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The most detailed guide to Narrative Essay Writing

Welcome to the most comprehensive and detailed guide on how to write narrative essays.

Who is this guide for?

Whether you are a high school student tackling your first narrative assignment or a university student seeking to master the art of storytelling, this article is designed to equip you with all the essential tools and insights you need.

Who wrote this guide?

This comprehensive guide was crafted by Sir Benjamin Smith, a distinguished English teacher with over 15 years of experience in the field. With a wealth of knowledge gained from correcting countless exam papers, Sir Benjamin is well-versed in the art of narrative essays.

What's in for you by end of this guide?

By the time you reach the end of this guide, you can rest assured that you will: ✅ possess a profound comprehension of the narrative essay's structure and elements

✅ learn an array of techniques that will elevate your storytelling prowess to new heights.

1. What is narrative writing?

A narrative essay serves to tell a story, often based on personal experiences or fictional scenarios. It differs from other essay types as it focuses on engaging the reader through storytelling rather than presenting a formal argument or analysis.

One of the best parts about creative writing is that it can connect with people, whether the events or characters are real or made-up.

A creative narrative essay or story should spark the reader's imagination, helping them

✅ see what's happening

✅ feel for the characters, and

✅ get lost in the story

Take this example from 'Le Bout du Monde' by Mike Gould:

The sea had retreated miles out into the bay, revealing the mussel beds, like charcoal sticks against the greying sky-line. Above me sand-martins swooped furiously, ducked and dived amongst the dunes, and the tuft s of marram grass recalled to me childhood games, picking the spiky leaves and sending them spiralling towards my younger sister. Ah, Alice … I wish you were here now. But you are gone five years, and nothing can bring you back.

See how the story makes you feel and see what's happening? That's what great creative writing can do. And guess what?

You can do it too!

With a bit of practice, you'll be able to take your readers on a fun and exciting trip through your ideas and creativity.

2. What are the different types of Narrative Essay Examination Questions?

When you're faced with test questions asking for creative writing, they might come in different forms.

Here are some examples:

  • Write a narrative which starts with the words, ‘I was too late …’

  • Write a story with the title, ‘The lake’.

  • Write a story in which a card plays an important role

  • Write a story: 'An old lady stopped you as you were walking home one day. After placing something into your hands, she suddenly disappeared.

  • Write two contrasting descriptive pieces (300–450 words each) about a location immediately before the arrival of a storm and some days aft er it has passed. In your writing, create a sense of setting and atmosphere.

  • Write two contrasting descriptive pieces (300–450 words each) about two different times of the day and their effect on a particular place. In describing each time, you should create clear contrasts in mood and place.

  • Write the opening chapter of a novel entitled The Private Detective. In your writing, create a sense of mood and place.

  • Write the opening to a story called The Cheat. In your writing, create a sense of character and motivation.

  • Write the opening to a short story called When the Evening Comes. In your writing, create a sense of mood and place.

Tasks might vary from creating two different descriptions based on a 'before and after' situation, to writing a complete piece that focuses on specific details like sounds, colors, or textures.

If you're asked to write a narrative, it could be something like the first chapter of a novel or a short story, and you'll have to create a certain mood, a sense of place, and leave room for the story to grow.

You could even be asked to write a complete story, or to start or finish your piece with certain phrases given in the question.

3. How to Craft the Narrative Voice

One important part of writing is choosing who is going to tell your story. This is called the narrative voice. Understanding first, second, and third-person narration is really important for this.

First-person narration

When you use first-person narration (using "I"), it's like you're inviting your readers to see the world through the character's eyes. They get to know the character's thoughts and feelings directly, and it can give a really personal view of what's happening.

Here's an example from The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood:

A chair, a table, a lamp. Above, on the white ceiling, a relief ornament in the shape of a wreath, and in the centre of it a blank space, plastered over, like the place in a face where the eye has been taken out. Th ere must have been a chandelier, once. Th ey’ve removed anything you could tie a rope to. A window, two white curtains. Under the window, a window seat with a little cushion. When the window is partly open – it only opens partly – the air can come in and make the curtains move. I can sit in the chair, or on the window seat, hands folded, and watch this. Sunlight comes in through the window too, and falls on the fl oor, which is made of wood, in narrow strips, highly polished. I can smell the polish. Th ere’s a rug on the fl oor, oval, of braided rags. Th is is the kind of touch they like: folk art, archaic, made by women, in their spare time, from things that have no further use. A return to traditional values. Waste not want not. I am not being wasted. Why do I want? On the wall above the chair, a picture, framed but with no glass: a print of fl owers, blue irises, watercolour. Flowers are still allowed. Does each of us have the same print, the same chair, the same white curtains, I wonder? Government issue? Th ink of it as being in the army, said Aunt Lydia. A bed. Single, mattress medium-hard, covered with a flocked white spread. Nothing takes place in the bed but sleep; or no sleep. I try not to think too much. Like other things now, thought must be rationed. There’s a lot that doesn’t bear thinking about. Th inking can hurt your chances, and I intend to last. I know why there is no glass, in front of the watercolour picture of blue irises, and why the window only opens partly and why the glass in it is shatterproof. It isn’t running away they’re afraid of. We wouldn’t get far. It’s those other escapes, the ones you can open in yourself, given a cutting edge. So. Apart from these details, this could be a college guest room, for the less distinguished visitors; or a room in a rooming house, of former times, for ladies in reduced circumstances. Th at is what we are now. Th e circumstances have been reduced; for those of us who still have circumstances. But a chair, sunlight, fl owers: these are not to be dismissed. I am alive, I live, I breathe, I put my hand out, unfolded, into the sunlight. From The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood.

Third-person narration

When you use third-person narration (using "he/she/they"), you're giving a more outside view of what's happening.

✅You can talk about the thoughts and actions of many characters, not just one.

✅You could even have an all-knowing narrator, who sees and comments on everything.

✅Or, you could have a narrator who doesn't tell the truth about what's happening, either on purpose or without realizing it. This can make your story even more interesting.

Here's an example from The Flowers by Alice Walker:

She had explored the woods behind the house many times. Often, in late autumn, her mother took her to gather nuts among the fallen leaves. Today she made her own path, bouncing this way and that way, vaguely keeping an eye out for snakes. She found, in addition to various common but pretty ferns and leaves, an armful of strange blue flowers with velvety ridges and a sweet suds bush full of the brown, fragrant buds. By twelve o’clock, her arms laden with sprigs of her findings, she was a mile or more from home. She had oft en been as far before, but the strangeness of the land made it not as pleasant as her usual haunts. It seemed gloomy in the little cove in which she found herself. The air was damp, the silence close and deep. From The Flowers by Alice Walker

4. How to Bring Characters to Life in any Narrative Essay

Creating believable and interesting characters is one of the most exciting parts of writing. This is what we call characterisation.

There are several ways to do this, including : ✅describing how the character looks

✅ how they behave

✅ what they say

✅how they interact with other characters

One important rule in characterisation is "show, don't tell." This means, instead of just telling your readers about your characters, you show them through the characters' actions. This can help your readers feel more engaged with your story.

Remember, your characters are the heart of your story. The more life-like they are, the more your readers will connect with them and your story. So, spend time developing your characters, and let their actions and words tell their story.

Read the following extract which gives us some very direct information about the protagonist, a tribal leader in Africa.

Okonkwo was well known throughout the nine villages and even beyond. His fame rested on solid personal achievements. As a young man of eighteen he had brought honor to his village by throwing Amalinze the Cat. Amalinze was the great wrestler who for seven years was unbeaten, from Umuofi a to Mbaino. He was called the Cat because his back would never touch the earth. It was this man that Okonkwo threw in a fi ght which the old men agreed was one of the fi ercest since the founder of their town engaged a spirit of the wild for seven days and seven nights. Th e drums beat and the fl utes sang and the spectators held their breath. Amalinze was a wily craft sman, but Okonkwo was as slippery as a fish in water. Every nerve and every muscle stood out on their arms, on their backs and their thighs, and one almost heard them stretching to breaking point. In the end, Okonkwo threw the Cat. That was many years ago, twenty years or more, and during this time Okonkwo’s fame had grown like a bush-fi re. From Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe.

5. Are dialogues important in narrative essays?

Yes. Dialogue, or the words your characters speak, is a powerful tool for characterisation. It can tell your readers a lot about who your characters are, what they're feeling, and even what's going to happen next in your story. How a character talks, including their tone of voice and their style of speech, can give readers clues about their personality.

Here is an example:

The grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida. She wanted to visit some of her connections in east Tennessee and she was seizing at every chance to change Bailey’s mind. Bailey was the son she lived with, her only boy. He was sitting on the edge of his chair at the table, bent over the orange sports section of the Journal. “Now look here, Bailey,” she said, “see here, read this,” and she stood with one hand on her thin hip and the other rattling the newspaper at his bald head. “Here this fellow that calls himself The Misfi t is aloose from the Federal Pen and headed toward Florida and you read here what it says he did to these people. Just you read it. I wouldn’t take my children in any direction with a criminal like that aloose in it. I couldn’t answer to my conscience if I did.” Bailey didn’t look up from his reading so she wheeled around then and faced the children’s mother, a young woman in slacks, whose face was as broad and innocent as a cabbage and was tied around with a green head-kerchief that had two points on the top like rabbit’s ears. She was sitting on the sofa, feeding the baby his apricots out of a jar. “The children have been to Florida before,” the old lady said. “You all ought to take them somewhere else for a change so they would see diff erent parts of the world and be broad. They never have been to east Tennessee.” The children’s mother didn’t seem to hear her but the eight-year-old boy, John Wesley, a stocky child with glasses, said, “If you don’t want to go to Florida, why dontcha stay at home?” He and the little girl, June Star, were reading the funny papers on the fl oor. “She wouldn’t stay at home to be queen for a day,” June Star said without raising her yellow head. “Yes and what would you do if this fellow, Th e Misfi t, caught you?” the grandmother asked. “I’d smack his face,” John Wesley said. “She wouldn’t stay at home for a million bucks,” June Star said. “Afraid she’d miss something. She has to go everywhere we go.” “All right, Miss,” the grandmother said. “Just remember that the next time you want me to curl your hair.” June Star said her hair was naturally curly. From A Good Man Is Hard To Find by Mary Flannery O’Connor.

6. How to Paint the Picture with a Good Setting

Every story needs a place where the action happens, and this is what we call the setting. The setting is more than just a backdrop; it shapes the plot and influences how your characters behave. You could be describing a tiny room or a vast landscape - the goal is to create a strong sense of place and mood.

To achieve this: ✅ Use precise adjectives and nouns, and don't forget about sensory details.

✅ Talk about how things look, smell, sound, feel, and even taste. Also, using figures of speech like personification, simile, and metaphor can add depth to your descriptions.

✅ Think of your pen as a camera, zooming in and out, panning across the scene, focusing on different details and people.

Remember, your setting can also tell your readers something about your characters. By using contrasting settings, you can suggest things about your characters and their lives.

Here a an example from a student's essay:

"The small town of Elmsfield was nestled in a valley, protected by a ring of towering, pine-covered mountains. Main Street, the town's heart, was a picturesque display of small-town charm with a line of colorful storefronts and the city hall's clock tower, a testament to simpler times. White, fluffy clouds lazily moved across the bright blue sky, casting fleeting shadows on the cobblestone paths. Families walked leisurely, their laughter mingling with the sounds of the birds singing in the towering maple trees that lined the streets. The aroma of freshly baked bread wafted from the bakery, blending with the scent of blooming jasmine from the park nearby. The park, with its flower beds bursting with hues of red, pink, and yellow, was always teeming with kids chasing butterflies and playing hide-and-seek among the willows. On the outskirts, the emerald-green fields stretched as far as the eye could see, kissed by the golden sunlight. The steady hum of farm machinery was a comforting reminder of the town's agricultural roots. As evening fell, the sun painted the sky in hues of orange, pink, and purple before dipping behind the mountains, making way for a blanket of stars that seemed to touch the treetops. The rhythm of Elmsfield was serene and unhurried, offering a refuge from the hustle and bustle of city life."

Indeed, painting a vivid setting in a narrative essay is like setting the stage for a play. The ambiance, time, physical elements, and atmosphere provide the backdrop against which the characters move and interact. They serve as powerful tools that can add depth to your narrative and make it more immersive and compelling.

7. How to organise a narrative essay

Once you have a rich pool of ideas, you can organize them into paragraphs in several ways:

Chronological order

This approach involves narrating the experience as it happened in time.

On a sunny Tuesday morning, Susan decided to take a leisurely stroll in the park. As she made her way past the towering oak trees and colourful flowerbeds, she marveled at the serenity that surrounded her. The air was filled with the gentle hum of bees and the faint rustling of leaves. However, without any warning, dark clouds began to gather overhead. Before she could seek shelter, a sudden downpour drenched the entire park. Despite being caught off guard, Susan found herself relishing the sudden rain, letting the cool droplets wash over her. As the rain began to subside, she made her way home, a newfound sense of joy lingering in her heart.

Impressionistic manner

This entails focusing more on the experience itself rather than the sequence of events.

It was an experience that Susan would forever hold dear. The tranquility of the park on that sunny day, the warm sun on her skin, the vibrant colors of the flower beds, and the mighty oak trees that stood like silent sentinels. Each detail etched itself onto her memory. But what made it truly memorable was the unexpected rain shower. It arrived without a warning, transforming the peaceful park into a vibrant watercolor painting. Susan remembered the chill of the raindrops on her skin, the intoxicating smell of damp earth, the delightful patter of rain on leaves. Despite being unprepared, she embraced the shower, finding an unexpected joy in the surprise. The event wasn't planned, yet it became a memory she cherished.

In addition to these, you should consider the narrative voice, the tense, and the structure of your paragraphs. Using different paragraph lengths can significantly affect pacing and mood, and alternating between short and long paragraphs can create a dramatic effect.

11. How to structure a narrative essay

There are countless ways of organizing a narrative. However, regardless of the narrator's perspective or the use of flashbacks or flash-forwards, a narrative typically follows a story arc consisting of several stages:

1. Exposition

2. Rising Action

3. Climax

4. Falling Action

5. Resolution

These stages form a structure that keeps the reader engaged and drives the story forward.

1. Exposition:

On a sunny Saturday morning, young Alex eagerly packed his beach gear. Living in the coastal town of Seabrook, weekends at the beach were a staple. However, this was no ordinary beach day - it was the day of the annual Sandcastle Competition, an event Alex had been preparing for weeks.

2. Rising Action:

As the contest began, Alex worked tirelessly, his hands swiftly shaping the wet sand into towers and turrets. He glanced around, noticing the stiff competition. Among them was Lucy, the reigning champion, working on an intricate sandcastle complete with a moat. A wave of determination washed over Alex as he picked up the pace, refusing to be deterred.

3. Climax:

With only minutes left in the competition, a strong wind began to blow. Alex watched in horror as a gust dislodged the top of his tallest tower. It crumbled and fell, damaging a part of the castle's wall. There was not enough time to rebuild.

4. Falling Action:

Despite the setback, Alex didn't lose hope. Thinking quickly, he reimagined his castle, deciding to incorporate the damage into his design. He worked fervently, turning the ruined wall into a beautifully destroyed part of the castle, ravaged by a "sandstorm".

5. Resolution:

When the judges came around, they were impressed by Alex's quick thinking and creativity. His castle, although not the most elaborate, told a unique story. Much to his delight, and Lucy's surprise, Alex was announced the winner of the competition. The day had not gone as he had planned, but it ended up being even better, proving to Alex that often, the best victories come from overcoming unexpected challenges.

Teacher's tips: Writing for IGCSE, O level and A level exams

Here are a few tips from my fellow colleague Maya Thompson, an experienced A-Level teacher at a prestigious college in the United Kingdom.

Hey there!

Writing narrative essays for O-Level and A-Level exams can be quite a challenge, especially when you have exam boards like AQA, Cambridge, and Edexcel setting specific requirements. But don't worry, we'll explore some common obstacles you might face and share strategies to overcome them, so you can rock your narrative essay exams.

1. Understanding the Exam Requirements

First things first, understanding the exam requirements is key. Each exam board has its own guidelines, word limits, and assessment criteria. Take the time to carefully read and understand these instructions, as they will shape how you craft your narratives. Trust me, you don't want to lose valuable marks just because you missed a crucial detail. To get a better grasp of what examiners are looking for, dive into past papers and exemplar essays provided by your specific exam board. By studying the assessment criteria and examiner reports, you'll gain valuable insights into what they value, like character development, narrative structure, and language proficiency.

2. Developing a Strong Plot

Now, let's talk about developing a strong plot. This is the heart and soul of your narrative essay. Generating original ideas, maintaining a logical flow, and incorporating captivating twists and turns can be a bit tricky. To tackle this challenge, start by brainstorming ideas before you even begin writing. Choose a central theme or concept that truly interests you, and then let your imagination run wild. Think of potential plotlines that align with your chosen theme. Creating a detailed outline will help you visualize the structure and ensure a smooth progression of events in your essay. And remember, adding unexpected plot twists, well-developed characters, and vivid descriptions will take your narrative to the next level.

3. Balancing Creativity and Formality

Balancing creativity and formality is another hurdle you might encounter. Narrative essays allow for creativity, but it's important to maintain a formal writing style appropriate for academic essays. Striking the right balance can be tough. When selecting your vocabulary, make sure it aligns with the tone and purpose of your narrative. Use descriptive language and vivid imagery to engage your readers, but be cautious of excessive colloquialisms or slang. Strong grammar, punctuation, and sentence structure are essential for clarity and coherence. If you're not sure if you're hitting the mark, seek feedback from your teachers or peers. They can help you identify areas where you may be veering off from the required formality.

4. Time Management

Ah, time management—the eternal struggle. During exams, time constraints can make it challenging to craft a polished essay. But fear not! Practice makes perfect. Take the time to do timed writing exercises, simulating exam conditions. This will help you develop a sense of pacing and ensure you allocate sufficient time for planning, writing, and revising. Break down the writing process into manageable steps like brainstorming, outlining, drafting, and editing. This will help you stay organized and make the most of the time you have.

In conclusion, writing narrative essays for O-Level and A-Level exams, especially for exam boards like AQA, Cambridge, and Edexcel, may present some unique challenges. But with the right strategies and consistent practice, you can overcome them and increase your chances of success in your exams. Remember, dedication and perseverance are key to mastering the art of narrative essay writing.

You've got this! Best of luck in your exams!

Warm regards,

Maya Thompson

Summary - The key steps to writing a narrative essay

1. Understand the Essence of a Narrative Essay:

A narrative essay serves to tell a story, often based on personal experiences or fictional scenarios. It differs from other essay types as it focuses on engaging the reader through storytelling rather than presenting a formal argument or analysis.

2. Start with a Captivating Introduction:

A strong introduction sets the tone for your narrative essay and captures the reader's attention. Consider starting with a hook, an intriguing statement, a question, or a vivid description to draw readers into your narrative.

3. Develop a Compelling Plot:

Your narrative should have a clear and coherent plotline. Develop the main characters, setting, and conflict to make your essay more relatable and engaging. Whether it's a personal experience or a fictional story, a well-structured plot keeps readers invested.

4. Use Vivid Descriptions and Emotions:

Appeal to your reader's senses by using descriptive language and imagery. Paint a vivid picture of the events and emotions involved in your narrative to create a deeper connection with your audience.

5. Showcase the Central Theme:

Every narrative essay should have a central theme or message that the story revolves around. This theme could be a life lesson, personal growth, overcoming challenges, or any other profound realization.

6. Maintain a Logical Sequence:

Ensure that your narrative flows logically and chronologically. This helps readers follow the story effortlessly and enhances the overall readability of your essay.

7. Incorporate Dialogues:

Dialogues bring life to characters and add authenticity to your narrative. If relevant, include conversations between characters to make the story more dynamic.

8. Add Personal Reflections:

Incorporate your own reflections and thoughts throughout the essay. Explain how the events impacted you or changed your perspective on certain aspects of life.

9. Conclude with a Strong Ending:

Craft a memorable conclusion that emphasizes the significance of the story or leaves readers with a thought-provoking message. Avoid introducing new information and instead, reinforce the central theme of your narrative.

10. Revise and Edit Thoroughly:

After completing your initial draft, revise your essay for coherence, clarity, and grammar errors. Check that your narrative effectively conveys the intended emotions and messages.


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