Key Aspects of a Narrative Essay
The essay examines and tests an idea, typically in a limited number of words and ideally with a strong focus on a single theme. There are several styles of essay: expository, descriptive, argumentative or persuasive, and narrative or personal. A narrative essay is a window on an experience and reaction or lesson learned. Despite its deceptive brevity, an effective narrative essay can be tricky to write.
It's Personal and Universal
Most narrative essays are written as stories and should contain all the basic elements of a story, including plot, setting, characters, conflict. climax and resolution. The difference is that an essay exists to make a point, so the writer has to begin with that point in mind and keep it front and center as the story develops. The experience described should have enlightened or changed the writer in some way, and that is what the essay must convey to the reader through the memorable and entertaining or emotional recounting of an event. The story is personal, so the essay may be written in first person, although that isn't a requirement. However, the message is universal, so the writer has to keep the reader in mind. Narrative essays are not written in second person point-of-view.
Stick to the Sequence
Skipping around will obscure the message and confuse the reader of a short, instructive piece. The story should be narrated as it happened, so the logic of the event mirrors the logic of the writer's conclusion. This presents an unambiguous takeaway for the reader, who isn't distracted by deliberately clever or experimental writing, the need to deal with flashbacks or multiple points of view. Style takes a back seat to story, even as the importance of evocative description and precise vocabulary is paramount.
A narrative essay is more than a recollection. It has a point, delivered economically, and needs a clear and dramatic moment to reveal that point. Just as a great short story builds toward a climax with something crucial at stake, the essay relies on a disagreement, dispute or controversy to supply tension. Conflict may arise from a clash between characters, a collision between past and future, the necessity for a painful decision that exposes the insight or lesson learned. It comes near the end of the essay, setting up the conclusion that wraps the story and illuminates the theme.
Lights, Camera, Action!
The narrative essay functions a bit like a movie as it brings the event to the reader, allowing full immersion in the emotions and sensory details while delivering a lasting impression that may spark future reflection. Key elements for pulling that off are vivid sensory description and concrete details. The successful essayist will revisit the inciting experience; relive the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, textures, fears and joys of it; and choose only those moments and facts that will grab and hold attention, leading to the final insight. The art is to use just enough rich description and expressive vocabulary and not a syllable more.
- Purdue University OWL: Narrative Essays
- Purdue University OWL: Essay Writing
- How to write an Essay; Justin Marshall; 2006
- Roane State Community College: Types of Papers: Narrative/Descriptive
Benna Crawford has been a journalist and New York-based writer since 1997. Her work has appeared in USA Today, the San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Times, and in professional journals and trade publications. Crawford has a degree in theater, is a certified Prana Yoga instructor, and writes about fitness, performing and decorative arts, culture, sports, business and education .