A narrative essay asks the author to tell a story, usually, though not exclusively, about themselves. In consequence, it can be a very personal, reflective and subjective composition. Here, the personal pronoun “I” is invited. So, with a narrative essay, we are dealing with experiences, emotions and feelings.
What to Write About
It is likely that your teacher will give you a generally defined subject area to talk about, your first day of university for example, your proudest achievement, your greatest success, a test of your will, a memorable experience; in effect, a key moment, which affords additional degrees of reflection.
The point is to isolate and experience which evoked powerful emotions. Generally speaking, a narrative is judged successful by dint of how successfully it has moved the reader. Hence we may consider emotions to be the target of a narrative account, whereas intellect is the target of critical analysis.
Choose a Rich Topic
Seeing as our intention is to stir emotions, we need to select and experience which has the power to do so, something unusual wherein the daily routine somehow broken. If you think about it, most narratives, whether they are fiction or journalism or what have you, focus on the extraordinary.
This is why the suggested topics tend to employee superlatives such as “proudest”, “greatest”, and such; for, these objectives point toward uniquely intense experiences.
For this reason, it will not do simply to recount a journey to the grocery store to buy some biscuits. Unless that store was robbed while you were there scanning the confectionery aisles, this would make for a very dull narrative indeed. This is because the experience of purchasing groceries is largely non-emotional, banal and in fact quite mechanical.
This should give you some kind of indication as to how a good narrative essay might initially be spawned. You want to eschew the mundane. Try and locate an instance of powerful emotion in your life. Reflect upon those experiences which stand large in your memory. Analyse them, try and puzzle out the cause and effect processes which led to the attached feelings. In other words, pin down the emotional core. This will be your starting point.
Working from the Inside Out
Having alighted upon the emotional core of your topic, you want to build upon this, working from the inside (the internal emotional experience) to the outside (how and why this manifested). The feeling should be placed front and centre with the action coming in close second.
What does this mean? It means including the much sensory detail, emotive writing which expresses an experiential journey. My heart was beating hard. A cold feeling swelled in my chest. A bleak, remorseless fear came over me. And so on. We are trying to conjure and experience, to make the reader feel the emotions we felt; in so doing, we want to use powerful, evocative words which push and pull, which spark and simmer.
Style of Writing
Because you are telling a story, you need to have a distinct authorial voice. This means having a point of view. The reader needs to acquire a sense of the author’s personality from their words. This is where the narrative essay is very distinct from the standard scholarly text. Usually the author’s personality is deliberately suppressed, put behind the ideas and analyses in play. However, in the current instance, that dynamic is inverted: the author’s identity and character are deliberately placed in the foreground.
The way you achieve a pronounced authorial identity is not that distant from how the feet might be attained in everyday life. When conversing with your friends, it is quite likely that you employ all manner of colourful expressions, ingenuity, wit, humour, suspense and other sorts of oratorical techniques which lend punch to your speech. Probably this will involve a lot of metaphorical usage. Consider how bland it would be if someone spoke merely in literal phrases and descriptions. It would be like someone reading from a technical manual, robotic and lacking colour.
The same rules apply to prose. This is why some academic texts can often be a rather dry experience, requiring a dedicated effort to read the whole way through. In large part, this is due to the lack of emotional content in scholarly writing – an intentional convention, which helps keep the focus on ideas instead of feelings.
Conventions of Narrative: Conflict is Key
A narrative almost invariably entails some order of conflict. This is because conflict creates friction which enables change, movement, progression. This is one of the core precepts of drama: that conflict is a narrative essential, creating the combustion that drives the plot forward. Look for the conflict in the situation you are describing. It is almost certain that this conflict will be the key source of the emotions that you have honed in on.
Conflict, in this context, it does not necessarily mean a set-to between two people. In fact, more often than not it will reflect an internal conflict in one person, leading them (or in this case, you) to certain actions. The Nobel prize-winning author William Faulkner once said that the only thing worth writing about was “the human heart at war with itself”. This is a highly metaphorical expression but the sense is clear. Human beings often experience a conflict between how they feel and how they act. All great narratives shine a light on this conflict. If you keep this in mind, you will be well positioned to score high marks.
Story Telling is Structural
It is worth pointing out that narratives, while being extremely heterogeneous in form, do obey some key structural properties. Most obviously, they need to have a beginning, middle and an end. You might find it easier to consider this in terms of an introduction, body and conclusion; at all events, a composition with three clearly defined elements.
Further, your narrative will probably revolve around a particular point. This point constitutes the story’s theme. Generally, this theme will be foreshadowed in the beginning and brought home in the close of the narrative. In some ways this is similar to the way an essay puts forth a thesis statement in the introduction which is then reiterated and consolidated in the conclusion. While a narrative essay does not need such a clear-cut linear format, some portion of connection between the beginning and the end will help creating closure for the reader. Narrative closure equates to a feeling of completion and the satisfaction in the reader. These are structural concerns. While our primary objective is to inspire emotion in the reader, we must marshal the emotion to some overall purpose. It’s no use painting a complex portrait of psychological trauma, which simply piles on layers and layers of terrible, emotionally wrenching tragedy without there being some purpose therein. In broad terms, tragic experience leads to some kind of lesson learned in the protagonist (or the reader). Incidentally, this is why the large majority of poetry is tragic. When people are happy, they don’t tend to learn very much. The point is, be clear about what you are doing and where it is going. There is nothing worse than a directionless narrative.
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