I. What is a Narrative Essay?
By definition, a narrative is a series of connected events – in other words, a story. An essay is a piece of writing that focuses on a specific topic. So, a narrative essay is a piece of writing that focuses on a particular story. In practice, a narrative essay is a story about a personal experience.
These essays examine how certain events affect a person’s emotions, beliefs, and outlook on life. The writer narrates an event that they lived through, and describes the experience from their personal point of view.
A narrative essay is a useful tool that invites readers into a story and shows how an event has affected a person.
II. Examples of Narrative Essays
Narrative essays can focus on any event in a person’s life. A strong narrative essay will be about an important event, one that had a significant impact on the author’s life. Some examples of the kinds of topics that a narrative essay might explore are the experiences of:
- Moving to a new place, school, or job
- Events that lead to a new understanding about life
- Overcoming challenging obstacles
- Time spent during a favorite activity
- Being involved in a large movement, such as a charity event or political protest
In fact, some narrative essays have become famous for their influence on their readers.
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, by Frederick Douglass, is an essay that told of the author’s life in slavery. The essay tells how he overcame the challenging obstacle of escaping from slavery and starting life over as a free man. Abolitionists (anti-slavery activists) used Fredrick Douglas’s narrative essay to educate Americans about why they must end slavery.
Walden, by Henry David Thoreau, is a narrative essay about the author’s experience living in a cabin by Walden Pond for two years. He wrote about events he had while he was alone in nature, and he explained how these events led him to a new understanding about life, people, and society. The essay quickly became popular among people who were curious about reconnecting with nature.
III. Types of Narrative Essays with Topics
A memoir is an essay in which a person writes about a period in their life. The events typically cover years – even decades. A person might write a memoir in order to share an experience like the topic examples below.
- raising and training a puppy
- explaining the history of a company
- experience of learning to play a sport
A reflection is a short narrative that focuses on a single event. A writer may choose to reflect on a book they just finished, their visit to a zoo, or their high school graduation. The reflection should focus on the writer’s reactions to the event, and may include a self-evaluation. Reflections can also be as informal or formal, like the topic examples below.
- a journal entry of your school day
- a college entrance essay that describes an accomplishment
- a self-evaluation after playing a sport for a season
c. Personal Experience as a Participant
A narrative essay of this type is written by a person who was personally involved in an event and wants to share their experience. There is more information included in this narrative essay than in a reflection. It is also more focused on details describing the event, and less on the writer’s self-evaluation. Below are some examples for topics.
- living through a natural disaster
- participating in a school play
- new experiences on a family vacation
d. Personal Experience as an Observer
This kind of narrative essay includes journalism and reporting. It is the least personal of these types, and may not be written in first-person point-of-view (‘I’ or ‘we’). Take a look at the sample topics.
- war correspondents giving an update
- sports writers commenting on a game
- historians describing a past event
IV. Parts of Narrative Essays
a. Personal point-of-view
A strong narrative essay lets the reader know who the author is as a person. It reveals the author’s opinions, hopes, and beliefs. The reader should be able to gain insights into the author’s personality in a way that is similar to a reader getting to know a character in a work of fiction.
b. A clearly connected series of events
Without events, there is no narrative. A narrative essay is organized around a number of events. These events are linked through cause-and-effect or action-consequence.
c. Descriptive detail
A narrative essay is a personal experience, and should give the reader a feeling of being ‘there’ as the events unfold. The author will use multi-sensory descriptions (such as sights, sounds, and smells) and pay attention to details in order to ‘show’ the story to the reader.
d. Growth or change as a result of a climactic event
Readers of a narrative essay should be able to identify the most significant event in the story. This event is the climax of the narrative. The climax should lead the narrator (and the reader) to an insight or realization that causes a major change for him or her.
V. How to write a Narrative Essay
a. Outline the events of the narrative
Decide which part of the narrative is the climax, and which part contains an insight or lesson. These parts will be the focus of your essay. Organize the other events in the narrative to support this focus.
In Frederick Douglas’ essay, the climax might be the event in which he finally escapes to the north. Meanwhile, learning how to read and the new knowledge that he gains from reading would be on the outline as important events in the narrative.
b. Describe each event with precise sensory description
Focus on details that relate to your personal experiences. For instance, if the place is very important in the narrative, include details about the setting (place and time). If people play a big role in your narrative essay, take the time to describe how they look and what personality traits they have.
In his essay, Douglass uses details to describe the plantations, their locations, and several events that he witnessed as a child slave. His descriptions almost help readers imagine or picture the places and events in their minds.
c. Describe your role in each of the events
Explain how you felt and what you wanted. Describe how the events affected you emotionally.
In his essay, Douglass also describes how some of the cruel events that he witnessed scared him, as well as the happiness he felt when he was moved to live with and met the Aulds. This also helps the audience understand Douglass as a slave.
d. Identify the significance
Identify the significance of these events on your beliefs, feelings, or world view from where you stand today.
For Douglass, learning how to read was one of the most significant events in his life; it allowed him to learn and understand the injustices of slavery, which lead him to escape and become a leader in the abolitionist movement.
e. The events in the narrative should connect clearly
When you revise, be sure that the events in the narrative connect clearly and have smooth transitions between them
Your conclusion should help the reader understand the importance of your narrative essay.
Douglass concludes his essay by sharing his experience after the escape, like finding a job, and most importantly, speaking at an anti-slavery meeting. This shows the importance of how his experiences lead him to become a speaker for the abolitionist cause.