To write a narrative essay, you’ll need to tell a story (usually about something that happened to you) in such a way that he audience learns a lesson or gains insight.
To write a descriptive essay, you’ll need to describe a person, object, or event so vividly that the reader feels like he/she could reach out and touch it.
Tips for writing effective narrative and descriptive essays:
- Tell a story about a moment or event that means a lot to you--it will make it easier for you to tell the story in an interesting way!
- Get right to the action! Avoid long introductions and lengthy descriptions--especially at the beginning of your narrative.
- Make sure your story has a point! Describe what you learned from this experience.
- Use all five of your senses to describe the setting, characters, and the plot of your story. Don't be afraid to tell the story in your own voice. Nobody wants to read a story that sounds like a textbook!
How to Write Vivid Descriptions
Having trouble describing a person, object, or event for your narrative or descriptive essay? Try filling out this chart:
What do you smell?
What do you taste?
What do you see?
What do you hear?
What might you touch or feel?
Remember: Avoid simply telling us what something looks like--tell us how it tastes, smells, sounds, or feels!
- Virginia rain smells different from a California drizzle.
- A mountain breeze feels different from a sea breeze.
- We hear different things in one spot, depending on the time of day.
- You can “taste” things you’ve never eaten: how would sunscreen taste?
Using Concrete Details for Narratives
Effective narrative essays allow readers to visualize everything that's happening, in their minds. One way to make sure that this occurs is to use concrete, rather than abstract, details.
…makes the story or image seem clearer and more real to us.
...makes the story or image difficult to visualize.
…gives us information that we can easily grasp and perhaps empathize with.
…leaves your reader feeling empty, disconnected, and possibly confused.
The word “abstract” might remind you of modern art. An abstract painting, for example, does not normally contain recognizable objects. In other words, we can't look at the painting and immediately say "that's a house" or "that's a bowl of fruit." To the untrained eye, abstract art looks a bit like a child's finger-painting--just brightly colored splotches on a canvas.
Avoid abstract language—it won’t help the reader understand what you're trying to say!
Abstract: It was a nice day.
Concrete: The sun was shining and a slight breeze blew across my face.
Abstract: I liked writing poems, not essays.
Concrete: I liked writing short, rhythmic poems and hated rambling on about my thoughts in those four-page essays.
Abstract: Mr. Smith was a great teacher.
Concrete: Mr. Smith really knew how to help us turn our thoughts into good stories and essays.
Sample Papers - Narration
Sample Papers - Descriptive
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Published by E. Mack
Writing Center Underground is supported by Metropolitan Community College in Omaha, Nebraska and maintained by Elizabeth Mack, Writing Center consultant. The Writing Center, staffed by experienced English teachers and writing consultants, provides professional assistance and outreach programs to help students and faculty with written communication across the disciplines and beyond. Simply stated, the Writing Center is a place into which writers invite other writers to dialogue about writing. View all posts by E. Mack