No Research Required: Tips for Writing a Narrative Essay

 

Narrative or Personal Essays are a common writing assignment in English classrooms. Many freshman will run across this type of writing in college, and for natural storytellers, it can be a fun assignment. If the guidelines ask you to simply retell an event from your past, you already know the information! For a narrative essay, most likely, no research is required. Composing a narrative is simply a matter of putting a story from your past on paper. Sounds easy, right?

Actually, not as easy as it sounds. Move ahead with caution.

One of the biggest problems that arise when composing a personal narrative is not compiling the information; you already know it, as it’s part of your memory. The problems often lie in organizing those memories into a cohesive, well-organizing, interesting story that holds the reader’s attention from start to finish. This is not always so easy.

Once Upon a Time

Logic would tell you that if you want to retell a story or event, you will start at the beginning and conclude at the end. Right? Not necessarily. Taking a story out of chronological order is often the most effective way to hold the reader’s attention, create rising tension, an exciting climax, and conclude with a thoughtful reflection of what it all meant to you. This is what is referred to as the “narrative arc.” This seems logical; beginning, middle, end. Sometimes these narrative essays will incorporate a brief flashback, but never deviate from the chronological retelling of events.

The problem with this kind of storytelling organization is that it can become tedious to a reader. Writers tend to begin too far back, before the actual event even begins, then proceed to tell every detail up to the conclusion. By the time the reader gets to the main event or action, he or she may lose interest. By taking the narrative out of chronological order and begin in the middle of the action, or what writers refer to as in media res, we get off to a swift start that will sustain the narrative through to the end and hook the reader’s interest.

In medias res (or medias in res) is a Latin phrase which simply means the narrative story begins at the mid-point of the action rather than at the beginning. Setting, characters, and conflict can be set up immediately via flashback, conversations, or inner reflection. The main advantage of starting in the middle of the event is to open the story with dramatic action rather than explanation (exposition) which sets up the characters and situation in an exciting and captivating story. The reader is hooked immediately; a “hook” is often a requirement of a narrative essay. Beginning in the middle of action avoids what writers refer to as spinning your wheels or throat clearing; a lot of talk that gets you nowhere.

In medias res often (though not always) entails nonlinear narrative, or non-chronological order; earlier events are condensed briefly in the backstory. Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey use this technique to begin with the action of the Trojan War. To Kill a Mockingbird begins with Jem’s broken arm, which doesn’t happen in the narrative until the conclusion. The entire Star Wars series is completely out of chronological order! Think about the stories you’ve read for class; where in the story has the action begun? I’ll bet you’ll find it is seldom in the actual beginning of events.

CUT!

When composing your own essay, there is no right technique on how to organize it, but one tool writers use once a solid draft is complete, is scissors. Print your draft on one side, and cut each paragraph into its own page. One you have all of your paragraphs cut up, lay each out in front of you. Try to envision where the narrative could be re-arranged, and play with the organization. When you chopped up your essay, did you notice a lot of paragraph breaks, or two double spaces between paragraphs (white space)? If you tend to use a lot of paragraph breaks with no discernible reason, maybe that paragraph is in the wrong place in the narrative. Place the end at the beginning. Place the beginning in the middle. If a paragraph doesn’t fit, maybe it’s not needed. Maybe you’ll find a gap in time or action that needs more information to clarify details of the event.

Once you shift your perspective to consider other possibilities of organization for your narrative other than chronological, you may find that the first two pages of your narrative are unneeded. You will hook the reader more quickly by eliminating non-essential details and placing him or her immediately into the action, which will improve the narrative arc and set you on course for a narrative essay that your reader can’t put down.

 

 

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Show it off! Tips for Adding Description to your Narrative

When writing a narrative essay, your reader needs to see, hear, smell, taste and touch along with the writer, so it’s the writer’s job to show these details as clearly as possible. It’s not enough to tell the readers that someone is beautiful, handsome, slim or happy; the readers must see it for themselves. Writers can do this by incorporating sensory details.

As humans, we learn about the world and our surroundings through our senses. A reader needs to feel engaged in the written world you are creating. When we write using sensory detail, we are showing someone or something as it is instead of telling. Incorporating the five senses – sight (visual), sound (auditory), smell (olfactory), taste (gustatory), and touch (tactile) – into a narrative forces readers to see, hear, smell, taste, and touch just as the writer or character does. Writing that incorporates sensory images engages the reader and makes the writing come alive. Writing that utilizes sensory images quicken the pulse, gives you goose bumps, makes you taste and smell and hear what the writer tastes, smells, and hears.

Take, for instance, the following example:

The mountains are beautiful.

What, exactly, does “beautiful” look like? The word “beautiful” doesn’t tell us what color the mountains are, how high they are, what they might sound like (echoing or rustling leaves?) or smell like (clean cedar or musty leaves?). Mountains in Colorado are quite different in every “sense” than mountains in southern Appalachia.

Take this example taken from a student essay, as the writer is describing her grandmother:

She was very pretty.

What does “pretty” look like?

Revision:

My grandmother’s silver hair sat at her crown in a tight knot. Her skin, creviced from decades of laughter, hung loosely over her still high cheekbones. As she kneaded the dough, her thin, delicate hands sprinkled flour atop the dough, the smell of freshly baked bread clinging to her like perfume.

In narrative essays, you want the reader to experience what you experienced. Telling an audience something looks beautiful or pretty is vague; you need to create a sensory image of what “beautiful” or “pretty” means to you. Look at the following short paragraph describing a boy helping an elderly woman up a flight of stairs:

Grandmother Workman reached over and grabbed her grandson’s arm. He was nervous because the staircase was so steep, but she leaned against him and they began to climb.

Now, look at the same scene, but here, the writer has incorporated sensory detail:

Grandmother Workman lurched over and grabbed the pale skin of Randal’s thin forearm with her leathery hand. The folds and creases beneath her skin coiled themselves out like electrical wiring, like the bloated, roughly-textured relief map of the world that his mother just posted above his bedside table. Randal looked ahead toward the winding spiral staircase, fidgeted with a small hole in his baseball jersey, and bit his lip. His mouth filled with the sweet, coppery taste of blood as she leaned in closely toward him, breathing her hot breath on the damp hair at the base of his neck. She smelled of wet cigarettes and bacon. As they slowly climbed the long, steep staircase, the only sound was his grandmothers’ labored breathing and the mournful creak of the wooden stairs.

(writing.colostate.edu)

How many senses are utilized in this scene?

One way to help you incorporate more sensory images into your writing is by drafting the narrative first, then go back through the draft to see where you have told when you could have shown, and incorporate sensory details. The chart below is one type of tool to use as you construct and revise your narrative:

Sight

I see…            __________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Sound

I hear…            __________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Taste

I taste…            __________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Smell

I smell…            __________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Touch

I feel…            __________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Remember that as you write your narrative, your reader didn’t experience what you experienced. To engage your reader, work on incorporating sensory detail into your narrative, and watch your writing come alive.

All about Conjunctions

 

Conjunctions function as connectors in sentences. They join words, phrases, clauses and sentences. Short sentences often weaken the effectiveness of your writing, so by joining short, choppy sentences with conjunctions, the sentence variety is improved, thereby improving the style and flow of your writing.

In the first example below, notice how the style is improved by joining sentences with conjunctions in the second example:

Maria created a resumé. She copied it on expensive, high-quality paper.  Her prospective employer was not accepting resumé.

Revision: Maria created a résumé, and she copied it on expensive, high-quality paper, but her prospective employer was not accepting resumé.

(example from Purdue Owl)

In the previous example, the conjunctions “and” and “but” join the sentences, the most commonly used conjunctions. Their use is pretty straightforward; “and” means “in addition to,” and “but” means “yet” or “on the contrary.” However, choosing the appropriate conjunction can sometimes be a bit difficult.

Conjunctions are classified as either coordinating conjunctions, correlative conjunctions, or subordinating conjunctions. We’ll discuss coordinating and subordinating conjunctions below.

Coordinating conjunctions include and, but, or, yet, for, nor, and so. These conjunctions are used when you want to relate equal ideas in a sentence.

They purchased the ranch and they began to raise goats and sheep.

Steve purchased a cup of coffee in the new shop, but the service was quite slow.

Amanda needed yarn for her scarf, so she went to the fabric store.


Subordinating conjunctions are used to emphasize one idea over the other. This means one idea is “subordinate,” or secondary to, the other idea.

Common Subordinating Conjunctions

after     although     as      as if     as long as
as though     because     before     even if
even though     if     if only     in order that
now that     once     rather than     since     so that
than     that     though     till     unless     until
when     whenever     where     whereas     wherever     while

Understanding when to use a coordinating conjunction or a subordinating conjunction can be a bit tricky. The conjunction “and” is often overused, and a sentence would be more clear and effective with a subordinating conjunction. The sentences below show the difference in emphasis when a coordinating conjunction is used as opposed to a subordinating conjunction:

Example:

Aqua Blues is a great band and they only recorded one album.

Revision:

Aqua Blues is a great band, even though they only recorded one album.

The first example is grammatically correct, but the two clauses don’t really carry equal weight. By using a subordinating conjunction, the emphasis is placed on the independent clause (Aqua Blue is a great band).

Note the differences in the examples below when the sentences are revised using subordinating conjunctions:

Example: John practiced the cello and the cat screeched from the porch.

Revisions:

John practiced the cello while the cat screeched from the porch.

Although the cat screeched from the porch, John practiced his cello.

John practiced the cello even though the cat screeched from the porch.


To edit your writing for appropriate use of conjunctions, ask yourself, does the independent clause contain the most important idea you want to convey?:

The textbook was short and had good information.

The textbook was short but had good information.

The textbook was short although it had good information.

Although the textbook was short, it had good information.

 

Visit http://www.englishgrammar.org/conjunctions-exercise-2/ for conjunction exercise.
 (Some explanation cited from The Everyday Writer by Andrea A. Lunsford)

The Perfect Ending: Concluding the Narrative Essay

Concluding a narrative essay can be a challenge for experienced and beginning writers alike. Writers often fall into the trap of tying the narrative up too neatly, telling the readers what they are supposed to take away from their story instead of letting the reader come to their own conclusions. Study a few essays from some of the great writers and notice how they conclude their stories. Often the ending to their narratives is left ambiguous; the reader isn’t exactly sure how everything will turn out. The reader should be left with a sense of closure, without being told how or what to feel. 

Conclude with an Image

Have you ever heard the phrase, “Show, don’t tell”? Showing an image puts a visual in the reader’s mind, an effective way to conclude without telling too much. Showing an image prevents you from telling your feelings, which, in most cases, you want to avoid. In the essay “Buckeye,” Scott Russell Sanders uses the image of a grazing deer to conclude his narrative:

. . . within a few paces of a grazing deer, close enough to see the delicate lips, the twitching nostrils, the glossy, fathomless eyes.

This lyrical conclusion comes from “Bathing,” as writer Kathryn Winograd shows the last moments of her bath:

The wind sings through the window like a siren, and the steam floats from my skin like milk.

Conclude in the Action

Show yourself in action. Move. Do something, anything, to avoid telling the reader how happy, or sad, or hopeful you are in the end. Look at something, and walk away, as Edward Hoagland does in “The Courage of Turtles”:

But since, short of diving in after him, there was nothing I could do, I walked away.

Or look at something, and become mesmerized. A chapter from the classic memoir, Stop Time by Frank Conroy, “Yo-Yo Going Down, a Mad Squirrel Coming Up,” shows a young Conroy as he watches a girl through a window:

That same night, hidden in the greenery under the window, I watched a naked girl let down her long red hair.

Conclude with Dialogue

Dialogue can be tricky to conclude with, but can work if it avoids a message or moral. You’ll only want to use this concluding technique if it has been maintained in the narrative; you probably don’t want to throw in spoken word if we haven’t heard anyone speak up until that point.

David Sedaris, in his essay, “Cyclops,” ends with the voice of his father, who is the main character in this essay:

“I don’t know where you got it from, but in the end, it’s going to kill you.”

The following brief reply, taken from Jo Ann Beard’s “The Fourth State of Matter,” shows an image, followed by unquoted dialogue. Beard uses italics instead:

Around my neck is the stone he brought me from Poland. I hold it out. Like this? I ask. Shards of fly wings, suspended in amber.
Exactly, he says.

Another example below comes again from Scott Russell Sanders, this from “Cloud Crossing,” as his toddler son babbles:

“Moon,” he is piping from the back seat, “moon, moon!”

Conclude by Reflecting

When used well, reflection is a great way to convey feelings without telling the reader how you felt – or how they should feel. Reflection offers the writer’s thoughts about what is happening or has happened. Reflection can include thoughts about the moment or thoughts looking back, about the experience. Reflection can add clarity, as we see the writer thinking through the experience. This concluding moment is from James Baldwin’s, “Notes of a Native Son”:

. . . I wished that he had been beside me so that I could have searched his face for the answers which only the future would give me now.

Bret Lott, in his short essay, “Brothers,” reflects on childhood memories of his family, taking him into the present with his own two sons:

What I believe is this: That pinch was entry into our childhood; my arm around him, our smiling, is the proof of us two surfacing, alive but not unscathed.
And here are my own two boys, already embarked.

In Conclusion

When writing your own conclusion, think about what you want your readers to take away from your story. Then think about how best you can show it. You seldom can go wrong with images. Dialogue is a great way to let a character have the last word. Ending with reflection, sharing thoughts or feelings, works when a bit more needs to be said. Think about what feeling, emotion, or question you want to leave your readers with, the take-away, then choose the type of conclusion that best suits the narrative. It’s not unusual to actually write the conclusion first, and it often serves as a road map to get the narrative where it needs to go. Taking time to carefully craft a conclusion can make or break your narrative.