35 2. Narrative Writing

Narrative writing is unique. Most of the essays you will be writing for this course (and for many other courses you take) will require “expository” writing. That means the essay will “explain” a thesis. You will provide a thesis statement early in the essay, and everything that follows “proves” or supports that thesis. Narrative writing does not follow that basic essay format.

narrative essay tells a story. It starts at a certain point and finishes when the story is completed (chronological order). Therefore, a thesis statement is not always necessary. It is better, in narrative writing, to get to the story itself and let the reader recognize the thesis through the action of the story. If you’re writing about a funny experience you had at the mall one day, then the reader will recognize that in the action. You don’t have to say in an opening “I had a funny experience at the mall one day.” That will be shown in the events the reader will uncover.

Narrative writing requires a couple of basic things: focus, action, description and dialogue. Let’s take a brief look at each of these ingredients:

  • Focus: Your narrative should focus on a brief moment in time (an hour, an afternoon, a day). It should not encompass a long period of time. You are writing only a short piece, so you need to keep that piece focused on a short period of time. The more time you try to fit into the essay, the more general your information will become. By focusing on a short period of time, you will have to be more specific in the info you provide.
  • Action: The narrative is about you and other characters (whether people, pets or personal items), so there has to be some kind of action between you and the other characters. Your verbs should be chosen to express action (not “he was happy” but “he jumped for joy” or “he screamed with excitement.”
  • Description: You are the eyes and ears for your reader. You have to give you reader details so show the scene. What is in the background? What kinds of expressions are on your characters’ faces? Put your reader into the scene. A common phrase I like to use in explaining narrative writing is “show your reader, don’t tell your reader.” Don’t tell your reader that the day was dark: show your reader how dark it was.
  • Dialogue: The best way to provide specific details is through dialogue. We communicate with spoken language all day, every day. Use dialogue to show the emotions of your characters. We can tell so much about a person by the way he/she talks. Use that to your advantage.

As you develop your narrative essay, you have to remember the chronological order (from beginning to end). But you might want to think about how you keep your reader interested. How you make the action of the event interesting and easy to follow. I have a simple formula that might help you think about narrative order. I call it a “cockeyed alphabet approach” (ABDCE):

  • A: Begin your narrative with action. Start with some exciting statement, something about the beginning of your story: “The phone rang. In the darkness, I reached for it and knocked it off the stand next to my bed.” That opening establishes two things: the event and the setting. And it does it with strong action.
  • B: Try to include background into your narrative fairly quickly. In the second, third or fourth paragraph, explain what is going on. After this initial phone call from above, I might include a short paragraph on background: “As I hung up, I realized that John needed my help. We’ve been friends for years, and he has always been there for me when I was in trouble. Now that he was having problems, I knew I had to do something for him.” This tells the reader, still with action, that this has been a long-time friendship with lots of past experiences.
  • D: Development: Get back to the narrative now. Carry the reader through the events from paragraph to paragraph, using all those ingredients mentioned earlier.
  • C: The climax is the “thesis” of your narrative. Without stating an obvious thesis, your reader should understand the point of what you are trying to say at this moment of understanding, the climax to the story. “Ah ha,” your reader should say when you express the most important point about this narrative.
  • E: Just like exercising, you should not end abruptly with the climax. Cool down with a paragraph or two giving details about what happens because of this incident. Kind of like the cowboy and horse walking off into the sunset in the typical western movie ending.

I have included a sample narrative in the next section. Take a look at it and think about the questions I ask at the bottom. Look at how a narrative can be fairly brief but detailed if it focuses on a short period of time.


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