Have you ever been asked to write a narrative essay? It’s essentially a story, usually told about something that you did or that happened to you. However it differs from a regular story because you include information on how the events influenced you – how they changed you in some way. You might underestimate the importance of a narrative essay because it isn’t the most common type of essay assigned to students. But most college admissions essays are narratives, and think about how much difference those can make in a person’s life!
The narrative essay tests your ability to describe and elaborate a story in detail with a structure and flow that make sense but at the same time create suspense. The structure is no different from that of any story. It has a beginning, a middle and an end: in other words, an introduction, a main body, and a conclusion.
While the structure is simple, the key here is to keep focused, because it’s easy to ramble on as you get into the flow of what happened. Think of that friend who isn’t the best story teller: when they relate something that’s happened it’s hard to follow because they add too many details and sometimes backtrack and then go off on so many tangents that you find it frustrating as you wait for the point of it all. Well, that’s the trap in a narrative essay. It’s important to break down the details of the story and give it a logical sequence for your reader to follow.
This is setting the scene. You introduce the characters and location of the story and add any other details you might think are important to understanding what is about to happen. On the other hand, you won’t want to introduce every single detail or character just yet because what you do have to do at this stage is to catch the reader’s attention. For example, you can ask a rhetorical question or state an attention-grabbing fact or statistic (journalists do this often to create some “suspense” to get readers interested). Think of this as the starter to your three-course meal. If it’s not appetising you’re probably not looking forward to the main course!
The following paragraphs are really the entrée or the main course. Each body paragraph should unveil more of what happened. This is where you build up the tension and suspense. But make sure the flow of the story makes sense. For your first few narrative essays unravel events and characters in sequence. Once you’ve perfected the basic flow you can get creative with your story line!
Think about telling your readers how and why a situation has taken place. Give them enough information to supplement their understanding, but don’t cause confusion by bombarding them with unnecessary facts. In fact, it’s always best to have an outline for your narrative essay.
And if you get stuck, look for inspiration in books and movies. The formula is usually the same. There is a protagonist, something is wrong or goes wrong in the protagonist’s life (this is usually caused by an antagonist or evil character), on the journey to solve the issue the protagonist often meets other characters, events build up to a climax, and then the problem is solved (read good guy beats bad guy) and, the end! The only thing to consider is that in the case of the narrative essay, it’s usually you who is the protagonist.
A good ending to a narrative will leave readers pondering the resolution to the story and their reactions or responses to it. You can help this along by writing in a way that encourages reflection. In fact, this is the point at which you should reveal how the story has influenced you. It might have changed your way of thinking about an important general topic like climate change or vegetarianism or education, or it might have informed you about your personal life goals and ambitions. Whether the point is general or personal, just be sure to show how the story led you to your final conclusions.
A Bonus Tip
In crafting a narrative essay that moves the reader through a story you will want to pay attention to the five senses (sight, touch, smell, sound, and taste). While a standard scholarly essay uses its words sparingly to be objective, a narrative essay should create a sensation and sense of feeling in the reader. A good way to do that is to rely on describing things through senses. For example, rather than simply stating "the day was grey and rain was likely to come," write that “I felt the sky a shadow on my shoulders and could smell the coming rain like the damp soil in the garden." Be evocative and paint pictures with words for your narrative essay!
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