If you have the opportunity to write a narrative essay, embrace it. The assignment is your chance to tell a compelling, personal story – and it may be one of the few times in your academic career in which you are free to liberally use the word “I.” As enjoyable as it can be to write a narrative essay, there are still some “rules of the road” to follow to ensure that your narrative doesn’t run off the road – and risk losing your reader in the process.
Narrow Your Story
A narrative shouldn’t be confused with an autobiography. Focus your narrative on an incident, an event or even a conversation. Remember a basic maxim of good writing: It’s better to tell a narrow story well than to tell a broad story poorly.
Write With a Sense of Purpose
More than a self-indulgent exercise, a narrative is a chance for you to make a larger point through your story. Your purpose may be to issue a call to action, point out a vexing contradiction or simply to elicit laughter. You may choose not to reveal your purpose until the very end – a technique that is called the “surprise thesis” because it is revealed at the end of, instead of near the beginning of, an essay. Used well, this technique can leave a deep and lasting impression on the reader.
Pay Attention to Form
Construct a beginning, middle and an end to your story, although you do not necessarily have to follow this progression. In fact, some of the most provocative narratives actually start in the middle, at the height of a state of conflict that is so integral to telling a gripping story. From there, the story may backtrack to the beginning and supply other necessary information before the conflict is brought to a resolution.
Imbue Your Story With Detail
Descriptive details are often the heart and soul of a narrative. In this way, another writing maxim comes into play: Show rather than tell as much as you can. In other words, saying, “I was scared” is a far cry from saying, “When I heard the window break, I wanted to rush out of bed, but my legs suddenly felt like dead weights. I thought the intruder would hear my heart racing and the blood rushing from my head.”
Maintain Your Sense of Audience
One of the inherent risks of writing a narrative is to include every detail, whether it advances the story or not. It can be difficult to read your narrative as a passive critic, but you must create some distance so that you can prune those details that are not relevant to your story or fail to keep it moving. Find a reason to keep every sentence – and if you can’t, delete it.
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- Purdue University Online Writing Lab: Narrative Essays
- The New St. Martin’s Handbook; Andrea Lunsford and Robert Connors; 1999.
- Step by Step Writing; Randy Devillez; 1992.
- The Scott, Foresman Handbook for Writers; Maxine Hairston and John Ruszkiewicz; 1991.
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