Breaking Down the Narrative Essay Assignment

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One of the most common writing assignments in introductory English Composition classes is the narrative essay. Students are often very familiar with writing an academic essay, such as a classical argument, but when asked to compose a narrative story, many students are flummoxed. It’s true that narrative writing is a different kind of writing than academic prose, but it’s still writing. Once you understand the parts that make up the whole, composing a winning narrative will be a piece of cake. For our purposes, we’ll focus on a typical Comp I assignment for a short 4-6 page narrative essay.

The Event

Most writing assignments ask that you focus on a very small moment in time to make the essay manageable. Trying to write about your entire high school career, a four-year span of time, is too large to cover thoroughly in 4-6 pages. So pick a specific moment in time when something happened that affected you deeply or changed you in some way. As with any narrative, be it a book-length narrative or a short essay, the main character (in this case, you) should go through some kind of change or transformation. This should be a specific event that you can recall easily and describe effortlessly.

An example of a moment in time might be the championship football game when you missed the field goal in the final seconds. This remembered event might have taken a span of a just 2 or 3 hours, which is the time you would write about in your essay. Another moment in time might be related to family, such as the wedding of your sister when you realized she was leaving home, or when you realized you wanted to be a veterinarian after entering your pet rabbit in the fair, even though you didn’t win a blue ribbon.

Troubleshooting Topics

Many writing instructors try to steer students away from writing about births, deaths, or other very emotional experiences. These are often the first topics to come to mind, but they don’t always make the best narratives. Why? Because, one, we are often too emotionally close to the event to write about it objectively without getting overly sentimental, or to communicate anything other than joy or sorrow. And two, if your instructor requires peer reviews (your classmates will read your essay and offer constructive criticism), it may be extremely uncomfortable to hear feedback on your writing on a very emotional topic. When I teach the narrative essay, my guidelines actually say, please no births or deaths. Don’t judge me.

Also, don’t think the “event” has to be a big, grand experience. It can be something extremely simple, like the afternoon your grandma taught you how to make kolaches, or the year your family had Christmas dinner at a Chinese restaurant. Think small, but meaningful.

Figuring out the Main Purpose or Theme

Once you decide on a topic and before you begin writing, you’ll want to consider what the main purpose or theme of the essay is. Instructors often refer to this as the autobiographical significance.  Ask yourself, what is the point of this essay? What am I trying to say? If you are an ace with academic essays, think in terms of the thesis statement; what is the thesis of the narrative? (For more help with this, read this great essay from Brevity Magazine, “So What’s Your Point?”).

Figuring out your narrative’s purpose takes some thinking, and it’s not always so clear. Some writers believe you should first write the story, and the main purpose will organically come. Other writers feel they must have an idea what the main purpose is before they can even begin writing. Both are a means to the same end, and you’ll have to do what works best for you. Just note that instructors often ask that you know exactly what the main purpose or autobiographical significance is before you begin.

Introduction/Exposition

In the introduction, you’ll want to set up the story, and to do this, the reader will need to know the 5 Ws, or the Who? What? When? Where? Why? of the narrative.

Avoid the mistake of holding back essential info to surprise the reader. This isn’t a mystery; it’s a narrative essay, so the reader needs to know who the players are, where and when the setting takes place, what is happening, and why things are happening.

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The body, the majority of the narrative, will guide the reader through the event. This will include exposition or rising action when you are building tension in the story, or introducing a complication that sets you on a trajectory of sorts.


Climax

This is when the tension built in the exposition is at its height, when the conflict culminates in a peak of excitement, tragedy, or epiphany. This naturally leads to the resolution.

Resolution/Conclusion

In the conclusion, the reader should see the narrator has changed in some way. What lessons have you learned from this event? How has the event itself changed your way of thinking, or how you live your life? This is known as the autobiographical significance; the reader will come to understand the autobiographical significance. For specific ways to conclude, see our previous post on conclusions here.

Final Thoughts

Careful consideration of a manageable topic in the early stages is the first step in composing a winning narrative. Of course, you should always let your assignment directives guide you. And don’t think it’s going to be perfect in the first draft. Narrative essays take a few drafts to work out the kinks. Take your time and write on!

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