Sometimes authors use memorable experiences from their own lives to tell stories that entertain or teach the reader values and life lessons. You might also end up creating a journal or diary entry to record events and observations. If so, you could draw from this entry when you write about your memories or experiences, helping you to develop a compelling story.
Certain Characteristics Make Narratives Unique
A narrative’s purpose is wrapped up in its storytelling and in its main idea. In fact, effective storytelling is crucial to composing a strong narrative. To tell the story in a way that keeps readers engaged and interested in the reading, make sure to incorporate the following techniques:
- Tell a story with an introduction, a plot (including setting and characters), a conflict and/or climax, and a resolution/conclusion
- End with a summary or conclusion that points out why the narrative is significant or important, how the conflict was resolved, or what was learned from it
- Use concrete (or physical/tangible) and sensory (based on sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell) details to involve the reader—specific language evokes specific emotions
- Imply the main idea (unless your instructor says otherwise) rather than state it directly in a thesis
- Show readers your ideas rather than directly tell them what happened
- Use first person—I or we—in dialogue or because you’re writing from your perspective, in the first person point of view
- Write in the past tense to show completed actions
Before You Start to Write
For many writers, the narrative essay is the easiest form of writing. After all, writing a narrative is nothing more than remembering and telling a story to someone—something that happens in everyday conversation. Consider these tips for finding a topic for your narrative:
- Pretend you’re telling the story to a friend or a relative and write as though you’re talking
- Speak into an audio recorder, perhaps by using an app on your phone or some other device, and tell the story orally at first
- Include plenty of details and describe situations and people fully so that your readers can picture the memory you’re writing about
- Don’t worry about organization, grammar, spelling, or punctuation at first—just get the basic story written down
After exploring your initial thoughts and gathering applicable details, you can consider what your main idea may be and keep it in mind while composing a first draft.
Writing the Narrative
Your readers will appreciate the story you tell in your narrative, but they’ll need you to develop the situation, conflict, struggle, outcome, and meaning to understand the story’s importance.
- Situation: Explaining the background for why something happens is called defining the situation. Giving basic details, such as those related to time, setting, and place, will not only get your readers acquainted with your situation but can also help build interest in the narrative’s plot. A narrative about realizing that you have a love for baking, for instance, could begin with background material about the kitchen in your childhood home and the age you were when you first started to bake.
- Conflict: Once you’ve established the situation, move on to the conflict that it creates in you. Try thinking of conflict as friction that must be resolved by some action. You can share the friction as part of your opening paragraph, but wait until the body of the essay to discuss the event itself. Many narratives include a hint about this friction at the end of the introduction, letting readers know the conflict is coming. The end of the introduction for the narrative on baking might say I never imagined my younger sister would wear my newfound fascination on her wrist for the rest of her life.
- Struggle: The main part of your narrative will be the story itself. Depending on your assignment prompt, you may write two, three, or four paragraphs, or even more. In these paragraphs, you’ll explain what happened as you struggled through the experience. You can use several techniques to tell your story. For example, you can use your own perspective, focusing only on your perceptions and feelings during the time of the story. When you describe places, actions, or people, create images based on your own senses to tell the readers what you experienced or felt. If you include dialogue, mention only the important lines people said instead of recording every action and word. Showing rather than telling is also very important. Telling readers something is like repeating a story you’ve heard or reporting on something you’ve witnessed. Instead of saying, for example, My sister became more and more excited as we worked together on the muffins, the narrative could show her excitement by using active verbs, nouns, and adjectives: Every time I asked her to find another ingredient, she bounced happily over to where it was in the kitchen, hopping like a baby frog along the shoreline of a lake.
- Outcome: Once you’ve described the conflict and struggle, you’ll need to explain the outcome. This explanation is the resolution of the conflict and struggle and is also known as the climax; it’s the central event that became pivotal in your understanding of what was taking place. The climax can inspire you to change something about yourself or do something you’d never imagined yourself doing before. It may be something thrilling, frightening, or seemingly disastrous. It could also be surprising or unexpected. For example, if the baking story ends with the sister getting seriously burned on her wrist while trying to snatch a muffin from the hot oven, readers will sit up and take notice, wondering what the writer learned about being a baker from the whole experience. That kind of unexpected outcome allows you to offer a brief discussion of what happened after the main event or situation and perhaps a summary sentence about what’s taken place since. By including an outcome, you give readers closure. That is, you don’t leave them asking, What happened next?
- Meaning: The final section of your narrative will explain what you think is important about this incident or event. This is one place where it’s easy to forget that you aren’t writing a moral outcome for the whole world. It’s much more personal than that. What did you learn from this situation? Readers seldom expect a narrative to provide overall advice about how they should live or the world should change. A good way to be sure that you’re staying focused on yourself and your experience is to check the last paragraph for words like people and you. If you find these words, omit them and move back to your story and experience.
Narratives Need Structure
Although narratives have a familiar essay-like outline, the content in each section of a narrative contrasts its more traditional counterparts:
A narrative benefits from a strong introduction, which should include enough background material to set the tone for the discussion and guide readers to think about the story’s purpose. After reading the introduction, readers shouldn’t be wondering if the story will have importance or impact. As noted above, many narrative introductions end with a line that previews the main event in the story. It’s sometimes referred to as a hint of what’s to come, or a forewarning. It is not, however, a thesis.
Because a narrative is like a story, it often helps to think along a chronological timeline. Since the story or narrative will present an event from the past, you could build your story from the earliest related date and bring it closer and closer to the present time, keeping the details organized. The chronological approach could be based on years if the story spans a significant amount of time, or even days or hours if the events are more condensed. On the other hand, you could start the story in the present time and then use a series of “flashbacks” to tell the story as it happened in the past. Sometimes using flashbacks can help to tell a more engaging story, but this technique must be used carefully; switch tense as clearly as possible when jumping in and out of the flashback(s). To move the story along, whether using a chronological approach or a flashback, rely on transitions related to time. Words like now, as, start, next, soon, after, later, then, when, and following will move readers from one idea to the next effectively.
For content, the body paragraphs should build on ideas in relation to the main event or the lesson you learned from that event. Details are a key ingredient to a strong narrative; if there aren’t enough concrete details, readers probably won’t find the story relevant. Details are the tools narrative writers use to draw pictures, like paints and brushes for a painter. While there may be many vivid details of an event in your memory, such as the list of all of the tools and ingredients needed to bake the muffins, be selective. Choose only those details that are important to the story’s point.
The conclusion offers a chance for you to reflect on the experience shared in the story and especially on the climax. It should be the area where you find significance in the experience and make that significance applicable to your readers. In fact, the conclusion is usually the most direct area in a narrative because it shares changes that have taken place, realizations that have occurred, and/or lessons you have learned as a result of what took place: As my sister sat there crying, I became determined to go to pastry school. After all, if my hobby made her that curious, then it must be something worth pursuing!
Think About It
- What seems to be the moral to your story or the lesson you learned?
- What elements or tools are used (or might be used) to help readers imply this lesson?
- How will the reader understand that the lesson has indeed been learned?
Narratives are more free-form than traditional essays, and including creative elements and details like hints, symbols, images, and dialogue to reinforce the moral or lesson will show your readers how far you’ve come as both a person and a writer.