It’s always a good idea to create an outline for your essay before embarking on the writing process. Outlines provide structure, which is one of the most important components of a good essay.
Without structure, you’ll have a difficult time telling your story in a compelling way and sustaining the attention of the reader.
What is a narrative essay?
A narrative essay is one of the four main types of essays you will be asked to write throughout nearly every level of education.
In summary, a narrative essay is a piece of writing in which you tell a story from your point of view about a personal experience. Your goal, when writing a narrative essay, is to use description and voice to portray yourself to the reader. Ideally, the reader will walk away from your essay with the feeling that they know you.
Like any good story, your narrative essay should have a purpose, rather than just be a recount of events.
For example, consider this narrative essay prompt from the 2020-21 Common App:
“Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma — anything of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.”
Yes, those reading your essay do want to know what problem you’ve solved. But, more importantly, they want to gauge how you react to and overcome adversity. So, take the extra step to make sure your narrative essay serves a purpose and has an overall theme. This theme will serve as your thesis statement.
What should you do before writing your outline?
Before you get started on your outline, you need to take a moment to organize your thoughts.
Think hard about the story you want to tell. Try to remember all of the events and details. Jot everything down in a notepad and begin to separate your notes into categories.
Remember, you typically will only have about 500 or 600 words to tell your story. So, consider which details are necessary and which you could leave out.
Next, think about how you want to organize your essay. Compared to other types of essays, narrative essays grant you a good amount of structural freedom. For example, you don’t always have to have a clear thesis statement in your introductory paragraph. You could even write your essay in chronological order, as long as your main point isn’t buried too deep.
Once you have a solid idea for the overall structure of your essay and the information you want to include, it is time to outline.
Structure of narrative essay outline
A. The hook
The hook, which should be the first sentence of your narrative essay, needs to make the reader want to continue reading. The hook could be a fact, a rhetorical question, or an intriguing sentence that sucks the reader in.
Say, for example, you’re writing about a time when you made pasta with your grandmother who lives in Italy. You could start the essay off with a fact about how many pounds of pasta come in and out of the village where she lives.
B. Stage your essay
After the hook, you want to give the reader a greater sense of the scene. When writing a narrative essay, you don’t have to reveal everything about the place or be too blunt about the setting, but you should at least give a few hints.
Sticking with the pasta example, you could start to explain the smell of the room, the view through the kitchen window, and the feel of the floor underneath your feet. These descriptions would give the reader a sense of your surroundings, the climate, and the age of the house. When writing a narrative essay, you want to show the reader, not tell them.
C. Thesis statement
Typically, the purpose of the thesis statement is to provide a digestible summary of the main point or claim you’re making in your essay. Using the same pasta example, you could draft a compelling sentence about how making pasta at your grandmother’s house in Italy inspired your passion for the art of cooking.
The reason thesis statements are so often placed in the introductory paragraph is so the reader can develop an early understanding of the purpose of your essay. However, because narrative essays are meant to be a personal story, you don’t always have to make the thesis statement so evident.
While writing a narrative essay, you could use the last sentence of the introduction simply as a way to naturally progress into the body of the essay. If you do this, though, you need to make sure that your theme is still evident. Although chronological order can make for an intriguing narrative essay, you don’t want your theme to be buried too deep.
In the body of your narrative essay is where you dive into the full story of your experience. Each body paragraph should support your thesis.
Let’s, again, use the pasta example. If your thesis statement describes the theme that making pasta at your grandmother’s house in Italy inspired your passion for the art of cooking, you need to create body paragraphs that support that statement.
A. First paragraph
In the first paragraph, you could describe how cooking drew you in. You could explain how you felt when you smelled the pasta or what was going through your mind as you watched your grandmother roll homemade noodles. Remember, show don’t tell. Use adjectives and verbs to paint a picture.
B. Second paragraph
After describing how cooking drew you in, you could dive into how cooking in your grandmother’s kitchen made you feel. Was it therapeutic? Was it a fun challenge? Was it nostalgic? Do you revisit those feelings when you cook today? Let the reader view your emotions.
C. Final paragraph
In the last paragraph of the body, wrap up the story. After you left Italy and came back to the United States, did you immediately start cooking?
If your essay is in chronological order, make sure the story comes to a close naturally. Don’t rush it just because you’ve run out of space. If there is a word limit on your essay, check back through the previous paragraphs to see if there is anything that you can edit out. Reassess from there.
In the conclusion of the narrative essay, you could explain what cooking has taught and how it has helped you in other areas of your life. Maybe you’ve increased your patience. Maybe you’ve learned how to multitask. There’s a chance cooking has helped you develop a way to manage your emotions.
These skills can all be related back to other things in your life. For example, if you’re writing a narrative essay for a college application, maybe point out how the skills you’ve developed from cooking translate to the subject you’re interested in majoring in. Explaining how cooking has helped you improve is a great way to naturally express your love for it, and, in turn, reinforce your thesis.
It is not breaking news that outlines can be a drag to create. But, they are a pivotal piece of a well-crafted essay. Without them, your essay runs the risk of lacking structure and being difficult for the reader to digest. So don’t underestimate the importance of your outline, and certainty do not skip over it. Take time before the writing process to outline, and it will save you the frustration of having to extensively edit and revise after you’re finished.
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Jackson Schroeder is a graduate of Ohio University with a B.A. in Journalism from the E.W. Scripps School. He is originally from Savannah, Georgia. Jackson has covered a wide range of topics, including sustainability, technology, sports, culture, travel, and music. He plays bass and guitar, and enjoys playing and listening to live music in his free time.