A narrative essay is a piece of writing in which the author presents a theme and tells a story that illustrates it.
I’m Tutor Phil, and in this tutorial I’ll guide you through writing a narrative essay, step by step. First, we’ll get clear on what a narrative essay is and how it is constructed. And then we’ll write an actual essay together.
How a Narrative Essay Works
A narrative essay offers you great flexibility because it has very few limitations. But a few things must be present in narrative essays. Here is a list of requirements.
Elements of a Narrative Essay
- A theme, motif, or lesson
- Beginning, middle, and ending
- Setting, conflict, plot, character(s), and a climax
Anything else you can read about or think of is optional. Such elements as flashbacks, flash-forwards, and multiple examples and characters are not necessary.
Flashbacks are too intrusive for a short narrative essay. You can be the only character. And one example, which is essentially the story, is usually enough for a narrative essay to be effective.
You can write about yourself or someone else, in first or third person. Also, good, vibrant dialogue is optional but helpful because it makes the events more real to the reader.
Similarities and Differences between Argumentative and Narrative Essays
Both narrative and argumentative essays have a main theme. The main theme in an argumentative essay is an argument, otherwise known as a thesis.
The main theme in a narrative essay is just called a theme or a motif. The term “thesis” doesn’t really apply to a narrative essay because you’re not presenting an argument and then supporting it.
You rather convey an important life lesson by means of storytelling. So, it’s not really a thesis in a narrative essay. It is a theme, motif, or lesson.
You’re certainly not writing a thesis statement. But, like in an argumentative essay, your first paragraph should convey the main theme that will underlie the entire essay.
A narrative essay has much fewer rules or limitations than other types of essays, such as argumentative or descriptive essays. This is great news because you have more flexibility in how you want to tell your story.
This flexibility can also be a bit of a challenge because you don’t have a rigid structure to follow. That said, in this tutorial I’ll give you a very practical way to structure your narrative essay.
Writing a Narrative Essay Is a 4-Step Process
Step 1. Choose your theme
To choose your theme, motif, or lesson that you want to convey in your essay, think back to an event in your life that can inspire it.
By the way, a motif is just a recurring pattern throughout your narrative. For example, the shadow side of the human psyche is one of the motifs that keeps emerging in The Lord of the Rings.
Many characters, such as Bilbo Baggins, Frodo, and Gollum, have moments of a rapid descent into their dark side when they are in the presence of the magic ring. They seem overtaken by the ring’s power. This is an example of a motif.
Loss or Goal?
You have a choice between making your essay about dealing with a loss or aiming at a goal.
A loss implies “away from” motivation.
For example, a loss of a loved one is something that nobody wants to experience, but it happens because such is life. You can make your essay about a lesson derived from a loss of some kind.
Note that any problem is either a loss that already took place or a threat of a loss in the immediate future.
Alternatively, you can make your essay about a goal. This is different because a goal is something that you desire rather than fear or try to avoid. A goal evokes “toward” motivation.
For example, you can tell a story of how you really wanted a red sports car as your first car, and you got it. It was an inexpensive, used car. But when you got it, you realized that goals have a potential to become a reality.
Our sample theme
Let’s pick a theme for our essay that we’ll write together. I’m thinking of this theme:
“What goes around comes around.”
And I have a great story from my own life to illustrate it. I once worked at a car dealership where my general manager tried to pocket my bonus. That backfired for him.
Note that this is at the same time a theme and a lesson, a moral of the story. And you can go about picking your theme in a couple of ways.
You can think of a theme or life lesson first and then pick a story from your or someone else’s life that would be a perfect illustration of it.
Or, you can choose an event from your life first and then think of a theme or lesson to derive from it. Pay attention to whatever comes to your mind first because it might be the way to go.
Step 2. Create an outline
There’s more than one way to skin a cat, and a narrative essay offers you flexibility in how to tell your story. That said, your main structure is very simple:
Your essay can consist of 4-5 paragraphs, or even more, if necessary. The first and the last paragraphs would be the beginning and the end.
And the middle of your essay should contain 2-3 paragraphs because that’s where the bulk of the story takes place.
Three possible ways to structure a narrative essay
- Present the theme or motif in the first paragraph and then provide three examples to illustrate it (this is very similar to an expository essay).
- Present a conflict or problem and then tell a story of how the character (likely you) had to transform in order to overcome this conflict or problem.
- Present a conflict or problem and tell a story of how dealing with the problem resulted in a revelation or transformation.
I’m thinking back to the story that I want to write about my experience working at a car dealership. That event forced me to draw out my resolve in order to overcome adversity.
So, the second way in the list above will work perfectly. And we’re ready to outline our essay.
Sample Narrative Essay Outline
- State the theme and describe the conflict. How my general manager made a promise but then began a game of cat and mouse.
- The immediate effects of the situation. At first I did not realize a problem existed. Then, I began to get a clue. I started to feel cheated.
- I took initial action to no avail. I pleaded with my general manager. I also spoke with my sales manager. Both kicked me around. I realized that my general manager was breaking his promise, causing me a potential loss of money and dignity.
- This is the climax. I plucked up courage and took decisive action. I had to do something I had never done before. I had to make a drastic decision to change a situation I resented.
- This is the climax resolution. I got the result. My general manager got his due. And I got mine.
As you can see, an outline of a narrative essay contains a series of short summaries of each paragraph. This is not a deeply nested structure, the kind an argumentative essay or a research paper has to have.
This outline is very simple and practical. If you know your story, now you have a well-organized way to tell it.
Step 3. Write out each paragraph, using the outline
At this point, we have everything we need to write the first draft of this essay. If you did a good job picking your theme and writing the outline, this step should be easy. Your writing should flow.
Let’s do it.
What goes around comes around. I learned the truth of this old saying in 2011, when I worked at a car dealership, selling new and used cars. One fine day, during a Saturday morning meeting, our sales manager announced that he would pay a $1,000 bonus to the salesperson who would sell his car. That sounded great. And it just so happened that a few days later I served a customer who became interested in his high-end, sports Mercedes. The customer left without buying but then came back a couple of days later to seal the deal. I delivered the car. The happy customer drove off. It turned out that my sales manager had called the customer and offered him a better price. Great! The only problem was that days were going by, but I was not getting my bonus.
(Note: we state the theme in the first sentence, which is a great way to open. The paragraph also contains the complete setup and presents the problem or conflict.)
A car dealership has its own unwritten laws. One of them states that if a salesperson meets and greets a potential customer, and the person buys a car, this sale is credited to this salesperson. Also, sales managers do not get a cut of the deal if they helped make it happen. Only salespeople can share a deal if two of them participated in it. I rightfully expected to get paid. One biweekly check went by; then another. No bonus. The general manager was silent. Not a word from my sales manager, either. The uneasy feeling that I was being taken for a ride began to settle in.
(Note: this paragraph begins with an explanation of unwritten car dealership rules, which is necessary for clarity. Also, the seeds of the conflict begin to materialize.)
I saw that my bonus was nowhere in sight and began to lose my patience. I spoke to my general manager, the man who owed me the bonus. He replied that I should talk to my sales manager. I did. “I don’t know anything about it. Morris is waiting for the trade-in to sell, and then he’ll consider it,” my sales manager Jim said. I replied that my bonus was not contingent on future sales: “I sold the car, so I should get paid.” Jim just shrugged. When the men kept singing this tune for another couple of weeks, I knew they were taking me for a ride. Now I was really getting angry. This was not just about the money for me. It was a matter of principle. My dignity was at stake.
(Note: this paragraph is essentially about the escalation of conflict/problem.)
When it became clear that I was not going to make any progress just by trying to reason with my managers, I knew I had to do something more drastic. I had never been in such a situation before. I had to face the general manager of the store and make a demand. That’s exactly what I did. I grabbed a check request form, approached the managers’ podium, and placed the form on the desk in front of Morris: “This is my official request for the bonus you owe me.” “I don’t owe you anything,” he replied. That was all I needed – an official refusal. At that moment I resolved that I was fully prepared to lose my job and to take Morris to court. This was the most drastic professional decision I had ever had to make. And there I was, filled with resolve. But there was one last thing I could do before taking legal action. I went to the owner of the dealership and told him what had happened. “I’ll look into it,” Michael said. He had a solid reputation with us guys.
(Note: The conflict has reached its peak. The reader is at the edge of his seat, waiting for what’s about to happen. This is the climax.)
When I showed up for work the next day, I was greeted with quiet cheer from my fellow salespeople. The news was that Morris had been fired. And we had a new general manager. I don’t pretend to think that he was fired solely because of me. But this incident might have been the straw that broke the camel’s back. I guess the owner had been getting fed up with his general manager’s behavior. And he fired him. I got a sweet feeling of satisfaction. Hey, there was justice in the world after all. About two weeks later, during regular check distribution, I got my bonus. Michael, the store owner, kept his word and did more. He really looked into the situation. And he decided to right the wrong. I was elated at this triumph. It was then that I knew that what goes around does indeed come around.
(Note: this paragraph presents the climax resolution. Finally, the conflict resolves in my favor, confirming the old saying for me. The theme has been illustrated.)
Step 4. Revise and fine-tune
Now that you have your first draft, you can go back and read through it, making any edits and proofreading. Here are some of the tweaks you can make:
If a paragraph is too thin, you can add substance to it by writing out dialogue instead of just describing action.
Instead of writing: “He refused to pay,” you can write: “He said, ‘I won’t pay you because I don’t owe you anything. And let’s put an end to this conversation.’”
Only do this if you are at a bit of a loss for words. In the case of this narrative essay, I was describing actual events and had a lot to say. So, I actually had to restrain myself from writing too much in each paragraph.
That’s why I’ve kept dialogue to a minimum.
Remove or shorten dialogue
If you notice that a paragraph has gotten a little out of hand, and you want to shorten it, take out some dialogue. Convert it to description.
Dialogue adds life to your essay. But don’t write too much of it because this is not a play or a short story. Have a balance of dialogue and description.
Check back with your outline
You created your outline for a reason. See if each paragraph roughly follows it.
A narrative essay should follow a dramatic arc – from beginning to an escalation to the resolution in the end. If your outline does a good job of breaking the essay into nice dramatic beats, then make sure your paragraphs reflect that structure.
You can always move things around. If you feel a sentence or two belong in another paragraph, move them there.
Have a final reading in which you need to make sure your grammar and sentence structure are solid. And get rid of any typos that have a nasty habit of sneaking in here and there.
If your sentences really need work, I wrote a detailed tutorial on how to improve your sentence structure. Highly recommended.
And guess what! We just wrote a narrative essay together, and I trust you have a good idea how to write your own.
Now go ahead and implement what you’ve learned and write that amazing narrative essay!