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ServiceScape Incorporated

Your Guide to Writing a Narrative Essay

Narrative essays are a common assignment seen across educational levels and programs and can be incredibly fun to write with the right planning and execution. In this article, we're going to break down the elements of a narrative essay, as well as discuss formatting issues you might run into as you are writing your rough draft. Then, we'll discuss common issues you might run into as you are revising your essay and writing the final draft.

Planning - Choosing your story

The core of a narrative essay is the story you tell. However, a well-written narrative essay moves beyond just a personal anecdote and illustrates an important theme or topic using that story. This means that in addition to providing a story, your narrative essay will also need to include an analysis of that story or experience from your point of view (as both the writer and the person who experienced the event).

Focus on a theme

So, in the planning stages of your narrative essay, you need to determine two important facts: 1) what theme and analysis of that theme will you focus on and 2) what personal story will you use to do this?

In some cases, you might be given the theme as part of the narrative essay assignment. For example, your assignment might read something like this: "Racism and sexism are two pervasive and complicated issues in American society. Write an essay about your experience with one or both of these concepts and what you learned from that experience."

If your narrative essay prompt is open, you will still need to focus on a particular theme and analysis of that theme in the process of choosing which story you want to tell about your life or life experiences. Let's say, for example, you want to write a narrative essay about a time when your favorite childhood pet passed away. While that story might be an interesting narrative, without thematic analysis to let your reader know what you are sharing the story in the first place, your narrative essay will fall flat and miss the mark of what a narrative essay is meant to do.

So, keep this in mind as you're choosing your story. It should be an entertaining or heartfelt story, certainly, but you will also need to analyze it thematically in the process of sharing it to write a true narrative essay.

Avoid making it too broad

Another important consideration to keep in mind as you are choosing your story is to avoid making it too broad. A well-written, entertaining narrative essay often includes vibrant details and even dialogue, which means that if you don't narrow down the topic and theme precisely, it will be too broad for the constraints of your page and word count.

For example, a narrative essay on your senior year in high school or even your summer vacation will likely be too broad. A narrative essay on your senior prom or a weekend getaway over the summer would be a better choice, leaving you room to include sensory details and dialogue without having to rush the story to fit page or word count.

In other words, if your story unfolds over a series of weeks or months, it is likely too broad for a narrative essay.

Choose a story with vibrant details

The best narrative essays are the ones that include vibrant, sensory details throughout to engage the reader and make him or her feel as if they were present when the events happened. These details are the reason narrative essays are so powerful in their ability to inform, and even persuade, readers about important themes and topics.

This is why it is important to choose a story with vibrant details to relate in your narrative essay. If you aren't sure whether the story you've chosen will work well for a narrative essay assignment, consider how many details you'll be able to provide about the sights, sounds, tastes, smells, and sensations you experienced during the event. If you're trying to decide between multiple stories to relate in your essay, choose the one that is most vibrant in your memory.

First draft – The writing process in narrative essays

Now that you've chosen the story you want to write about in your narrative essay, the hardest part of the assignment is over. Now the fun begins with the writing process!

Create an informal outline

As with any essay assignment, it's important to begin the writing process with an outline. However, the outline for a narrative essay will be different than one you would create for an expository or persuasive essay and will be much less formal and structured. Basically, it should consist of bringing together the elements of a story in a logical way, so you'll want to include information about the beginning, middle and end of the story, along with your thesis or thematic analysis.

Brainstorm sensory details

As mentioned earlier, the sensory details that you include in your narrative essay will be the most important elements for engaging your reader. A great way to get started on these in the writing process is to take a few minutes to complete a sensory inventory of the event or situation you plan to detail in your essay.

The easiest way to do this is to take a piece of paper and create five columns on it for the five senses: sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell. Within these five columns, write what you remember from the situation or event. For example, if my narrative essay will be about the day I buried my childhood pet, I might include the following details on my sensory inventory.

Sight: Fur blowing in the wind, my dog's eyes closed, loose dirt, yellow and purple wildflowers
Sound: The silence without his bark, the wind in the trees, the shovel hitting rock, a bee buzzing around
Taste: My mom's blueberry pancakes she made before we buried him, the saltiness of my tears
Touch: The feel of his soft fur one last time, the crumbling dirt between my fingers, the heavy box carrying his weight.
Smell: His comforting "dog" scent, the coffee on my mother's breath as she spoke to me.

Use scenes and summaries

All narrative writing is made up of scenes and summaries. A scene is when you describe details that occurred at specific points in the story, including dialogue that happened, while a summary is what fills in and progresses or moves the action between scenes.

Include an antagonist, even if it's you

The best narrative writing includes an antagonist, who serves as a counterbalance, opposing force or obstacle for the protagonist. This doesn't necessarily mean that you need an alternate "bad guy" in your story. In fact, in many cases, we are our own antagonists with struggles like self-confidence, self-worth, self-limitation, etc., keeping us from a desired goal or outcome. Therefore, for your narrative essay, be sure to include details of the struggle between protagonist and antagonist, whether those are two different people or two different perspectives that fought for control of the outcome of the situation. Without that struggle between antagonist and protagonist, the narrative arc of the story falls flat because the protagonist (you) doesn't change. Your reader needs to see progression in your character within the story as you overcome an obstacle—be that a self-imposed one or one you encountered because of someone or something else.

Format dialogue correctly

Besides details, dialogue is a useful way to bring a story alive and engage the reader, making him or her feel that they are right there experiencing the event(s) with you. To use dialogue, however, it's important to know how to format it correctly. An example of correctly formatted dialogue for my narrative essay on burying my childhood pet might go something like this:

"I don't want to bury him, Mom," I said, with tears rolling down my face.
My mom looked at me tenderly and wiped away a tear.
"I know, sweetheart, but we have to. That's the way things are done."
"But what if he gets lonely and cold down there in the ground?" I asked.
"Then you'll just have to come visit his grave often to keep him from being lonely," my Mother replied.

Final draft – Refining your writing

Now that you've reached the final stage of writing your narrative essay, it's important to keep in mind some best practices for making sure your final draft is in tip-top shape. This includes proofreading to find grammatical or spelling errors, as well as ensuring that your analysis of the theme you chose corresponds to the story you told.

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