Unique Characteristics of the Narrative Essay

Seth French

Telling a Story vs. Exploring a Topic

Most essays you have written up to this point in your academic career have likely introduced you to a certain topic and then asked you to explore that topic with three or more main points/examples/arguments. The narrative essay, in contrast, requires you to tell a story in order to communicate the specific message related to your writing topic. While there is certainly nothing wrong with other types of essays, it is vital that you approach this essay differently than how you approached others in order to successfully achieved a narrative style that is required.

Once you receive your writing prompt, begin brainstorming by thinking about what experiences from your past relate to the particular topic you’re writing about. As you recall these experiences, try to narrow down the experiences you will include in your essay to the best one or two that you think would be most appropriate to write about. Since you are writing a narrative essay, not a narrative chapter or book, the more stories you include, the less detail you will be able to include because you will simply run out of space. So, it’s best to focus on one or two personal stories that correspond well with the writing prompt so you can go into as much detail as possible.

Once you have selected the best personal example(s) you will write about, remember that you are telling a story, so your essay should include elements which are typically present in stories, such as the setting, characters, problem/conflict, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. While the level of detail you include regarding each of these elements will vary depending on your particular essay, be sure you don’t forget to discuss aspects that will help your reader better visualize the story you are telling them.

Use of Personal Pronouns

Language components of the narrative essay that separate it from other forms of writing are the common use of personal pronouns (I, me, my, we, our(s), mine), sensory language (taste, hear, smell, feel, see), dialogue, and the historical present / past tenses. Other forms of academic writing favor passive voice in which the agent is hidden and personal pronouns are limited, if not altogether absent. However, in the narrative essay you are sharing a personal experience with your audience, so it will sound most appropriate for you to use personal pronouns throughout your essay rather than use passive voice. In other words, if you were going to tell me about an event you attended with your friends, it would be more appropriate for you to say something such as, “We all had a really great time,” rather than, “A great time was had by everyone.”

Use of Sensory Language

Sensory language is often encouraged in narrative writing because it helps your audience bring themselves into your story as you share with them details that only you can tell them. When you read or hear some of your favorite stories, is it easy for you to visualize what the author is describing? If so, it is probably because the author is skilled at using sensory language to tell the story. While it is probably not necessary to include each of the five senses when you describe a particular event, you should consider which sensory details would be most useful for you to include in order to help your audience better visualize the setting(s) you describe. For instance, if your narrative setting were a concert, you would probably discuss the sights and sounds you experienced at that time as useful sensory details for your audience. On the other hand, if your narrative setting were a restaurant, it would perhaps make the most sense to discuss the smells and tastes you experienced. Thus, when you construct your narrative essay, consider which sensory details would be useful for you to include in order to more effectively engage your audience.

Use of Dialogue

The effective use of dialogue is another way of engaging your audience. Since your narrative essay contains characters who are interacting with one another, you should feel encouraged to share moments of dialogue within your narrative because it enables you to transition from simply telling your audience about what’s happening to actually immersing them in what’s happening.

Think for a moment about the conversations you have with your friends on a regular basis. When you’re telling them about an interaction you had with someone else or an event you witnessed, you probably include the dialogue from that other situation without even realizing it. The reason we do this often instinctively is because we understand that stories with dialogue are generally more interesting than those without dialogue.

For example, “When I was at Walmart the other day, I saw two men getting into an argument. The guy wearing the blue hat said, ‘I saw you trying to steal those. You better pay for them.’ Then the other guy said, ‘It’s none of your business.’ That made the guy in the blue hat mad, so he said, ‘You better pay for those, or else…’ They almost got into a fight. It made me really nervous to watch.”

Now, compare that to the following example: “When I was at Walmart the other day, I saw a guy with a blue hat arguing with another guy because the other guy was stealing something. They argued back and forth and almost got into a fight. It made me really nervous to watch.”

Which story is more intriguing, the first or the second? The first one, right? It’s funny how a small change like including dialogue can create such a significant difference in terms of engaging your audience.

Use of Historical Present and Past Tenses

Finally, the frequent use of historical present and past tense verbs also sets the narrative essay apart from other essays you may be used to writing. In many other academic writing contexts, present tense verbs are favored because they communicate general or ongoing events, truths, or realities. Present tense is a useful default tense to write in when your writing context is not particularly interested in the aspect of time. The narrative essay, in contrast, certainly emphasizes the aspect of time because you are telling a story which occurred in the past. Consequently, using the historical present or past tense to write about these events will work best in this context.

The historical present tense is useful when you are discussing an event that occurred in the past but would like to convey a sense of immediacy with it, as the following example illustrates: “So, I am at my house, and guess who calls me . . . My boss! I was worried at first, but then she tells me that she wants to give me a promotion! Isn’t that great?” In this example, the speaker is telling her friend about the unexpected call she received from her boss while she was at home. Rather than using all past tense verbs, the speaker uses the historical present tense to describe this event, which makes her friend feel as though she is experiencing the event at that moment rather than simply hearing about it.

Nevertheless, you should not feel as though you are restricted to using only these two verb tenses exclusively throughout your essay. Your thesis will likely be written using present tense verbs because your thesis will communicate some truth or realization you have learned through the experiences you share in your narrative. For example, if I were writing a narrative essay about a cultural tradition of the United States, I might write a thesis like this: “Celebrating Thanksgiving with my family reminds me that even though life can be hard and relationships can be complicated, I have so much to be thankful for.” As a general rule, use historical present or past tense verbs to discuss the events in your narrative which occurred in the past, and present tense verbs elsewhere. For more information regarding verb tense sequencing, refer to the appropriate link near the end of the “Impact of the Thesis” chapter under the “Useful Links” heading.

Chronological Organization

Since you are telling a story, it often makes the most sense to organize your essay chronologically in the order that the events happened. In other essays, you will likely organize your points/examples/arguments in the order of their importance or strength. The narrative essay, however, is easiest for your audience to follow if you structure the events chronologically. If your narrative contains two stories rather than one, either of the following organizational strategies can be effective:

  1. Oldest to most recent
  2. Most recent to oldest

Whichever organizational strategy you select, make sure the last story you share is strong because it will be the last opportunity you have to leave your audience with a positive impression of your essay.

Because the organization of the narrative is chronological, the transitional expressions you use within and between paragraphs will likely be chronological in nature as well. Consider using some of the following expressions and other similar expressions to transition from one event to the next as you construct your narrative essay: Then, Next, After that, Once that was over, When I/we had finished, Eventually, and Finally. Learning to use transitional expressions effectively will greatly enhance the quality of your writing.


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Unique Characteristics of the Narrative Essay Copyright © 2020 by Seth French is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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