What Narrative Essay Means

A narrative essay is one that tells a story. You might be used to thinking of storytelling in connection with personal relationships, where we’re telling our stories all the time to friends, family, or romantic partners. Or you might think of the narratives you read in literature classes—from great storytellers like Sophocles, Shakespeare or Toni Morrison. Some of your biggest exposures to storytelling probably come through movies, TV shows or even YouTube videos.

The Narrative in Professional Life

You might not be used to thinking of how important storytelling skills are in school or professional life. But consider the fact that your college application essay can be pivotal in determining whether you get into the school of your choice. And high-quality storytelling can pay off big-time beyond beyond college too. A good narrative essay assignment should show you how practically valuable it will be to develop your ability to write a compelling story.

Sometimes students scoff at narrative assignments because they don’t see how practical such assignments are. For instance, even a student who has settled on a good narrative topic might say, “What’s the point of writing a story about my eighth grade biking accident? I’m studying to be a biomed engineer, not a friggin’ novelist!” There’s an assumption here that biomedical engineers don’t need narrative writing skills—but in many cases that assumption will be misguided. And the student who writes about his eighth grade biking accident may actually be able to make a meaningful connection between that experience and his desire to develop treatments for others who go through physical trauma.

Engineers of various types, along with MBA’s, marketing or sales professionals and others, will often be asked to produce a writing sample on the spot when they go for job interviews. Employers want to see that applicants will be able to write accomplished proposals or reports for supervisors or clients. A graduate with an engineering degree in such a situation might choose to write about her senior design project. If she’s acquired good storytelling skills, she could write a compelling narrative about how she helped to address technical challenges while also resolving conflicts among members of her design team. Such a narrative essay, in showing the applicant’s communication skills, technical knowledge and leadership qualities, would be a powerful piece of self-marketing. In many such cases, narratives written with skill and attention to audience have helped applicants land coveted positions.

Writing a Compelling Narrative

So how do you write a strong narrative essay? Begin by thinking analytically about the elements that draw you into a good story. A compelling narrative essay, even though it focuses on factual events, will use many of the qualities you enjoy in a good piece of fiction:

  • Opening hook to get your audience interested or curious
  • Sharply drawn characters
  • Plot—that is, a chain of events with an interesting cause-and-effect dynamic
  • Vivid sensory description of people, events, and settings
  • Dialogue
  • Tension
  • Climax

Show, Don’t Tell

One of the most important qualities of a good narrative is sensory description that brings the settings, people and events alive for the reader. Even if you have really compelling raw material to put into your story, it takes some work to conjure a vivid reading experience. According to the award-winning writer Flannery O’Connor, good storytelling “deals with reality according to what can be seen heard, smelt, tasted and touched.” So you’ll need to appeal to the senses of your audience.

Take the example of the narrative about the bicycle accident mentioned above. If the writer simply “tells” the reader about the accident, it’s probably not going to be very interesting—it will just seem generic, lacking in the specificity and detail that readers want. Here’s an example of merely “telling” about an event:

Last summer I was out for a bike ride with my friend. We were going really fast and I tried to make a sharp turn. Because of my speed and gravel on the road, I lost control and crashed my bike. My leg and head were injured. The pain was terrible. My friend had kept going, but fortunately he turned around and came back to help me.

Here’s an example of how using sensory details to “show” the reader what happened (and how it felt) can transform a boring passage into a description that will really engage your reader:

Kevin and I were pedaling fast down Radnor Avenue. He was a few yards ahead of me, his crew-cut head pitched forward and his flannel shirt whipping up like a plaid cape. When we got to Tilghman Road, he leaned into his turn and I followed. I was squinting so hard from the glare of the August sun that I didn’t see the treacherous patch of gravel I was heading for. Just when I’d twisted the handlebars sharply to the right, I heard the crunch under my tires and felt a sick drop as the bike swept out from under me. Suddenly I was sprawled on the macadam, my head and left leg banging with pain. Bright red blood mixed with gravel showed through a gash in the knee of my jeans. A few feet away my Denali racer lay on its side, the handlebars bent and the front wheel still spinning. I looked up the road. Kevin was just starting to turn around to pedal back to me.

Hook Your Audience with the ABDCE Method

One good way to catch and sustain the interest of your readers is by using a formula that fiction writers employ to create curiosity and suspense. When you use this ABDCE method, you begin with Action, because that is what usually attracts us the most in any story. Once you’ve hooked your readers with the action, you move on to Background—this is where you fill the audience in on what they need to know about your people and situations in order to get the full effect of what comes later. The background might cover what led up to the action you started with, for instance. After the background, you move into Development of the story by describing the central chain of events. What you’re developing is a plot that creates drama, tension, maybe suspense. The development will reach its greatest intensity in the Climax of your narrative, which should cover the most pivotal and dramatic events of your story. After the climax comes the Ending, where you suggest the significance of the foregoing events by showing their aftermath.

As a mode of expository writing, the narrative approach, more than any other, offers writers a chance to think and write about themselves. We all have experiences lodged in our memories, which are worthy of sharing with readers. Yet sometimes they are so fused with other memories that a lot of the time spent in writing narrative is in the prewriting stage.

When you write a narrative essay, you are telling a story. Narrative essays are told from a defined point of view, often the author's, so there is feeling as well as specific and often sensory details provided to get the reader involved in the elements and sequence of the story. The verbs are vivid and precise. The narrative essay makes a point and that point is often defined in the opening sentence, but can also be found as the last sentence in the opening paragraph.

Since a narrative relies on personal experiences, it often is in the form of a story. When the writer uses this technique, he or she must be sure to include all the conventions of storytelling: plot, character, setting, climax, and ending. It is usually filled with details that are carefully selected to explain, support, or embellish the story. All of the details relate to the main point the writer is attempting to make.

To summarize, the narrative essay

  • is told from a particular point of view
  • makes and supports a point
  • is filled with precise detail
  • uses vivid verbs and modifiers
  • uses conflict and sequence as does any story
  • may use dialogue

The purpose of a narrative report is to describe something. Many students write narrative reports thinking that these are college essays or papers. While the information in these reports is basic to other forms of writing, narrative reports lack the "higher order thinking" that essays require. Thus narrative reports do not, as a rule, yield high grades for many college courses. A basic example of a narrative report is a "book report" that outlines a book; it includes the characters, their actions, possibly the plot, and, perhaps, some scenes. That is, it is a description of "what happens in the book." But this leaves out an awful lot.

What is left out is what the book or article is about -- the underlying concepts, assumptions, arguments, or point of view that the book or article expresses. A narrative report leaves aside a discussion that puts the events of the text into the context of what the text is about. Is the text about love? Life in the fast lane? Society? Wealth and power? Poverty? In other words, narrative reports often overlook the authors purpose or point of view expressed through the book or article.

Once an incident is chosen, the writer should keep three principles in mind.

  1. Remember to involve readers in the story. It is much more interesting to actually recreate an incident for readers than to simply tell about it.
  2. Find a generalization, which the story supports. This is the only way the writer's personal experience will take on meaning for readers. This generalization does not have to encompass humanity as a whole; it can concern the writer, men, women, or children of various ages and backgrounds.
  3. Remember that although the main component of a narrative is the story, details must be carefully selected to support, explain, and enhance the story.

Conventions of Narrative Essays

In writing your narrative essay, keep the following conventions in mind.

  • Narratives are generally written in the first person, that is, using I. However, third person (he, she, or it) can also be used.
  • Narratives rely on concrete, sensory details to convey their point. These details should create a unified, forceful effect, a dominant impression. More information on the use of specific details is available on another page.
  • Narratives, as stories, should include these story conventions: a plot, including setting and characters; a climax; and an ending.

Here are some popular essay topic examples for your narrative essay type:

  • First Day at College
  • The Moment of Success
  • A Memorable Journey
  • ...

The essay topic you choose should be interesting and important to you, because the best essays are written on the topics that really matter to the writer.

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