The narrative essay is often a required part of college admissions or an application for a scholarship. The U.S. State Department includes a personal narrative essay requirement within its application process for Foreign Service Officers. In a less formal context, the narrative essay can form the basis of an oral presentation to fellow students or other groups. The key to writing a successful narrative essay is organization.
Form and Conventions
The point of a narrative essay is to highlight learning experiences and share them with others. Conforming to the conventions of story-telling -- setting, plot, character and climax -- gives structure to the essay and provides a framework around which a personal story with a message can be built. As the essay is written from the author's point of view, the conventional narrative form for this type of writing is first-person singular.
The structure of a narrative essay is usually chronological. Mapping elements of the story onto a timeline gives this format its architecture and provides a skeletal plotline. Mirrored plots use two timelines to identify connections between opposite or complementary narratives. Bridges between the stories highlight subthemes and reveal the author's message. Non-linear essays based on parallel plotlines or flashbacks require a series of timelines so that non-chronological events synthesize and converge to reflect the over-arching theme of the essay.
The authenticity of a narrative essay depends on the authorial perspective. The choice of a strong message allows the narrator to convey the author's standpoint clearly. Comment and analysis is provided by the narrator, who may or may not be involved in the action of the story. Whether written in first or third-person, the narration reveals the point of the essay. In this way, although the message is filtered through the eyes of the narrator, it carries the author's voice.
A sense of realism is created in narrative essays by characters who use colloquial dialogue. The idiosyncrasies of speech reflect their personality, location and status in life. Drawing from a prepared vocabulary bank enables the narrative essay writer to craft conversations easily and create believable characters with personality and purpose. Different points of view can be expressed and discussed by characters to reveal the essay's theme and move the plot forward.
Re-reading an essay provides an opportunity to improve it by deleting unimportant facts and checking that there is enough detail to make it interesting without being irritating or fussy. Reading it out loud shows up any inconsistencies of language, style or tone. Redrafting the first copy allows for adjusting language levels to meet the needs of the intended audience, such as basic vocabulary for children, informal structures for friends and neighbors, sophisticated, specialist language for subject experts.
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- The University of Kansas Writing Center: Writing Guides
- American University Academic Support Center Writing Lab: Introductions
- Oxford University Department for Continuing Education: Planning and Writing an Essay
- University of Michigan Library; Viola Allo; Leaving: A Personal Narrative of Graduate School; 2010
- Creatas/Creatas/Getty Images