Explore a setting from your past using all of your senses.

A narrative essay allows you to share an experience with a reader, such as sharing an important event or writing about a person who made an impact in your life. Throughout many narrative essays you will need to create a sense of place, the setting, which will help the reader connect to the story. Developing a setting can also help create tension and mood. Knowing some of the elements used to create a setting will help you strengthen your essay.


Many beginning writers will focus on what they see in a particular setting. While the visual aspect helps create setting, you should not rely entirely on what a reader “sees” to develop the setting. Consider your other senses and use these to give the reader a full picture. What did you smell? Could you hear children playing? Did you swallow lake water one summer? How did it taste? Did it burn your nostrils or your throat? Play to all of your reader’s senses instead of just vision and she will smell the freshly cut grass you played on as a child.


To create a setting, you need specific details and not generalities or weak adjectives. For example, the adjective “beautiful” may give the reader an idea about the setting, but this does not paint a picture. Follow the writer’s adage, “Show, don’t tell,” meaning, don’t simply tell your reader, “a woman has a flower in her hand.” Instead, explain the color, the smell and describe the way the pollen dusts the edge of the petals. Perhaps the woman twirls the stem between her thumb and index finger. These details build the setting and will immerse the reader in your essay.


Sharing details helps create the setting, but if you spend too much time describing a place, your reader may lose interest and skip ahead. To prevent losing your reader in the details, you may want to add another element, such as action to break up the writing. Action often creates changes to the setting, giving you more to describe and keeping the reader interested. When a reader feels as if she can read your essay with little effort, she engages and will often read to the end of your work.


If you tell a story involving your grandmother’s kitchen, you may need to rely on your memory or photographs for particular details, but if you get a detail wrong, only your family members may notice the inaccuracy. However, if you describe a common place, such as a large city, you may need to fact check your details. This will prevent a reader from doubting your story based on a detail you remembered incorrectly or stating you drove south on a certain street that a native to the city knows will only take you east.