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How to Write a Narrative Essay Step-By-Step

October 2020



Article by Herman Barnes

Article by Herman Barnes

Northeastern's Human Services program graduate, Herman Barnes contributes to our blog pro bono. He sees his mission in helping students prepare for academic careers by providing them with experience and skill-based background required for successful studying and research.

Writing narrative essay is one of the fun assignments that a high school or college student can get. It allows being creative, expressing one’s vision and sense of humor almost unreservedly – quite often to very impressive and moving results. You can boldly trespass on the rules of academic writing – the only important guideline is making it as much of an entertaining reading as possible.

Ready to have fun with your narrative essay? Let’s roll.

What is a Narrative Essay?

To understand this assignment better, let’s start with a narrative essay definition. A narrative essay is a short piece of writing (shorter than a story or novella) that gives your personal account of events that took place in real life. In other words, it’s a short story that really happened. 

Although it is rooted in reality, a narrative essay belongs to the realm of creative writing. That means that you may – and are encouraged to – use literary devices, emotionally charged words, and personal pronouns to convey your unique perspective, paint a vivid picture, and make a lasting impression on your reader.

Tips for Writing a Narrative Essay

Sometimes, essay prompts may ask you to narrate historical events as a contemporary observer would have told them, imagine alternative outcomes of the events, write stories from the point of view of inanimate objects, etc. However, as a rule, writing prompts for narrative essays urge you to tell about an experience from your life, making your story and autobiographical one. For example:

  • What is the most difficult decision you had to make?
  • Have you ever cried of happiness? What brought that about?
  • Tell about the toughest week in your life
  • Your first crush and how it ended
  • The perfect day
  • Have you ever met with big disappointment?
  • Have you ever changed your opinion about something important? What made you?
  • The most incredible journey
  • Have you ever wanted to turn back the time? Why?
  • Tell about the time you had to face your fears 

How Long Should a Narrative Essay Be?

Typically narrative essays can be compared to any other type of college essay and take anywhere between 500 and 5,000 words to write. The most important word limit is the one you have in your assignment guidelines. If there is none, you cannot do wrong by keeping it between 650 and 1,000.

Should I Write an Outline?

As a rule, you won’t need a formal outline for your narrative essay. However, for the purpose of planning a cohesive story with good pacing, it is better to write a working outline. Don’t forget that you are writing a narrative that is supposed to be entertaining. Use a classical story arc – with an intriguing beginning, action rising to a dramatic climax, and a satisfying resolution. 

Decide on the key events of your story and its sequence – it doesn’t have to be linear. Although chronological order of events is easier to write, you can use a non-linear plot for a deeper impact on your readers.

How Does Narrative Essay Structure Look Like?

Although the order of events as you recount them in your essay, may not be linear, you still should maintain a clear compositional structure:

  1. Start with an introduction, where you set the expectation for your reader and introduce the main characters of your story. This part should take no more than a paragraph.
  2. Proceed to the main body where your story happens. This part should be the longest. For short essays – three to five paragraphs.
  3. Wrap up your narrative with a conclusion, where you look back on your story. Analyzing the events, reflecting, and drawing a lesson from them or simply making the message of your story clear to your readers is a good way to conclude a narrative essay.

How to Start a Narrative Essay?

A great way to begin your essay is a narrative hook. A hook is a literary technique used in an opening passage to attract the attention of the reader and make them eager to read on. This can be as long as several paragraphs for a novel, but typically, a hook is just one sentence.

You can find great examples of narrative hooks in works of literature:

  1. Shocking and abrupt introduction of important events without giving any specifics: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” (One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez)
  2. Intriguing inconsistency: “Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know.” (The Stranger by Albert Camus)
  3. Provocative or ironic statement: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” (Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen)
  4. Statement that contradicts reality as most of us know it: “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” (1984 by George Orwell)
  5. A though-provoking statement: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” (Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy)

Do I Need a Thesis Statement for Narrative Essay?

Before you start writing your story, you should decide on its message – something that would have been a thesis statement in a standard academic essay. Although, you do not have to explicitly state it in the text, coming up with a working thesis statement is a good method to find out where all this is going. What are you trying to express with your narrative? What is its purpose?

For example, you are writing about a day when you and your best friend had a fight and fell out for a while. You can:

  • – make it into an amusing story about how easily people misunderstand each other and misinterpret each other’s meaning. Your message would be about the importance of good communication.
  • – tell how bad it feels to lose a good opinion and regard of a close friend even for a brief time. Your message would be about the importance of connections with others.
  • – tell about how you or your friend made the first step to reconciliation. Your message would be about the importance of recognizing your mistakes. 

And so on. When you know why you are telling your story, you know how to write it better.

Narrative Essay Format

Strictly speaking, the format is of no consequence for writing a good narrative essay. As a piece of personal and creative writing, it may or may not have a designated title page, running head, or page numbers – it’s up to you. Since a story is very unlikely to contain any citations and lists of sources, you can safely leave reference style (APA vs. MLA vs. Harvard) considerations out of your mind as well.

However, if you are very conscious about formatting, you can follow the general recommendations of your school or the class that you have this particular assignment for. If you have doubts, ask your professor what is allowed – maybe you can even use typeface and font size creatively!

However, it is always a good idea to edit and proofread your essay to make sure that:

  • it has good spelling and is grammatically correct
  • the text is broken down into paragraphs logically, without impeding the flow of your story 
  • your essay is uniformly formatted. For example, decide on how to write dialogue in a narrative essay, and stick to one of the styles: either use quotation marks or em dashes to set off dialogue, but not both interchangeably. 
  • your essay is stylistically consistent: light-hearted, neutral, or somber, but without jarring contrasts and tone shifts (except when they are intentional and serve an artistic purpose).

As you can see, writing a narrative essay can be quite enjoyable. However, if this is not your cup of tea and all this “exploring your creative side” is like pulling teeth, you can always find excellent narrative essays for sale online.

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