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Rules For Writing Narrative Essays

So, your professor just gave you a new assignment, and it looks like an interesting topic. The problem is you don’t know how to write a narrative essay.

Relax (but don’t procrastinate)! Narrative essays are actually pretty fun to write. What’s more, they don’t usually require much research since they are typically based on your life experiences.

All that said, there are some important rules to follow. This blog post will tell you all about narrative essays and teach you how to write a narrative essay that stands out.

What Is a Narrative Essay?

Narration is writing that tells a story. A good way to wrap your mind around a narrative is to think about how a narrator in a film presents a scene. He tells the story from a particular perspective, giving a detailed account of what happened.

Consider the narration in this clip from How the Grinch Stole Christmas:

So, how is the narrator’s recounting of the Grinch’s failure to steal Christmas related to learning how to write a narrative essay?

As the narrator in your essay, you set the scene and tell the story from your viewpoint, giving a detailed report of events.

Chances are, you narrate stories every day. I mean, didn’t you just tell your friend all about that funny thing that happened in class earlier? You know how to narrate. So, writing a narrative essay should be easy, right?

Well, hold on, it’s not that simple. One of the challenges with writing narrative essays is that you often have to distill a complex story into a limited (and to-the-point) number of words. At the same time, you have to garner enough interest to keep the reader engaged in your story.

Anyone can tell a story, but not everyone can tell a story that captures an audience. It’s important to keep some rules in mind as you learn how to write a narrative essay.

Sample Narrative Essay

The best way to learn how to write a narrative essay is to see an example. I’m going to pretend that I’m the character Rudy (from the 1993 film Rudy), and I’m going to write a narrative essay about something that happened in my (Rudy’s) life.

First, watch this clip from the film:

Now, I will write a sample narrative essay, as if this clip were based on my experience. Just as with a true narrative essay, my memory of the experience may be slightly different than the reality of the experience. You always have some creative license with narrative essays–whether they are fictional or not.

Read this sample essay first, and then I’ll break it down into its elements:

     A janitor changed my life. I was at a low point, ready to quit everything–even when I had it all. I didn’t realize how lucky I was. At 5 foot nothing, 100 and nothing pounds, I was hardly your typical football player. But, that didn’t stop me from believing that I could play for Notre Dame. It turns out, the most important part of achieving my dreams is believing in myself.

After two years of trying hard to prove that I was worthy of playing, I found out that I hadn’t made the dress list for our kickoff game.After fighting to be on the team and sweating through every practice, I was going to sit on the bench…again.

So, I decided to call it quits. Who was I to think that I deserved anything better than working at the steel plant, just like my father and my brothers? If that life was good enough for them, why wasn’t it good enough for me?

As I stood there in section five, staring out at the empty stadium, I thought of how proud my dad would have been to see me out there on the field playing for the team we both loved so much. I felt so stupid. I wasn’t a football player. I was a bench warmer… nothing more. That’s when the team janitor found me standing there.

“Hey,” he said. “Don’t you have to be at practice?”

“Not anymore,” I said, annoyed. “I quit.”

“Why’d you quit? You don’t seem like the quitting type.”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I just don’t see the point anymore.”

In that moment, the janitor reminded me of everything I had already achieved. Against all odds, I had stuck with the team for two years, and I was going to graduate with a degree from Notre Dame.

What he said next drove his point home. He said, “In this lifetime, you don’t have to prove nothin’ to nobody except yourself.”

He had a point. I had already proven myself to everyone except for me. If I didn’t believe in myself… who would ever believe in me? Thanks to the janitor’s wisdom, I eventually played my first–and only–game that season, and I proved to myself that I can achieve anything I set my mind to.

Okay, now let’s pick this thing apart. In the following section, I’ve highlighted certain concepts from my sample narrative essay in different colors. Their explanations follow.

First Paragraph:

A janitor changed my life.I was at a low point, ready to quit everything–even when I had it all. I didn’t realize how lucky I was. At 5 foot nothing, 100 and nothing pounds, I was hardly your typical football player. But, that didn’t stop me from believing that I could play for Notre Dame. It turns out, the most important part of achieving my dreams is believing in myself.

Let’s break it down.

  • Start with a strong hook. Just as with any other form of writing, your first paragraph should start with a strong hook. The sentence, “a janitor changed my life,” sets up the story with a bold statement meant to capture the attention of my readers. The goal is to make readers ask, “How did a janitor change your life? What happened?”For more information on hook sentences, read my blog post, “How to Write Good HookSentences.”
  • Set the scene. In this section of my first paragraph, I set the scene. I give the reader some context for my story (I was at a low point. I was a struggling football player for Notre Dame… etc.).
  • Define the purpose. Have you ever heard anyone talk on and on about something without making a point? This is a common trap for writers attempting a narrative essay. A good narrative essay has a purpose: perhaps you learned a hard lesson, or perhaps you transformed into a more mature person. Whatever the case, that purpose should be stated in the first paragraph. In the example narrative, my purpose is to make the point that “the most important part of achieving my dreams is believing in myself.”

As you can see, the first paragraph is critical to setting up a good story. Now, let’s talk about what goes on in your body paragraphs.

Body Paragraphs:

After two years of trying hard to prove that I was worthy of playing, I found out that I hadn’t made the dress list for our kickoff game. After fighting to be on the team and sweating through every practice, I was going to sit on the bench…again. So, I decided to call it quits. Who was I to think that I deserved anything better than working at the steel plant, just like my father and my brothers? If that life was good enough for them, why wasn’t it good enough for me?
      As I stood there in section five, staring out at the empty stadium, I thought of how proud my dad would have been to see me out there on the field playing for the team we both loved so much. I felt so stupid. I wasn’t a football player. I was a bench warmer… nothing more. That’s when the team janitor found me standing there.
      “Hey,” he said. “Don’t you have to be at practice?”
      “Not anymore,” I said,annoyed. “I quit.”
“Why’d you quit? You don’t seem like the quitting type.”
      “I don’t know,” I said. “I just don’t see the point anymore.”
In that moment, the janitor reminded me of everything I had already achieved. Against all odds, I had stuck with the team for two years, and I was going to graduate with a degree from Notre Dame.
      What he said next drove his point home. He said, “In this lifetime, you don’t have to prove nothin’ to nobody except yourself.”

Let’s break it down.

  • Use vivid and appropriate detail. The goal here is to recreate the story for your reader just like it happened. Make the story vivid and full of detail. Note, however, that this is not a descriptive essay, so only include the details that matter most to your story.
  • Use dialogue. Sometimes, a great story can’t be told without dialogue. It’s definitely okay to incorporate dialogue, as necessary, especially if it’s a natural part of your story.In my sample essay, the conversation with the janitor is critical to the story, so including the dialogue from this interaction is appropriate.
  • Write chronologically. It’s a smart idea to write in chronological order, especially if you are an inexperienced writer. What happened first, next, and last?This will help you to stay true to your story and not wander. In this sample, I focus on the sequence of events that led me to my moment of truth, how the janitor talked me into staying on the team, and how this changed my perspective on life.
  • Maintain consistency in narration. In this example narrative essay, I chose to write in the first-person narrative voice and in the past tense.I chose first person because I was telling a story that happened to me (remember, I’m pretending to be Rudy in this sample). I chose past tense because I’m telling a story that happened in the past.Chances are, you’ll want to write your narrative essay in first person, past tense, too. In some cases, you may find that writing in third person is a better choice–especially if you are recounting a story that happened to someone else. But, whatever you choose, keep it consistent throughout.

Okay! Let’s move on to the last paragraph.

Closing Paragraph:

He had a point. I had already proven myself to everyone except for me. If I didn’t believe in myself… who would ever believe in me? Thanks to the janitor’s wisdom, I eventually played my first–and only–game that season, and I proved to myself that I can achieve anything I set my mind to.

Let’s break it down.

  • Restate your purpose. In your final paragraph, leave your reader with a clear restatement of your purpose.Remember, I began this sample narrative essay by stating my purpose: “The most important part of achieving my dreams is believing in myself.” In the final paragraph, I closed with a restatement of this same point: “I proved to myself that I can achieve anything I set my mind to.”

Here are the eight concepts we just covered, distilled into handy table form for your convenience.

Final Thoughts on How to Write a Narrative Essay

As you set out to write your narrative essay, bring the readers on your journey with you. Give them a reason to listen to your story.

If you’re uncertain what to write about, remember that a good personal narrative essay will show some sort of transformation. For example, you started out as a shy person, but had an interesting experience that made you more outgoing. Find a story of transformation, and then write about what happened.

If you need more ideas, check out these example narrative essays.

Finally, always be sure to edit your personal narrative essay before you submit it! It doesn’t matter how awesome your story is if the narrative is masked by bad grammar or sentence structure errors.

Good luck!

Psst... 98% of Kibin users report better grades! Get inspiration from over 500,000 example essays.

Writing a narrative essay is an essential talent for field research. Rather than summing things up for your reader, it presents your experience and allows them to draw their own conclusions. The narrative essay makes it point by subtly guiding the reader, rather than battering them the way a rhetorical essay would.

By observing these basic ideas, you can improve your narrative essay.

1. Clarity

Complex words and syntax are a hindrance to clarity and should be avoided. Ideas should be clearly distributed between sentences and paragraphs.

Example: Although I have never been to the races before, I was very excited to behold them, yet also somewhat nervous, because of the type of people who go there.

Improved: I’d never been to a horse race. I was excited to go, but also a little nervous, since I wasn’t sure about the people at the track.

2. Don’t describe each and every one of your own movements

Example: As I went in the door, I turned and saw a TV. I looked around and saw posters on the wall. As I went further in I noticed everyone was watching M*A*S*H.

Improved: I immediately noticed the posters on the wall, though everyone else’s eyes were focused on a TV playing M*A*S*H.

3. Avoid the second-person narrative

An important part of the narrative essay is the fact that the writer experienced the events described.

Example: As you go in the door, you will turn and see a TV. You look around and see posters on the wall. As you go further in you notice everyone is watching M*A*S*H.

Writing in the present tense is okay, however.

4. To interest the reader, dynamic word choice is key

Avoid sounding too clinical. Use the same slang, idiom, and turns of phrase you would use in speech. Avoid passive constructions.

Example: I am presented an array of unpleasant photos in which many casualties are shown after automobile accidents.

Improved: They showed me a book stuffed with gruesome pictures of people who’d been in car wrecks.

5. Limit references

MLA format recommends including citations in the text, but in a narrative essay this is disruptive. If a work was helpful, cite it in a ‘Works Consulted’ list after the essay. Explain yourself as you go along, rather than trying to refer your reader back to a previous statement.

Example: When I first saw the comic book fans jumping up and down, I thought as they would, “Lord, what fools these mortals be” (Gaiman 1989.) I later learned why they do this.

Improved: The fans jump up and down. When I first saw this, I wondered what they were doing and my mind conjured a quote from Shakespeare that Neil Gaiman used in his “Sandman”: “Lord, what fools these mortals be.” However, I watched a bit longer and realized the company spokesmodels were throwing free merchandise. The fans wanted to get the most from their day at the convention.

The narrative essay is a keen rhetorical tool because it allows the readers to draw their own conclusions, but falling into the traps above deprive it of its effectiveness. By avoiding these errors, you can subtly guide your reader in your desired direction.

 

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