The purpose of narrative writing is to tell stories. This is a form we are familiar with, as any time we tell a story about an event or incident in our day, we are engaging in a form of narration. In terms of writing, narration is the act of describing a sequence of events. Sometimes this is the primary mode of an essay—writing a narrative essay about a particular event or experience, and sometimes this is a component used within an essay, much like other evidence is offered, to support a thesis. This chapter will discuss the basic components of narration, which can be applied either as a stand-alone essay or as a component within an essay.
Ultimately, narrative writing tries to relay a series of events in an emotionally engaging way. You want your audience to be moved by your story, which could mean through laughter, sympathy, fear, anger, and so on. The more clearly you tell your story, the more emotionally engaged your audience is likely to be.
The Structure of a Narrative Essay
Chronological order, the order in which events unfold from first to last, is the most common organizational structure for narratives. Stories typically have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Certain transitional words and phrases aid in keeping the reader oriented in the sequencing of a story. Some of these phrases are listed below.
Figure 5.2 Transition Words and Phrases for Expressing Time
The following are the other basic components of a narrative:
• Plot. The events as they unfold in sequence.
• Characters. The people who inhabit the story and move it forward. Typically, each narrative has there are minor characters and main characters. The minor characters generally play supporting roles to the main character, or the protagonist.
• Conflict. The primary problem or obstacle that unfolds in the plot, which the protagonist must solve or overcome by the end of the narrative. The way in which the protagonist resolves the conflict of the plot results in the theme of the narrative.
• Theme. The ultimate message the narrative is trying to express; it can be either explicit or implicit.
When interviewing candidates for jobs, employers often ask about conflicts or problems a potential employee had to overcome. They are asking for a compelling personal narrative. To prepare for this question in a job interview, write out a scenario using the narrative moved structure. This will allow you to troubleshoot rough spots as well as better understand your own personal history. Both processes will make your story better and your self-presentation better, too.
An anecdote is a short, personal narrative about something specific. It is often used as a component in an essay, acting as evidence to support your thesis, as an example to demonstrate your point, and/or as a way to establish your credibility. It always has a point in telling it.
Elements of an Anecdote
1. Who, Where, When
Have you ever wondered why children’s stories begin something like this?
Once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far away, the teachers were revolting …
It is the start of a simple narrative. It also contains all the elements of a beginning to any narrative: when, where, and who. An anecdote, because it is short, will begin similarly:
One day, while I was sitting at a stop sign waiting for the light to change…
This little particle of an anecdote tells when, who, and where before the first sentence even ends.
Note: An anecdote sets up a particular incident; it does not tell about a long period of time.
2. What Happened (Sequence of Events)
Any narrative also includes a sequence of events. You should be able to read an anecdote and tell what happens first, what happens next, and so on. In the following anecdote, the bolded words suggest each event in the sequence.
My first day of college I parked in the “South Forty,” which is what everyone called the huge parking lot on the edge of the campus. It was seven forty-five in the morning, hazy and cool. I walked across the parking lot, crossed a busy street, walked over a creek, through a “faculty” parking lot, crossed another street, and came to the first row of campus buildings. I walked between buildings, past the library and the student mall. I passed many quiet, nervous-looking students along the way. Many of them smiled at me. One trio of young girls was even chuckling softly among themselves when they all smiled and said “Hi” to me at once. By the time I got to my classroom, far on the other side of campus from the parking lot, I was smiling and boldly saying “Hi” to everyone, too, particularly the girls. Every single one of them smiled or responded with a “Hi” or made a friendly comment or even chuckled happily. It was my first day of college.
When I found the building I was looking for, a friend from high school appeared. She was in my first class! I smiled at her and said, “Hi!” She looked at me. She smiled. Then she laughed. She said, “Why are you wearing a sock on your shirt?” I looked down. A sock had come out of the dryer clinging to my shirt.
3. Implied Point
Most of us want to make sure that we “get the point across” to whatever story we are telling, assuming it has a point. To do this, we tend to explain what we are telling. It is sometimes very difficult to stop. However, stopping in a timely way allows the reader to draw his or her own conclusions.
Show, don’t tell
In the anecdote above, I am very tempted to tell the reader what I felt at the moment I realized that everyone was laughing AT me rather than just being friendly. For the ending, where the point is in this case, it is best to let the reader infer (draw conclusions, fill in the blanks) what happens implicitly rather than to state explicitly what the point is, or what the narrator felt, or anything else.
The more indirect you are about your object or place the better. In the anecdote above, it might be obvious that my object is a sock or my place is a parking lot. The point is, it is not an anecdote “about” a sock; it is referred to indirectly.
How do we show rather than tell? First, describe what you see (I don’t really see anything with “I was SO embarrassed…”) or what you smell, hear, or taste, but NOT what you feel. An easy way to check whether you are showing or telling is to go through your anecdote and underline the verbs. If the verbs are “be”-verbs (is, was, were, etc.) or verbs that describe actions we cannot see (“I thought…” “I believed…” “I imagined…” “it made me upset…” and so on) then you are probably telling. In the sentence above I used “walked,” “lecturing,” “ripped,” and “said.”
Most Common Question:
“What makes stories or anecdotes interesting and something I can relate to?”
Actually, it is a simple principle, even though it may not be obvious. We “relate” or “connect” most easily to situations we recognize and so fill in the blanks. If you “tell” me, for example, “I was SO embarrassed …” then you have not let me fill in MY embarrassment. On the other hand, if you “show” me a scene, it allows me to fit my own experience into it:
“I walked past the corner of the aluminum whiteboard tray while lecturing to a class. It ripped my pants. After a moment I said, ‘Class dismissed.’”
The writer of those statements, hopes the reader will fill in some similarly embarrassing moment without the writer clearly stating that this is what is supposed to be done. The connection, the act of “filling in,” is what people tend to refer to as “relating to.”
Interestingly, it does not even matter whether or not readers fill in what the writer intend for them to fill in; it is the act of filling in our own experiences that makes us “relate” to an incident. From a writer’s perspective, that means we should show rather than tell.
Second, resist the temptation to “explain.” Let the reader fill in the blanks! It is so much more personal when the reader participates by filling in.
Write an anecdote that contains who, where, when, and what happens (a sequence of events). Think about an anecdote that involves, alludes to, or otherwise includes your object or place; it does not have to be “about” your place. It also does not have to be “true” in the strict sense of the word; we will not be able to verify any believable details if they add to the effect of the anecdote. Type it out. Keep it simple and to the point.
What are ‘clichés’ and why can’t we use them?
Clichés are figurative phrases and expressions that you have probably heard a million times. For our purposes, there are two kinds of clichés: the ones that jump out at you and the ones that we use without thinking.
If you are paying attention, you will notice that the two sentences above contain at least 3 clichés. You might also notice that clichés are best suited to spoken language, because they are readily available and sometimes when we speak, we don’t have time to replace a common expression with a unique one. However, we DO have time to replace clichés while we are writing.
The problem with clichés in writing is that they are too general when we should be much more specific. They also tend to tell rather than show. In the first sentence above, we have most likely heard the phrase, “have probably heard a million times.” In speech, that expression works. In writing, it should be literal rather than figurative. The first sentence is better this way:
Clichés are figurative phrases and expressions that we have heard so many times that we all share some understanding of what they mean.
Not exactly what you thought when you read it at the beginning of this answer, is it? That is why being literal and specific in writing is better than figurative and vague as a rule.
Here is a re-write of the second sentence at the start of this answer:
For our purposes, there are two kinds of clichés: the ones that are obvious expressions (like “You can lead a horse to water …”) and the ones that are not part of expressions but seem to “go” easily into a group of words (like “we use without thinking”).
The second type is more difficult to identify and eradicate. Usually it is a group of words we have heard before that doesn’t add anything to a statement. For example, instead of “We watched the donuts roll down the street every night,” you might be tempted to add to it this way: “We watched the donuts roll down the street each and every night.” Avoid clichés in your writing.
To see more see more commonly used clichés and for guidance on how to rewrite them, see this handout (https://writingcenter.unc.edu/cliches/) from The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, Writing Center.
Some Other Rhetorical Tips
- To create strong details, keep the human senses in mind. You want your reader to be immersed in the world that you create, so focus on details related to sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch as you describe people, places, and events in your narrative.
- Create tension by making the reader nervous about what is going to happen through sentence structure, tone, and voice.
- Add dialogue to show the immediacy and drama of the personal interactions (re-creating conversations as necessary to make your narrative work).
- Name specific objects to re-create the scene by selecting details that leave the readers with a dominant impression of how things were.
- Show people in action by describing precise movements and dialogue to convey the action of the scene.
“Sixty-nine Cents” (https://tinyurl.com/ybjasq9c) by Gary Shteyngart: In “Sixty-nine Cents,” author Gary Shteyngart describes a coming-of-age experience as a first-generation Russian-Jewish immigrant in modern America.
Sherman Alexie grew up on the Spokane Reservation in Washington State. He chronicles his challenges in school, starting in first grade, in Indian Education (https://tinyurl.com/hlshngr).
Sandra Cisneros offers an example of a narrative essay in “Only Daughter” (https://tinyurl.com/yc4srod7) that captures her sense of her Chicana-Mexican heritage as the only daughter in a family of seven children. The essay is also available here (https://tinyurl.com/y7hzxhz6).
Annie Dilliard offers an example of a narrative essay in an excerpt, often entitled “The Chase” (https://tinyurl.com/ycsen7r4) from her autobiography An American Childhood, outlining a specific memorable event from her childhood. This essay is also available here (https://tinyurl.com/y7udsl88).
Student Sample Essay
My College Education
The first class I went to in college was philosophy, and it changed my life forever. Our first assignment was to write a short response paper to the Albert Camus essay “The Myth of Sisyphus.” I was extremely nervous about the assignment as well as college. However, through all the confusion in philosophy class, many of my questions about life were answered.
I entered college intending to earn a degree in engineering. I always liked the way mathematics had right and wrong answers. I understood the logic and was very good at it. So when I received my first philosophy assignment that asked me to write my interpretation of the Camus essay, I was instantly confused. What is the right way to do this assignment, I wondered? I was nervous about writing an incorrect interpretation and did not want to get my first assignment wrong. Even more troubling was that the professor refused to give us any guidelines on what he was looking for; he gave us total freedom. He simply said, “I want to see what you come up with.”
Full of anxiety, I first set out to read Camus’s essay several times to make sure I really knew what was it was about. I did my best to take careful notes. Yet even after I took all these notes and knew the essay inside and out, I still did not know the right answer. What was my interpretation? I could think of a million different ways to interpret the essay, but which one was my professor looking for? In math class, I was used to examples and explanations of solutions. This assignment gave me nothing; I was completely on my own to come up with my individual interpretation.
Next, when I sat down to write, the words just did not come to me. My notes and ideas were all present, but the words were lost. I decided to try every prewriting strategy I could find. I brainstormed, made idea maps, and even wrote an outline. Eventually, after a lot of stress, my ideas became more organized and the words fell on the page. I had my interpretation of “The Myth of Sisyphus,” and I had my main reasons for interpreting the essay. I remember being unsure of myself, wondering if what I was saying made sense, or if I was even on the right track. Through all the uncertainty, I continued writing the best I could. I finished the conclusion paragraph, had my spouse proofread it for errors, and turned it in the next day simply hoping for the best.
Then, a week or two later, came judgment day. The professor gave our papers back to us with grades and comments. I remember feeling simultaneously afraid and eager to get the paper back in my hands. It turned out, however, that I had nothing to worry about. The professor gave me an A on the paper, and his notes suggested that I wrote an effective essay overall. He wrote that my reading of the essay was very original and that my thoughts were well organized. My relief and newfound confidence upon reading his comments could not be overstated.
What I learned through this process extended well beyond how to write a college paper. I learned to be open to new challenges. I never expected to enjoy a philosophy class and always expected to be a math and science person. This class and assignment, however, gave me the self-confidence, critical-thinking skills, and courage to try a new career path. I left engineering and went on to study law and eventually became a lawyer. More important, that class and paper helped me understand education differently. Instead of seeing college as a direct stepping stone to a career, I learned to see college as a place to first learn and then seek a career or enhance an existing career. By giving me the space to express my own interpretation and to argue for my own values, my philosophy class taught me the importance of education for education’s sake. That realization continues to pay dividends every day.