How to Write a College Narrative Essay

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You may be assigned a narrative essay in a college English or creative writing class. A narrative essay differs significantly from an academic essay in that you are telling a story rather than making an argument. Use of the word "I" in essays about your own experiences is encouraged. Picking an engaging topic and providing a clear narrative arc for your essay will ensure that your reader stays hooked.

1 Pick an Engaging Topic

The first thing to consider when beginning a narrative essay is what story you want to tell. You can either write a personal narrative essay, concerning your own life, or an essay concerning a friend or a historical figure. The main character, or protagonist, of your essay should encounter a challenge that changes him or her; to overcome this challenge, the protagonist typically must learn a relevant lesson.

If you have decided to write a personal narrative essay, review your life for times when it felt impossible to deal with a circumstance. This might be having to overcome a deep-seated fear, resolving an entrenched conflict with a friend or encountering social prejudice.

2 Structure Your Essay Around Conflict

Once you have determined the story you will write about, figure out how you will structure your essay. Your essay should have a narrative arc that relates events that show change in your character. Begin by introducing your protagonist and the events leading up to the conflict. For example, if your essay tells the story of how you adjusted to school in a foreign country, you might begin by writing about your home country and the experience of arriving at your new school.

Though your narrative is likely to unfold chronologically, some writers use techniques like flashbacks and even "flash forwards" to show key relationships between events particularly significant to the main conflict.

Once your protagonist is introduced, present the story's conflict. Describe in detail the first time this conflict surfaces and the protagonist's initial reaction to it. Does she try to avoid it or confront it unsuccessfully? In the beginning section of your essay, provide all the information your reader needs to understand the ultimate outcome of your story.

3 Use Evocative, Concrete Language

When writing your narrative essay, avoid abstract language -- language that describes experiences or events only generally. Whenever possible, use direct, physical language that describes concrete experiences. Describe sights, smells and sounds with specific details. If you're describing wandering through a park on a rainy night after dark, don't just mention that it was raining and that you couldn't see. You might describe the smell of the rain, being unable to see your feet in front of you and the sound of leaves rustling in the wind. By using vivid details, you draw your audience into the world of your story.

4 Climax and Resolution

The climax of your essay, which describes the turning point of the conflict, should be given a significant amount of attention in your essay. Here, you may want to provide particularly detailed descriptions and dialogue.

Finally, you should provide a resolution to the conflict in your narrative. This does not mean that the problems your protagonist faced need to be solved at the end of your essay -- only that your reader has a sense of what has changed or what your protagonist has learned from the conflict. A resolution is necessary to give your reader a sense of finality, as well as a sense that the narrative of your essay had purpose.

For example, if you are writing about your friend's struggle with an abusive home life, the climax of your essay might be when your friend comes to seek help for his situation. If he spoke to you or a counselor, describe this conversation in detail. After this climax, you would write the outcome of your friend's decision. Did it improve his family situation? How did the people around him react? What did he, and you, learn from the experience?

Jon Zamboni began writing professionally in 2010. He has previously written for The Spiritual Herald, an urban health care and religious issues newspaper based in New York City, and online music magazine eBurban. Zamboni has a Bachelor of Arts in religious studies from Wesleyan University.