Effective Guidelines on How to Write a Narrative Essay

Susan Wilson, 8 January, 2019
Updated 9 November, 2023

Introduction to Narrative Essays

Definition and Purpose of a Narrative Essay

A narrative essay is a form of storytelling where you share experiences, either personal or imaginative, with the intent to not only convey a story but also to reflect on the significance and learnings from that experience. The purpose of a narrative essay is to engage the reader in a story, often leading to a personal revelation or a universal truth.

Distinction Between Narrative Essays and Other Types of Writing

Unlike expository or argumentative essays that rely on factual evidence and analysis, narrative essays are rooted in personal experiences and emotions. They are similar to short stories in that they have a plot, characters, and dialogue, but they are distinct in their reflective and often subjective perspective.

Elements of a Narrative Essay

Plot Structure

  • Introduction: Sets the scene and introduces the characters and setting.
  • Climax: The main event or peak of the story where tensions rise.
  • Resolution: The conclusion where the story’s conflicts are resolved and the narrative comes to a close.

Character Development

  • Create believable characters with depth.
  • Use dialogue and actions to reveal their personalities and motivations.
  • Show how they change or grow through the story.


  • Detail the time and place where the story unfolds.
  • Use descriptive language to build the world and make it immersive.


  • Identify the central idea or lesson of the story.
  • Weave the theme subtly through the narrative without being didactic.

Point of View and Tone

  • Decide whether to write in the first person (I/we) or third person (he/she/they).
  • Choose a tone that aligns with the story’s mood – it could be light-hearted, somber, suspenseful, etc.

Choosing a Topic

How to Come Up with a Compelling Story

  • Reflect on significant life experiences.
  • Consider moments of conflict, change, or decision that had an impact on you.

Brainstorming Methods

  • Free writing: Write without stopping to edit or censor yourself.
  • Mind mapping: Draw connections between ideas visually.
  • Listing: Make a list of potential story ideas.

Ensuring the Topic is Relevant and Personal

  • Pick a story with emotional resonance or significance to you.
  • Ensure it holds a universal appeal or lesson that readers can relate to.

Planning and Outline

The Importance of Planning

Planning before writing gives direction and structure to your narrative essay. It helps organize your thoughts, ensures the story flows logically, and identifies gaps in the plot or character development.

How to Create an Effective Outline

  • Begin with a Thesis: Identify the main point or lesson of your story.
  • Break Down the Structure: Outline the introduction, climax, and resolution.
  • Detail the Scenes: Plan out individual scenes or events.
  • Character Arcs: Outline how your characters change or what they learn.
  • Include Notes on Tone and Theme: Decide the mood and underlying message of the essay.

Tips for Organizing Thoughts and Structure

  • Use bullet points to list events in chronological order.
  • Create separate sections in your outline for different elements like setting, characters, and dialogue.
  • Consider the pacing – make sure there is a balance of action and reflection.

Writing the Draft

Strategies for a Strong Opening

  • Start with a hook: a question, a striking image, or a compelling scene.
  • Introduce the protagonist and the central conflict or theme early on.

Developing the Narrative with Descriptive Language

  • Use vivid adjectives and active verbs to paint a picture.
  • Describe senses like sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell to immerse the reader.

Dialogue Incorporation

  • Use dialogue to reveal character and advance the plot.
  • Keep it realistic and concise, ensuring each character’s voice is distinct.

Showing Versus Telling

  • “Show” by using scenes and actions to convey emotions and events.
  • “Tell” when necessary to provide context or summarize events not crucial to the main plot.

Revising and Editing

Tips for Self-Editing

  • Take a break after writing to come back with fresh eyes.
  • Read aloud to catch awkward phrasing and dialogue issues.
  • Look for overused words or phrases and vary your language.

Peer Review: Why and How to Seek Feedback

  • Peer review provides new perspectives and can catch errors you’ve overlooked.
  • Ask peers to focus on different aspects: content, grammar, structure, etc.
  • Be open to criticism and willing to make substantial changes if needed.

Polishing for Clarity, Flow, and Coherence

  • Check that your story has a clear beginning, middle, and end.
  • Ensure that paragraphs and scenes transition smoothly.
  • Refine word choice for precision and impact, and ensure your theme is evident throughout but not overbearing.

Finalizing the Essay

Final Revision Checklist

  • Structure and Content: Ensure the introduction, climax, and resolution are well-defined.
  • Character and Setting: Verify that characters are fully developed and the setting is vividly described.
  • Consistency: Check for consistent point of view and tense throughout the essay.
  • Dialogue: Ensure dialogue is natural, necessary, and adds to the character or plot.
  • Theme: Confirm the theme is clear but subtly interwoven.
  • Pacing: Make sure the story progresses naturally; adjust any sections that drag or rush.
  • Grammar and Spelling: Correct any grammatical errors or typos.

Considerations for Format and Presentation

  • Follow any specific formatting guidelines provided (e.g., MLA, APA).
  • Use readable fonts and sizes (e.g., Times New Roman 12pt).
  • Double-space your text for readability if required.
  • Include a title page if necessary.

Advice on Avoiding Common Pitfalls

  • Avoid clichés in both themes and expressions.
  • Steer clear of overly complex vocabulary that doesn’t fit the narrative voice.
  • Be wary of over-explaining or under-explaining; find a balance.
  • Don’t neglect the importance of the first and last lines; they should grab and leave an impression on the reader.

Examples and Excerpts

Annotated Excerpts from Effective Narrative Essays

  • Look for published essays with annotations to understand the use of technique and language.
  • Study how the author constructs dialogue and scenes for maximum impact.

Examples of Common Mistakes to Avoid

  • Starting too slowly: Jump into the action or central conflict immediately.
  • Overuse of adverbs: Use strong verbs instead of adverbs for more powerful writing.
  • Telling instead of showing: Use specific details and actions to show the reader what is happening.


Summary of Key Takeaways

  • Understand the elements that make a narrative essay: structure, character, setting, theme, and tone.
  • Plan and outline to give your essay a solid foundation.
  • Write and revise with attention to detail, ensuring clarity and engagement.

Encouragement for Practice and Perseverance in Writing

Writing is a craft that improves with practice. Embrace each narrative essay as an opportunity to hone your skills. Learn from feedback, and don’t be discouraged by the revision process—it’s where your story will truly come to life. Keep writing, keep telling stories, and your voice will grow stronger with every word you put down.

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