Narrative essay writing is a style of nonfiction writing that uses storytelling to advance a thesis. One of the easier styles to begin writing, the narrative essay is nevertheless a difficult style to master. The best narrative essay writers are able to utilize compelling nonfiction storytelling to discuss a moral or thematic concept. In other words, a strong narrative essay is not only an interesting or entertaining true story, but a story that communicates a deeper meaning.
Narrative essays are a common form of storytelling and a type of essay that students are often asked to write in school. For example, high school students are often asked to write a personal narrative essay for their Common App essay when they apply to college. At some point, all writers will be compelled or tasked to write a narrative essay, so it is important to develop a familiarity with the parameters of the genre.
In this article, we’ll discuss the style, substance, and structure of narrative essays.
Narrative Essay or Short Story
Narrative essays and short stories are both types of storytelling that illustrate a point through a dramatic narrative. However, they are differentiated in that narrative essays are always based on nonfiction, while short stories are always fictional. Narrative essays are typically based on the writer’s personal experiences, so they may tell a true story that the writer lived through or a true story that someone else lived through. The most common types of narrative essays are personal essays and are generally written in the first person.
While narrative essays are by definition nonfiction, clever writers may incorporate fictional elements or stories within them. For example, a fictional story can be used within a nonfiction narrative to communicate the protagonist’s dreams or aspirations. They may also be used to introduce fantastical elements into the story. If done well, blending nonfiction and fiction can elevate a narrative beyond the limits of realism and introduce new meanings into the story. However, this is a difficult technique to utilize effectively, so beginner writers may not want to dive into these kinds of experimental approaches.
The Thesis of Narrative Essays
All forms of essay writing are built around a central premise or argument — typically referred to as the thesis. Narrative essays, while structured around storytelling, are no exception. While narrative essays employ a more creative approach to the essay, they still must advance a thesis and make a stance on a thematic concept or issue. In a narrative essay, the thesis often is translated through a revelation that one of the central characters comes to through the experiences communicated in the story. The thesis may or may not be explicitly stated, but rather revealed through actions, symbolism, and plot development.
Narrative essays will often consist of a mixture of narrative and expository writing, and the author may use their own experiences, as recounted through their narrative, to discuss philosophical concepts or societal issues. In “Notes on a Native Son,” author James Baldwin reflects on American race relations through his relationship with his father and the experience of attending his funeral. In “Once More to the Lake,” E.B. White reflects on aging, the passage of time, fatherhood, and mortality through the experience of a trip to a lake with his son. Both of these narratives use personal experiences to discuss broader, even universal themes. Even if their theses are not explicitly stated, their messages are made clear over the course of the essay.
Style and Tone of Narrative Essays
Narrative essays frequently bear an intimate and even conversational tone. However, the stylistic parameters are loose, so writers can choose to use whatever writing style or narrative voice that they feel most comfortable with and that they think best serves the narrative. Some writers heavily utilize humor (e.g., David Foster Wallace’s “Ticket to the Fair”), others utilize a detached, reflective, and almost academic tone (e.g., Joan Didion’s “On Self Respect”). It is up to the writer to decide what kind of voice they think will best communicate the thesis of their essay.
Narrative Essay Elements
All stories have a set of central characters, or at least one central character. Several common character types are protagonists, deuteragonists, antagonists, foils, secondary characters, and tertiary characters.
- Protagonist: The protagonist of a story is the main character of the story — the character that the story revolves around. The protagonist is often the narrator of the story. However, this is not always the case. In “The Great Gatsby,” for example, Nick Carraway is the narrator, but Jay Gatsby is the protagonist.
- Deuteragonist: The deuteragonist is the second most important character in a story. The deuteragonist may be a supporting or antagonistic character to the protagonist, i.e., a friend or an enemy. While the story doesn’t revolve around the deuteragonist, they nevertheless guide the story nearly as much or close to as much as the protagonist.
- Antagonist: The antagonist of a story is the main opposition to the protagonist and often the main villain of the story. Not all stories feature a main antagonist, and the roles of antagonistic characters can vary. An antagonist may be a small supporting character or even the deuteragonist.
- Foil: A foil is a character whose purpose is to contrast with another character, typically the protagonist, in order to accentuate their qualities. Not to be confused with the antagonist, foils may be supporters of the protagonist, and may even be the deuteragonist or close friend of the protagonist (e.g., Samwise Gamgee is the foil to Frodo Baggins in “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy).
- Secondary Characters: Secondary characters are recurring characters who do not have a major influence on plot development.
The setting of a narrative is the time and place in which it occurs. The setting can have a powerful influence on a narrative and can be used symbolically. As the stage for the narrative, it provides a framework and a context for the reader to visualize and understand what is happening. The setting can be invoked and clarified without overuse of descriptive passages. For example, details like the way characters speak and the weather can indicate time and place in a less heavy-handed manner.
In a narrative, the plot is a term used to describe the events that compose a story. Some narrative essays are heavily plot-driven and utilize a narrative arc to illustrate thematic points. Others are more meditative, and a clear plot may not play as important a role as elements like setting, characters, and symbolism.
Symbolism (Metaphors, Symbols, and Motifs)
Writers will often use metaphors, symbols, and motifs to represent or bring attention to certain concepts. Through the use of symbolism, objects and setting can take on meaning, elevating the narrative and highlighting the themes that the author intends to address.
- Metaphor: Metaphor is a literary device in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable. When a metaphor is used, the writer will state that one thing is something that it is not (e.g., “I am the black sheep of my family” or “America is a melting pot”). Metaphors do not make sense out of context, but in context they ascribe poetic meaning to an object.
- Symbol: In literature, a symbol is an object that is given a greater meaning within the context of the piece of writing. Symbols are typically material objects that can represent a more abstract concept (e.g., a diamond may represent wealth or a placid lake may represent peace and calm). The meaning ascribed to a symbol may be obvious, or it may be subtle. Symbols also may occur as few or as many times in a piece of literature as the author chooses.
- Motif: A motif is a type of symbol that is used repeatedly throughout a work of literature. Motifs are used to reinforce and draw attention to thematic ideas throughout the work. The phrase motif can be used to describe recurring symbolic objects, repeated concepts or phrases, or even recurring plot events. In all cases, they relate to and convey the central themes of the work.
Structure of Narrative Essays
Narrative essays are typically structured around a “narrative arc,” in which a central conflict guides the action of the story, reaches a climax in which the conflict comes to its highest point of tension, and ultimately resolves to reveal a lesson or thematic concept. This is often referred to as the “classical narrative structure,” and it is used in countless famous novels, plays, films, and personal essays, from Romeo and Juliet to The Odyssey. Not all narrative essays utilize the structure, but it is the most common approach to narrative writing and the easiest to understand and to use at first.
In the introduction of a narrative essay (also frequently referred to as the exposition), the writer sets the stage for the story, establishing the setting and introducing the main characters of the story. The primary purpose of this section is to draw the reader into the story and establish background information necessary to follow the narrative.
Writers will also often utilize a hook in their introduction to immediately immerse the reader in the story and compel them to read on. A hook can be a compelling quote that is related to the story, a brief and dramatic story, a flashback, an immersive description of the setting, or a variety of other compelling introductions. As long as it reels the reader into the essay, setting up the narrative in an engrossing manner, it can be called a hook. In a short essay, the hook should be brief. In most cases, you should try to limit the hook to three to four sentences at maximum.
Once the setting and characters are established, the writer can start to develop the narrative through the rising action. The rising action of a story is a series of events that take place that further the narrative, building suspense, interest, and tension. During the rising action, all events and character decisions together work to develop tension. Oftentimes during the rising action, we learn about the strengths and weaknesses of the characters that contribute to the conflicts in the story. In other words, in the rising action, the writer should introduce and develop the problems at the heart of the story, setting the stage for the conflict to reach its peak at the climax.
A high school student deals with issues at home, causing his grades to slip before his college applications come due.
A writer struggles to find inspiration for her next story and falls into bad habits to cope with her frustration.
A college student, feeling isolated and depressed, sets off on a road trip to try to escape his problems and find new meaning in life, facing a series of challenging experiences along the way that challenge his notions of what he wants in life.
The climax of a narrative essay is the point in the story when the tensions and conflicts that have been steadily building throughout the rising action reach a tipping point. The climax is typically marked with a dramatic event, realization, or turning point in which the tensions built during the rising action reach a point where they come to a peak and dissipate afterwards, leading to a resolution thereafter. Generally, the climax is the height of the story’s action. It may also answer some of the central questions that have built over the course of the rising action (e.g., “will a central character die?” or “will the protagonist return home?”). While the climax often resolves much of the tensions, there will often be many loose ends to tie up even after the climax or still unresolved questions.
A high school student fails several classes and is rejected from colleges, leading him to make many major life changes.
Allowing her bad habits to overtake her creative process, a writer suffers a mental breakdown, leading her to realize the pressures she has put on herself and allowing her to find new meaning in her creative process.
Out of money, lonely, and stranded in an unfamiliar place, a college student realizes he can’t simply run away from life’s problems.
Immediately after the climax comes the narrative’s falling action. During the falling action, the consequences of the climax play out, allowing the story’s main tensions to dissipate and resolve. During the falling action, central characters may come to profound realizations as a result of the action in the climax. While the central plot tensions have come to a head in the climax, there still may be some unresolved questions or conflicts that need to be tied up. As a result, there may still be dramatic events during this section as the characters deal with the consequences of the climax. During this section, the lessons learned as a result of the climactic action are slowly revealed, ultimately leading to the resolution.
A high school student, having lost his opportunity to go to college, works a minimum wage job after graduation. While he may not have accomplished his goals, he develops a plan to move forward in life and discovers new passions.
Having suffered a mental breakdown, a writer is now going through a rehabilitation program and learning to better cope with her stresses and anxieties.
Having realized that running away from his stresses through traveling did not bring him a deeper sense of fulfillment, a college student begins his journey home and plans for the next phase of his life.
The denouement, or resolution, is the conclusion of a narrative. In the denouement, the story’s themes and moral lessons are fully revealed. The consequences of the climax have been fully played out through the falling action and the characters of the story are left with a greater understanding of the events that played out throughout the story. Narratives may have happy endings or tragic endings, but in either case, the story ends with closure and the remaining characters move forward, changed by their experiences.
A high school graduate, stuck in a dead end job after failing to make it to college, refocuses his life and enrolls in a community college.
A writer who has suffered a mental breakdown leaves her rehabilitation program, rekindling her love in writing by writing for herself, and not for her career.
A traveling college student returns home to reconnect with family and friends after a long journey by themself, realizing that fulfillment comes with confronting challenges rather than escaping them.
Alternative Structures of Narrative Essays
While most stories follow the classical narrative arc, many writers have experimented with alternative narrative structures. Alternative narrative structures may not have simple conclusions or resolutions, and may use abstraction to illustrate thematic concepts. Sometimes, they also may not have clear moral or thematic conclusions. As a result, while these narrative approaches are equally valuable in their own right, they may not be well-suited for the narrative essay, which places significant value on clear moral or thematic stances.
Some writers believe that the classical narrative arc does not accurately represent life experiences, which may not bear simple resolutions. Realistic narrative writers often believe that the narrative arc is too idealistic, and life’s problems do not always bear solutions. Realistic narratives are often more focused on specific actions and immediate consequences. Furthermore, whereas the narrative arc has a symmetrical structure and a clear resolution, realistic narratives often do not follow a symmetrical pattern. Resolved conflicts may lead to new conflicts, or they may not have resolutions at all. Tensions may continue through the end of the story. Likewise, realistic narratives are often less plot-driven and derive their substance from characterization and depiction of events and characters than plot. While realistic narratives may not have as explicit a moral or thematic stance as narrative arcs, they nevertheless
Formalism is a modernist approach to narrative that draws focus away from plot and narrative structure and toward style and intrinsic qualities of the text. Formalist narratives may be more abstract and may not have a clear plot. Rather, they typically place a high value on deriving meaning through the exploration of style and craft. Therefore, they may place more emphasis on qualities, such as imagery, language, structure, and other aesthetic qualities, than other narrative approaches. The meaning or moral statement of the narrative may be less clear, or they may not even have an explicit moral statement. They often utilize techniques, such as paradox and irony, that obfuscate the meaning of the narrative, so some readers may find formalist approaches confusing or frustrating.
The narrative essay is an innately creative form of essay writing based around the use of nonfiction storytelling to reveal greater themes. While the parameters of narrative essay writing are loose and give the writer creative license, it is still important for beginner writers to familiarize themselves with the standards of the genre.
Sam Benezra is a graduate of Ohio University with a B.A. in History from the Honors Tutorial College. He is a native of Brooklyn, New York. Sam enjoys writing on a variety of subjects, including science, music, politics, film. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling, playing guitar, and writing songs.