How to Write a Descriptive Narrative Essay
Narrative writing belongs to a genre of writing that often requires the art and craft of description. Several popular forms exist of narrative essays, known as sub or micro genres. Students encounter different narrative genres in high school or the first year of college: storytelling about people, events or nature, memoir or literacy narratives. Check with your instructor to be clear about the type of narrative writing required.
The Right Assignment
Narrative essays that tell a story about someone else often began with real-life events, but then fill in content from the writer's imagination. Memoir essays are always about the life, events and emotions of the writer, and may include nature awareness, cultural and even historic elements. Literacy narratives are strictly about literacy events that happened to the writer or literacy events that the writer participated in, such as teaching someone else to read or write.
The Right Content
Use brainstorming, cluster/idea maps or prompts to get started on ideas you may want to develop. The New York Times lists "500 prompts for Narrative and Personal Writing projects." Content must be meaningful not just to the writer but to the readers. Select a type of event or situation that poses a challenge or shows a problem. Consult your private diary or social media entries for content. Research to find historic or cultural information that helps explain and connect actions or characters.
Thesis and Structure
The strength of a narrative essay lies in your ability to craft a narrative thesis that is apparent, implied or hidden in the essay’s structure. “You get to make up your own structure every time, a structure that arises from the materials and best contains them,” according to essayist Annie Dillard, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction. Start by writing a rough draft without concern about structure -- describe the people, places and events with as much rich detail as you can remember or imagine.
Language and Tone
A good narrative will be natural and show what happens with description and action verbs instead of just telling a story. Narrative essays can use figurative writing -- imagery that appeals to the senses, similes and other forms of lyrical language to craft description. Think of a key word that sets the appropriate tone, serious or humorous, and brainstorm associated words -- nouns, adjectives and adverbs. Look up synonyms in a thesaurus and make a list of other words; try to use them in your second draft.
Complication, Evaluation and Resolution
Describe the complication -- the problem or challenge that creates tension or conflict and makes the narrative memorable. Explain and show how the complication came about, and how or whether it was resolved. Evaluate your reactions and how others react. Once you have the entire story, assess whether the organization is logical and easy to understand for readers. Write a third draft, reorganize if necessary, and use dialogue only if it helps to advance the story by sparking action, or revealing a theme or character trait.
Explain directly or show indirectly through action events what you learned and, perhaps, reflect on what others in the story may have learned or how they felt. The conclusion should make a connection to the thesis, the theme, message or lesson of the narrative by reflecting on what it shows about profound human experiences such as love, sacrifice, commitment, success, failure or friendship -- whatever makes the story matter to you and your readers.
- Purdue OWL: What is a Descriptive Essay?
- Purdue OWL: What is a Narrative Essay?
- The New York Times: 500 Prompts for Narrative and Personal Writing; Michael Gonchar
- Brain Pickings: Annie Dillard on the Art of the Essay and Narrative Non-fiction vs. Poetry and Short Stories; Maria Popova
- University of Pennsylvania: Introduction to Natural Narrative: Ling 103
- Roots to Branches: An Ecology of Writing and Reading; Jeff Wiemelt, et al.
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