A narrative essay is a journey through time. It is a personal account of the writer’s experience, but it doesn’t need to be boring. There are lots of ways to add creativity and zing. Narrative essays are works of art. As with all arts, you have to work hard to master the form.
There is no one way to write a narrative essay, but there are some best practices that you can follow. This page will share helpful things that I have learned about writing better narrative essays. I hope that this will help you write better narrative essays too.
Overview of Contents
There is no step-by-step method of writing a narrative essay that works well. Narrative essays should not be cookie-cutter response pieces. They should be the expression of an author’s life experience. Still, there are some basic pieces that your narrative should have if you want to practice good story telling.
Stories need characters. It is possible to tell a story with just the narrator, but who would want to read it? There are many different types of characters. Include a couple in your essay.
Conflicts are problems in the story that the main character faces. Your characters don’t have to fight each other. There are lots of different types of conflicts, but there should be a conflict in your essay. Most readers find stories without conflicts to be boring.
Not only should your essay have a conflict, it should have connected events around it. This is the plot. A plot is a series of events related to a conflict in a story. Good stories have clear, logical plotlines.
It is considerate for an author to make some effort to catch the reader’s attention in the first sentence or paragraph of an essay. Attention grabbing techniques for narrative essays are different from those you might use in a persuasive essay. It’s best to pattern your writing after successful models. I learned these attention grabbing techniques by studying published works of fiction. I took some books off of my bookshelf and read the first paragraph of each. Most of them begin by using one of the following techniques. But don’t take my word for it. Grab some books off of your bookshelf and check out how they start.
Dialogue is when characters speak in a story. The voices of the characters are distinguished from the voice of the narrator through the use of quotation marks. Using dialogue is a great way to start off your essay. It throws the reader right into the action. If you begin with an interesting or startling piece of dialogue, you will hook your reader.
Example: “Get up, Sam! You’re going to be late for school!” My mother’s voice startled me awake.
Onomatopoeia is when a words pronunciation imitates its sound, like boom or buzz. Using onomatopoeia is like using dialogue. You put the onomatopoeic word in quotation marks to distinguish it from the voice of the narrator. Like dialogue, using onomatopoeia well will toss the reader right into the action from the first sentence of your story.
Example: “Boom!” The thunder crack shook the lunchroom.
Many good authors begin their stories with descriptions of a character or setting. This is an inviting way to bring readers into the world of your story, but be careful not to get caught up on the detail. You are trying to catch the reader’s attention. Don’t drive them away with tedious descriptions of leaves. A good way to use this approach is to begin your essay with a figurative language technique.
Example: The sun peaked over the green hills of Townsville like an eager child.
Starting your narrative essay by describing a character’s action is a great way to kick off your essay. Using this technique will drop readers into a story that’s already in progress. You can introduce your readers to a character and a situation in a single sentence.
Example: I held the empty canteen over my mouth and waited patiently for the last drop to roll out.
Beginning your narrative essay with a strongly-worded, thoughtful statement will capture your reader’s attention. The only problem with this technique is that it can be hard to think of such a statement. It may be easier if you’ve thought through the plot of your story. If you have a theme or lesson that you will attempt to express, then it is worth a few minutes to think of a good opening sentence that will unify your efforts.
Example: I never knew the power of a kind word until I heard one when I needed it most.
Flashback is when the narrative jumps back in time. Conversely, flash-forward is when the narration skips ahead. If you use flashback, you can start your essay near the moment of final suspense, and then jump back in time to when the conflict was first introduced. This takes a bit of finesse with your pacing, but if you can pull it off, it is a sophisticated way to start your essay.
A Final Word on Attention Catchers
It’s important to remember that there is some crossover between these techniques. We are writing narrative essays, not solving math problems. Don’t get hung up on putting these attention catchers into boxes. These techniques will be more effective if you blend them in new ways.
The climax is the turning point of a story. It is when conditions change in such a way that the main character is capable of solving the problem. Good stories have turning points. Readers expect and enjoy these shifts in momentum. I believe that the easiest way to dramatically improve the quality of a narrative is to have a climax.
The feeling of the text changes during the climax. Without turning points, narrative essays run the risk of floating the same emotion over the entire course of the text. This is boring. This skill is so important that I make students plot out the climaxes of their stories before I allow them to begin writing. I spend a day conferencing with them to make sure that they have this piece in place before proceeding. That is time well spent. I would like to extend this lesson to you. Do not begin writing your essay until you have thought of a turning point around which to structure your story.
Time in a story can pass in two ways: horizontally and vertically. Horizontal time is when the writing moves the plot along. Vertical time is when the writing lingers on a moment. During moments where the writer has developed the vertical time, the narrative stalls. The writer focuses on descriptions. Here is a simple example:
“Come on!” Kevin shouted at the bus as it pulled off without him. He kicked an empty bottle at the gray city bus, though it was hundreds of feet away now. He plopped down on the curb and struggled to catch his breath. A siren wailed in the distance.
In this short example the main character misses a bus. The story will eventually move on with the character finding a ride or walking, but the writer lingers in the moment. We spend a little time with the character as he tries to catch his breath. We hear some of the noises in his environment. When creating your essay, think about moments when you can stretch time to build tension and suspense.
Be careful that you do not spend too much time developing the vertical time in your story. It is best to choose a few opportune moments to extend the passage of time in your essay. Readers will get bored if the plot stalls because you are talking about the scenery too much. A few details go a long way. Give some credit to your reader’s imagination and allow his or her mind to fill in the blanks.
It is easy for a writer to say that a character is angry, sad, or a bully, but this is telling the reader. Good writers don’t tell readers about characters; they show them. It takes a bit more work to show readers your characters. You have to think of behaviors that imply attitudes and emotions. The extra effort that it takes will be worth it. I developed this activity to help my students practice “showing” and not “telling.” It is a skill that requires a bit of practice, but the results of this practice are noticeable.
Again, as with vertical time, it is important to keep the story moving. Don’t spend so much time describing every character’s actions that you can’t resolve your story. Balancing your resources is essential. With every pen stroke or keyboard click you are exhausting some of your time and energy.
Good essays have powerful endings. In your narrative essay, you should use your final paragraph to bring your story to a satisfying conclusion. Unlike persuasive essays, the final paragraph in your narrative essay should not restate. Here are some good ways to finish your narrative essay:
Looking Toward the Future: A good way to conclude your story is to speculate about what the future may hold. You can discuss how the experience that you shared in your essay could impact the future.
Example: Who knows what the future may hold? I might go back to law school or I might just keep working at Mickey’s. Either way I’ll never forget the time that I won that pie eating contest.
Lesson Learned: Another good way to conclude your essay is to share a lesson that you learned. This way you can demonstrate some thoughtful reflection on the meaning of your life.
Example: After I won the pie eating contest, I couldn’t take the smile off of my face. I tried to be modest, but I just couldn’t contain my feelings. I was exploding with joy. This experience taught me that if you really want something then you have to work for it. Now that I had acquired this prodigious honor, nothing could stop me from enjoying it, not even myself.
Alternate Universes: Another way with which you can conclude your narrative essay is to briefly discuss how things could have been different. Choose an important point in your story, maybe the climax, and consider how this affected your future.
Example: Who knows what would have happened if Mrs. Gracie had never kept me after class that I day. I might have fought Clyde. I might have dropped out of school. I might never have entered that pie eating contest. But the important thing is that she did keep me after class, and that was the greatest act of kindness that anyone has ever showed me.
Telling you how to end your story is like telling a snowflake how to fall. Each story has its own ending and it’s up to you to find it. Still, you can apply these techniques to bring a sense of closure to your essay when a more personal technique eludes you.
New writers have a difficult time revising their work. As a new writer, you are experiencing the power of creation. You are making stories out of experiences. It is an amazing process. New writers become attached to their creations, and this inhibits the revision process. The reality of the situation is that your work will get better if you continue to revise it. As happy as a writer may be with a text, there is always a way to improve it. Sometimes the improvements are small, like word choices or grammatical adjustments. Other times the improvements are dramatic, like tossing out a few paragraphs that were slowing down your story. There are many conditions that affect how long you should spend revising your text, but you should at least proofread it.
Proofreading is the process of carefully reading your text while looking for errors. You should be concerned with punctuation, grammar, and word choice when you are proofreading . You are not making big changes, you are just making sure that the text expresses what you intended. Even when you do proofread, it is quite likely that you will gloss over mistakes. Still, you are bound to catch a few “Don’t forget you hat!” Never turn a piece of writing in without proofreading it at least once. Let them pull the test out of your busy hands.
No matter how many times you proofread your own writing, you’re bound to miss at least one mistake. This is because you are used to your own writing. Your brain knows what your sentence is trying to say, so sometimes it won’t bother looking at what it really says. A motivated stranger will do a better job proofreading your text than you. That’s just because they have to make sense of your writing and you don’t. Your memories fill in a lot of the blanks, whereas your readers will have no such memories. If you get the opportunity, you should have someone read your work.
Be respectful when you give someone your work to criticize. Don’t respond emotionally to their criticism. They are trying to show you things that you cannot see. You don’t have to agree with them about everything, but the more you resist, the less you will get. It’s tough to find someone who will give you honest feedback and it’s easy to scare them away.
Sometimes a piece of writing requires massive changes. It can be hard to cut your essays apart and throw out what might look like good writing, but if it’s not working then it needs to go. There are two skills necessary to do this. The first is the ability to recognize when something is not working. The other is to do the necessary hacking.
Blizzard worked on a video game called “Titan” for seven years. They spent millions of dollars on development and hundreds of thousands of man-hours, but the game wasn’t fun. Finally they decided to pull the plug. They killed “Titan” before it was ever released. Can you imagine how hard that must have been? When you get so invested in something, it can be hard to kill it off, but sometimes you have to do it. If it’s not working, it’s not working.
Good writers are willing to do a complete overhaul on a piece of writing. They throw things out that aren’t working. If you want to be a good writer, you need to get used to letting your babies go when they can’t fend for themselves.
Writing narrative essays is a legitimate art form. There is no single way to do it correctly, but there are a lot of ways to do it poorly. The only way that you can get better is to practice. Still, there are some good practices to keep in mind while you are learning your way around this art. I hope that you have found this page informative and useful. Keep writing. That’s the best advice that I can give you.