Writing

What Is a Narrative Essay? Learn How to Write A Narrative Essay With Tips and Examples

Written by MasterClass

May 30, 2019 • 5 min read

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Not every form of essay writing involves meticulous research. One form in particular—the narrative essay—combines personal storytelling with academic argument. Narrative essay authors illustrate universal lessons in their unique experiences of the world. Below, you’ll find some tips to guide in this style of narrative writing.

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What Is a Narrative Essay?

Narrative essays make an argument or impart a lesson through personal experience.

  • Narrative essays are always non-fiction and usually autobiographical.
  • They are written with a more creative style versus the strictly objective, fact-based language of academic writing or journalism.
  • Narrative essays are often part of the coursework in high school and during college admissions.

What Is the Difference Between Narrative Essays and Short Stories?

Narrative essays usually contain vivid descriptions, plot, characters, and dialogue—just like a short story. This overlap in structural elements makes sense, but there are some key differences. Here is how to distinguish a narrative essay from a short story:

  • A narrative essay aims to put forward a point or argument, and the author will weave the entire piece of writing around that theme with no extraneous elements. Short stories are often more open to interpretation.
  • Similarly, a narrative essay wraps up conclusively and aims to leave the reader with no hanging questions. Short stories tend to have a more abstract moral or message.
  • Narrative essays are usually written in the first person.
  • Narrative essays follow a typical research paper structure: they have an introduction, a body, and a conclusion. Short stories can take any format.

What Is the Format Of a Narrative Essay?

Regardless of length, narrative essays follow the same basic structure:

  • Introduction: This starts with a “hook” to engage the reader and goes on to sketch out the theme of the essay—without giving too much away.
  • Body paragraphs: This is where the author builds her argument by describing scenes and events in detail, developing characters and crafting constructive dialogue.
  • Conclusion: This short reflection at the end of the essay sums up the preceding paragraphs and drives home the point.

Popular Narrative Essay Topics

Narrative essays are based on personal experiences, and as such, the topics vary widely. The key thing to remember is that all narrative essays need to make a point or argument.

Here are some things to think about when coming up with ideas for a narrative essay:

  • A time you overcame adversity, fear or failure.
  • The first time you experienced some life event and how it changed you.
  • The story of a relationship you had with someone and what you learned.
  • A time you deviated from social expectations and what that meant to you.
  • A life-changing childhood incident.
  • A story from your family life or travels that shaped you.

13 Tips For Writing a Narrative Essay

While you already have everything you need to write a personal story, the writing process for a narrative essay can be intimidating. It can help to break the process into three key stages: picking a topic, writing, and revising.

To hone in on a topic, you’ll want to spend some time thinking about the medium as well as your own life. Here are some tips to help:

  • Spend time reading narrative essay examples. They’ll not only familiarize you with the format, but they might also contain ideas that you want to respond to or develop in your own direction.
  • Think about how you can tell a coming-of-age story. Regardless of your actual age, you are looking for those life experiences that contain this kind of personal growth or revelation.
  • Go narrow rather than broad. A narrative essay about what you did last summer will quickly become unmanageable. Focus on one particular surfing accident or family feud that happened and you’ll have a more taut piece of work.
  • Give weight to the details. If you’re tossing up between multiple topics, consider which gives you more scope to expand on details in an interesting way. Are there bold sights, unusual settings or huge characters? Can you write dialogue that approximates what actually happened? Those factors might sway your decision.

Now it’s time to write. This is the stage where you’ll plot out the story and explore your characters and message. Some writing tips for this stage:

  • Outline the plot and stick to the chronology. You might want to play with your timeline a little, perhaps pulling out a dramatic moment and using it as the hook for your introduction, or inserting a flashback where it’s poignant. But for the most part, your essay will be easier to read the more it flows chronologically, so don’t feel pressure to subvert that structure.
  • Find your antagonist. It doesn’t have to be an actual person—it might be a behavior, place, condition, social norm, or anything else that is stopping you from progressing. The tension between this antagonist and the protagonist—usually you—is the source of tension that keeps the reader interested.
  • Tell yourself this is just the draft. The quest for perfection is your enemy. Just get words onto the page; you can judge them in the revision phase.
  • Play with language. When you have a license to write creatively, the temptation is to use a lot of adjectives and adverbs. However, you will paint a more vivid picture for readers if rather than “telling” them they are in a bustling market, you “show” them its sights, noises, smells and activities.
  • Include moments of scene and analysis. The former is a slow-paced unfolding of events; the latter is a way to speed up and summarize intervals between scenes while reflecting on the theme. A good story will have both elements.
  • Pick one point of view. First person point of view and past tense are almost always the most natural for a narrative essay. But whatever you choose, don’t switch perspectives midway: it’s rarely effective.

The final stage of the writing process is revision.

  • Make sure your point comes across. This is the time to reflect on how well the narrative you’ve written captures your argument. You might cut extraneous material or make ideas more explicit at some points in the text. Look for moments of scene and analysis—there should be a nice balance.
  • Pay particular attention to your introduction. These are the paragraphs that will determine whether your audience keeps reading or caring—give it extra attention. Look for an intriguing hook and ensure you’ve foreshadowed the major theme.
  • Proofread and check your formatting. Sections of dialogue, in particular, might involve punctuation conventions that you are not used to. Make sure you’ve used quotation marks around any spoken text, attributed it to a character, and inserted line breaks every time the identity of the speaker changes.

Find more essay-writing tips and tricks in Malcolm Gladwell’s MasterClass.