Narrative Essay Writing Process

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The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.– Mark Twain

Click here for the Narrative Essay requirements: Narrative Essay Assignment Objectives

Why write a narrative?

I like to begin my ENG 101 class with the narrative essay. I call it an essay, but in my ENG 101 class, it is really a short story. The narrative has a twofold purpose. Because students are writing about an important event in their lives, students find it easy to write helping them get acclimated to college writing and expectations. And, since students are sharing about their own lives, the narrative helps me get to know them more personally, building community in the class.

How to write the narrative? (Narrative essay elements appear in bold in the following list.)
  1. Narrative Essay – College Consortium Online Textbook
  2. Descriptive Essay - College Consortium Online Textbook
  3. Begin by identifying events in your life that taught you important life lessons. These events should have changed you somehow. We will be peer editing these papers in this class, so be sure to pick a topic that you feel comfortable sharing with other students. From this choice will emerge the theme (the main point) of your story.
  4. Once you identify the event, you will write down what happened. Just brainstorm (also called freewriting). Focus on the actual event. You do not need to provide a complete build up to it. For example, if I am telling a story about an experience at camp, I do not need to provide readers with a history of my camp experiences, nor do I need to explain how I got there, what we ate each day, how long it lasted, etc. Readers need enough information to understand the event. So, I do not need to provide information about my entire summer if the event only lasts a couple of days.
  5. Use descriptions/vivid details. As writers, we want our readers to experience this event as we did. We want to bring it to life. Descriptions put the reader in the moment. Make sure they are active descriptions, however. Do not simply tell the reader that it was exciting. You need to describe the event in such a way that the readers get excited. Do not simply state that it was hot. Provide a description so that readers think that it is hot.
  6. Use active voice/action. Active voice puts readers in the moment. They experience events as they happen. Think of a horror story where you experience running from the psychotic murderer right along with the hero. Here is an example of active voice:
    • "Nothing moved but a pair of squirrels chasing each other back and forth on the telephone wires.I followed one in my sight. Finally it stopped for a moment and I fired" (Wolff)
    • The verbs are all in active voice creating a sense of immediacy: moved, followed, stopped, fired.
  7. Use passive voice sparingly to add variety and slow things down. Here is an example of passive voice:
    • I had been aiming at two old people, a man and a woman, who walked so slowly that by the time they turned the corner at the bottom of the hill my little store of self-control was exhausted" (Wolff)
    • Passive voice uses the verb "to be" along with an action verb: had been aiming, was exhausted.
  8. Once you have completed a draft, you will work on the pace of your story. You will make sure you include only the key events and details that support your story. You will get rid of any description or event that gets in the way of your story's flow. Use active voice as much as possible. Make sure your descriptions are vivid and clear. Remember to that people have five senses. You can appeal to the reader's sense of smell, taste, sight, sound, feel. Choose the memory that is the most vivid for you.
  9. Avoid cliches and idioms: the passion burns, as red as a rose, as big as a house, etc.
  10. Avoid giving inanimate objects emotions they do not possess: the evil flames licked the side of the house. Fire is deadly and can be devastating, but it is not evil.
  11. BE HONEST! Tell the story the way you would naturally tell it and not the way you think your teacher might tell it. Avoid what you think might be impressive language. Be exact in your descriptions. If you want to describe someone's hair, call it hair. Don't use tresses because that word sounds more sophisticated.
  12. Be Concise: Don’t get bogged down in in passive tense or long-winded sentences. Always remember: there is no exact way to write a story. Always think in terms of the point you are making. Does the information help make that point or does it get in the way.
  13. Avoid Awkward Language: Read your papers out loud. You can hear a sentence that sounds awkward or bad. You may not catch it reading it quietly.
    • Sample Awkward sentence: There are profound differences between the two types of personalities that scientists are just beginning to find out about.
    • Cleaner/More Concise: Scientists are just discovering profound differences between the two personality types.
  14. Redundancy: don’t be redundant!!! (And avoid exclamation points.) Now is the time to start building your vocabulary. Use a thesaurus and find better, more accurate words.
  15. Vary sentences: Don’t begin your sentences with the same word. Vary sentence beginnings, endings, lengths, and styles.
  16. Point Of View: Be consistent in your point of view. Remember you are telling the story, so it should be in first person. Do not use second person ("you").
  17. Consistent Verb Tense: Write this in past tense. It doesn't work to try to write it in present tense since it already happened. Make sure you stay in past tense.
Sample Narratives

"Coming into Language" by Jimmy Santiago Baca

"Coming into Language" Questions

"Shooting an Elephant" by George Orwell

"Shooting an Elephant" Questions

"Where the Danger Is" Student Narrative

Answer the following question based on your reading of the previous information: What are four elements (or characteristics) of the narrative essay?
*****Read through the following information as an overview of the Narrative Essay process. Check Canvas for the Narrative Essay rough draft and final draft due dates. The following information will help you develop and format the rough and final drafts as we work through this module. It is NOT due next class!*****
Narrative Topic and Considerations:

TOPIC: You will write an essay about an intense memory or “remembered event” grounded or related to a physical place. It should be written from your point of view in first person since it is your memory. If the memory is good or bad, your word choices should help convey this to establish the tone of the piece. Make sure your memory has a theme and involves a story line with conflict and resolution. Be descriptive, specific and original in your writing.

TIPS: Make sure you tell a story through a sequence of related events that lead to a result. Establish a theme. Use a consistent POV and tense. Vary your words, use transitional phrases. Use college-level language. Incorporate dialogue, if you wish. Avoid cliches; use fresh language; be creative. Have fun! Thoroughly spell check and proofread your essay. If you need help with your essay, go to the Student Learning Center.

PREWRITE EXERCISES: You will choose three topics to explore, complete the directions in the Canvas assignment, and use them to write your rough draft.

Formatting the Narrative

  1. Be sure and use MLA format for the paper:
      • 1" margins all around the paper.
      • Double spaced
      • A header on the top right hand corner 1/2" from the top of the paper should include:
      • Last name and then leave a space and the page number
      • On the first page on the left hand side include:
        • Your full name
        • My Name
        • Course - Assignment
        • Date
      • Be sure and type both the rough draft and final essay.
      • Click on the image below to see the full-scale version of the first page of an MLA formatted paper.

Writing the Narrative

  • Write a 3-page narrative/description
    • Make sure it is on an important event in your life.
    • Make sure you pick an event that caused you to learn an important life lesson.
    • You should pick an event that caused you to change and grow in some way.
    • Although you certainly do not have to write on something negative, most great steps or leaps in learning have resulted from negative events.  
    • That is the only good thing that comes from negative events.
    • Some of your best writing will come from them too.
  • Once you have written your rough draft, you will print it out, read it to look for places to enhance, sharpen, and focus the story. Revise.
  • Use the feedback from your peer review to then revise again. Make sure you are giving your readers the best "telling" of your story.
  • See the Narrative Essay Assignment Objectives for the specific requirements of your story.

 Comprehension Question: What are four elements (or characteristics) of the narrative essay? Post your answer in a text box in Canvas.


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License by Lynn McClelland.

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