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9.2: Why Write a Narrative Essay?

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  • Many instructors like to begin ENG 101 classes with the narrative essay. It’s called an essay, but many narrative essays are really short stories. 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 readers get to know them more personally, building community in the class.

    How to Write the Narrative Essay

    (Narrative essay elements appear in bold in the following list.)

    1. Begin by identifying events in your life that taught you important life lessons. These events should have changed you somehow. Be sure to pick a topic that you feel comfortable sharing with other students as well as your instructor. From this choice will emerge the theme (the main point) of your story.
    2. 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.
    3. 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, vivid and clear. Remember that people have five senses. You can appeal to the reader’s sense of smell, taste, sight, sound, feel. 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. For further explanation and examples, see “Description as a Rhetorical Strategy” following this list.
    4. 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 from Tobias Wolff’s story “On Being a Real Westerner”:
    • “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.”
    • The verbs are all in active voice creating a sense of immediacy: moved, followed, stopped, fired.
    1. 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.
    1. Develop your characters. Even though the “characters” in your story are real people, your readers won’t get to know them unless you describe them, present their personalities, and give them physical presence.
    2. Use dialogue. Dialogue helps readers get to know the characters in your story, infuses the story with life, and offers a variation from description and explanation. When writing dialogue, you may not remember exactly what was said in the past, so be true to the person being represented and come as close to the actual language the person uses as possible. Dialogue is indented with each person speaking as its own paragraph. The paragraph ends when that person is done speaking and any following explanation or continuing action ends.
    3. 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. Choose the memory that is the most vivid for you.
    4. Avoid clichés and idioms: the passion burns, as red as a rose, as big as a house, etc.
    5. Avoid being overly dramatic in personifying inanimate object: the evil flames licked the side of the house. Fire is deadly and can be devastating, but it is not innately evil.
    6. 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.
    7. 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.
    8. 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.
    1. Redundancy: don’t be redundant!!! (And avoid exclamation points.) Now is the time to start building your vocabulary. Use a thesaurus and find clearer, more accurate words.
    2. Vary sentences: Don’t begin your sentences with the same word. Vary sentence beginnings, endings, lengths, and styles.
    3. 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”).
    4. Consistent verb tense: Write the story 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.

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    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\) - Photo credit: Lynn McClelland

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