Narrative Essay

"Creating a relatable narrative means digging deep, asking hard questions and potentially airing some uncomfortable truths."1 Though it follows the same structure as other essay types, the purpose of a narrative essay is to entertain the audience while making them think. Emotive and sensory language is featured in narrative essays to connect with the reader and discuss an idea in a somewhat more informal style than other types of essays.

Narrative Essay Narrative Essay

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Table of contents

    Narrative Essay Definition

    Another word for narrative is "story." At its foundation, a narrative tells its audience about something, whether through a book report, personal experience, or news story. A narrative essay uses a personal account to examine a theme, such as a moral question or universal truth. Writing a narrative essay involves some creative adventure, as its descriptive nature allows you to write an essay that stretches your creative writing muscles.

    A theme is a central message in a work of art or writing.

    Structure of a Narrative Essay

    A narrative essay follows the standard essay structure with an introduction, body paragraphs, and conclusion.


    The introduction is where you begin to relate the personal story that illustrates the theme of the narrative essay. Immerse the reader in your experience using crisp details. Be sure to balance your introduction evenly by connecting your personal account to your thesis statement.

    Body Paragraphs

    The body paragraphs are the part of the structure where you weave between expressing your story and discussing how it fits into the significant theme. Be mindful of the transitions in your narrative essay to avoid jarring the audience's attention.


    The conclusion brings everything full circle for the reader. Remind the reader of your narrative essay's thesis and main points by summarizing them.

    Leave a lasting impression in your conclusion by:

    • Telling the audience what you learned from the experience.
    • Discussing why the audience should be aware of your topic.
    • Digging deeper into the theme of your narrative essay — without offering new information.

    Narrative Essay, Pencil growing branches as it writes narrative, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Branch out and explore your narrative world.

    Like the pencil above, your mind creates new branches dedicated to critical thinking, self-awareness, and empathy as you structure a life experience into a narrative essay. Making growth and development visible in your essay will also add complexity to your writing.

    Features of Narrative Essays

    There are three significant features of narrative essays you'll want to include in your paper: characters, dialogue, theme, setting, plot, and conflict.


    The characters are the people in your narrative essay (yourself and anyone else involved). Write your characters in a way that makes them seem authentic. Focus on behavior more than physical description. Another way to flesh out your characters is through the second feature, dialogue.


    Dialogue is a valuable tool to describe people in a way that "shows" rather than "tells." You can learn a lot about a person's character by their words and how they say them. The dialogue in your narrative essay can be direct (exact words) or indirect (a paraphrase of the conversation).


    The theme is one of the most important features of your narrative essay, as the purpose of the essay is to explore it. Your theme should illustrate some part of the human experience.


    The setting of the narrative essay will be where your personal experience took place. When writing about a location, include details about its timeframe, social environment, and physical characteristics. Depending on the length of your essay, it may be best to only feature setting details that support the theme.


    The plot is the way things happened. The narrative essay is a dance between your personal story and theme. Allow them to work together as you share and expand on the main points.


    The conflict is the struggle that characters come up against. The conflict in your narrative essay gives it a purpose. Use the theme to discuss the conflict and show personal development.

    Show don't tell. This piece of advice will pop up in every writing class you take and means that you should describe something using sensory and action words instead of vague descriptive labels. We all agree sunsets are beautiful, but what is beautiful to you?

    A feature unique to narrative essays is that they are not "just the facts" and invite personal reflections. However, lest we invite anarchy, let's discuss the rules.

    • Do use emotional language in narrative essays, but don't be melodramatic. Use the emotions you felt while living your story to help the audience relate to the topic of your paper. Exaggerated emotions come across as insincere and will disengage the audience.
    • Do include sensory details in narrative essays, but don't drown the reader. The sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and how things feel are essential parts of a story and bring the reader into that moment. However, it is best to focus on the primary senses used in the situation so you can explore them more deeply.
    Which two senses do you use most at a carnival? How about while eating?
    • Verb tenses can change in narrative essays, but don't overdo it. In a typical essay, only present tense is used and the main points discussed are organized by how important they are to relating information or proving your point. A narrative essay usually unfolds in chronological order, so, whether you choose to share the events first to last or last to first, be consistent. Try to keep time traveling to a minimum to avoid confusing your audience.
    • Personal pronouns are welcome in narrative essays but avoid excessive "I" statements. How do you feel when conversing with someone who constantly talks about themselves? Too many "I" statements in your narrative essay come across as egotistical.

    Egotistical: an adjective that describes someone who is excessively self-absorbed.

    The Importance of Narrative Essays

    While you are learning to write a compelling narrative essay, you:

    • Improve your reading skills. Learning about the structure and features of narrative essays helps you recognize them while you read others' writing.
    • Improve your writing skills. Developing your writing style through a narrative essay teaches you to be conscious of your intended audience.
    • Develop a richer understanding of language. Playing with emotive and sensory language while writing a narrative essay allows you to appreciate more experimental writers.
    • Learn to refine your thoughts. As you examine your experience and structure it into a narrative essay, your writing helps you logically process your feelings. Writing a narrative allows you to analyze cultural beliefs relative to your perspective.

    Narrative essay. Many festive lanterns, StudySmarter.Fig. 2 - Discover the contours of someone's life with a narrative essay.

    Real-World Applications of Narrative Essays

    A more practical reason to master the narrative essay is its use as a standard tool (often taking the form of a personal statement or cover letter) for judging how well a person fits into an organization.

    Personal Statements as Narrative Essays

    Personal statements are required by many college and scholarship applications. As the admission board reads over your account, they consider what you write and how you talk about yourself in your writing. Personal statements are expected to be about a page long.

    Personal statements include two categories.

    1. Open: You are allowed to choose the topic. It is difficult to narrow your whole life down to fit an essay. Don't overthink it. Accentuate your insightful decision-making skills by choosing an experience you can structure with a deep narrative rather than stringing together various life events.
    2. Prompt: The application asks you to answer a question or outlines what to feature in your essay. A prompt eliminates the task of choosing a topic, but how do we describe ourselves to a stranger? Ask the people who know you best for their input.

    Cover Letters as Narrative Essays

    A cover letter is a document that features your skills in a way that supplements your job application or resume and helps you to build a positive relationship with the employer before you meet them. It is similar to the narrative essay because you write about how you gained your knowledge and experience. However, the tone should be friendly yet professional, and the letter should not exceed one page.

    Structure the cover letter to feature:

    • Your qualifications.
    • How you will be a positive addition to the team.
    • Experiences that are directly relatable to the position.
    • Skills you've learned in other contexts that are transferable to the position.

    Once your awesome cover letter lands you an interview, prepare yourself for the verbal equivalent of a narrative essay by brainstorming answers to questions like, "What was a difficult situation you found yourself in and your reaction to it?"

    Example of a Narrative Essay

    Read the following example of a narrative essay and consider these questions:

    1. The theme of this narrative essay is the fleeting nature of time. Does the author clearly express this? Which sentence is the thesis statement?
    2. The example essay includes the narrative features of characters and dialogue. Direct and indirect dialogue are both present. Are the characters lifelike? Is the dialogue effective?
    3. Are there enough concrete details in the example narrative essay to draw the reader into the moment?
    4. The writing sample follows the structure of a narrative essay. Are there smooth transitions between the paragraphs?
    "She used to say if it was raining during a funeral, the person wasn't ready to go." My daughter, Chloe, said this to me as we walked to the car dodging icy gray puddles of Michigan February slush. It's been fluctuating between rain and snow for the three days of Lilla's visitation and funeral. I hold Chloe's hand in the car while she cries. She wishes she had called more, taken more time to visit. "Find another woman who sent herself black roses on the day John Gotti died to get on her husband's nerves." We wipe our eyes and laugh together. I tell her that even if they had spoken every day, it wouldn't feel like enough time because there is never enough time when you lose someone like Lilla. And we are all guilty at some point of assuming there is plenty of time.

    Time behaves oddly. Some periods in my life have felt like they were never going to end, and others like they barely had the chance to happen at all. It's distressing to learn that Time doesn't consider our needs when we lose someone we love. Scratch distressing — it feels like we are waiting inside the penthouse elevator, and the cables just got cut. Getting caught up in the day-to-day, infinite nature of time often leaves us wishing we had been more conscious of the finite way it operates in our personal lives.

    I thanked Lilla for keeping the roads clear when we made the three-hour trip from our country hills and curves back to the city to say goodbye, but now it's time to go home, and the roads are a mess. I look out the window at the frantically falling snow and think the silent storm suits Lilla's proud nature and that maybe the sudden heaps of snow reflect how badly she wanted to stay just a little longer.

    Narrative Essay - Key takeaways

    • A narrative essay uses personal experience, featuring characters and dialogue, to discuss a theme.
    • A narrative essay is structured into an introduction, body paragraphs, and conclusion that conform to its unique stylistic features.
    • Narrative essays feature emotional language, sensory details, and can switch verb tenses. Personal pronouns are welcome when used with care.
    • Learning to write narrative essays is essential because it can improve your reading, writing, and comprehension skills. They can also help you develop your critical thinking skills.
    • Personal statements and cover letters are situations where you will use your narrative essay skills.

    1 Badillo, Ann, Tim Donovan, and Tobin Trevarthen. Narrative Generation: Why Narrative Will Become Your Most Valuable Asset in the Next Five Years. 2016

    Frequently Asked Questions about Narrative Essay

    What is a narrative essay?

    A narrative essay uses personal experience to discuss a theme.

    How do you write a narrative essay?

    To write a narrative essay, pick a moral or universal truth to explore. Think about your life experiences and choose one that connects with your theme. Use concrete details to share your story and examine the theme.

    What are the structures of a narrative essay?

    A narrative essay begins with an introduction, explores its theme in the body paragraphs, and ties everything together in its conclusion. A thesis statement is included in the Introduction to convey the subject and ideas of the essay. 

    What are some examples of narrative essays?

    Some examples of narrative essays are:

    • "Goodbye to All That" by Joan Didion
    • "Writing Into the Wound" by Roxanne Gay
    • "Death of a Moth" by Virginia Woolf
    • "Notes of a Native Son" by James Baldwin

    What are the five basic components of narrative essays?

    Narrative essays contain five basic components:

    1. Characters
    2. Setting
    3. Plot
    4. Conflict
    5. Theme

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    A _____ essay uses personal experience to examine a moral or universal truth.

    Where is the thesis statement located in a narrative essay?

    Which features are unique to a Narrative essay?

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