamic Cover Letters for New Graduates and A Foot in the Door: Networking Your Way into the Hidden Job Market (both published by Ten Speed Press), as well as Top Notch Executive Resumes (Career Press); and with Randall S. Hansen, Ph.D., Dynamic Cover Letters, Write Your Way to a Higher GPA (Ten Speed), and The Complete Idiot's Guide to Study Skills (Alpha). She curates, crafts, and delivers compelling content online, in print, on stage, and in the classroom. Visit her personal Website KatharineHansenPhD.com or reach her by e-mail at kathy(at)astoriedcareer.com. Check out Dr. Hansen on GooglePlus.