When you ‘narrate’ you tell about something that happened. So a narrative essay tells a story. There is a beginning, a middle and an end – like most of the movies you watch! To use more ‘literary’ language: it has a plot with rising action, a climax, falling action and a conclusion, or it tells about a series of events. A narrative essay is entertaining. It is not written to give you factual information, or an opnion about something. It wants to tell you something exciting, and hoook you in…

In exams or school assignments you are usually given a topic that stimulates you to think about, or come up with, a story, or something interesting that really happened to you. You recount this in a lively way. Some topics tell you to include a particular sentence in your plot. In other words, you build the story around this given event or situation.

Some narrative essay topics are:

  • There I was, stuck with no cash and no phone.
  • All the lights went out and I was alone in the dark.
  • The engine spluttered to a halt. We were in the middle of nowhere.
  • The most eventful journey I have ever been on.
  • Write an essay ending with the words: “…that was the happiest day of my life.” (This type of topic may substitute ‘happiest’ for, for example, ‘worst’, ‘most exciting’, ‘most frightening’ and so on.)
  • Adventure in the city. (This type of topic may substitute ‘city’ for ‘mountains’, ‘desert’, ‘rural area’, ‘at sea’ and so on.)
  • Head teacher for the day. (This type of topic may substitute head teacher for ‘president’, ‘boss’, ‘celebrity’ and so on.)

What are some of the features of a narrative essay?

Such an essay often has some or all of these features:

  • a plot or series of events presented in meaningful order – something has to happen!
  • a cast of characters – usually people, but it could be animals – or even inanimate objects
  • a setting – that is, where the story takes place
  • an interesting or unexpected conclusion, or solution to the problem or conflict presented in the plot – we need to be satisfied in some way at the ending that things have been rounded off
  • writing in the past tense; occasionally in the present for greater immediacy
  • action – this links to the plot – something needs to happen
  • some dialogue – this really brings a story alive
  • good pace – this means you’ve got to balance the story well – for example you shouldn’t spend the first four paragraphs describing the setting, and then only put what happened to your characters in the last two paragraphs!
  • some description, often based on using the senses, to make it vivid (this can be of the setting)
  • reflection on a point or moral or lesson learned. This isn’t essential, but can add some value.

How to plan a narrative essay

Check on the length of essay required for your grade. Most essays are about 250 words and have 3 – 8 paragraphs.

Use process writing. That means you always try to follow these recommended steps, even in the examinations:

  • Planning/Pre-writing (e.g. use a mind map)
  • Drafting
  • Revising
  • Editing
  • Proofreading
  • Presenting a final draft

You could plan a narrative essay like this:

Introductory paragraph: Set the scene and introduce the main characters.

Rising action (a few paragraphs): Build up the series of events or the plot in logical order so that the reader can follow the action easily. In the example in the next chapter the girl is glued to her phone on the train, she almost misses her station, and then discovers her wallet has been stolen because she didn’t zip up her bag.

Climax or most exciting/interesting point: Describe the crisis that must be solved, or the most exciting part of the series of events. In the sample, this is when the girl has her phone stolen and is being approached by the scary man.

Falling action: Describe or explain how the problem is solved or the situation resolved, or how the events now unfold. In the sample, the man is kind, and offers to help.

Concluding paragraph: End by wrapping up the loose ends, or with a comment or reflection on what happened. Or a character/s could comment on a lesson learned or moral revealed. Look how this is done in the sample essay: all is not lost, and the girl is grateful she had at least heeded one piece of advice from her mother.

Note: This is not the ONLY way to write a narrative essay. Some writers start their stories in the middle of the action, with direct speech. Here is an example:

“Help!” my brother cried. I could see that in the next few minutes he would be swept away by the strong river current. But could we get there in time?

Then of course in the next paragraph the writer would go back in time to explain what led up to this frightening event. It all started that sunny morning, when…. (You may have seen movies like this, with start with high action and then have ‘flashbacks’ to show the lead-up.)

Should you choose a narrative essay in an exam?

An examiner’s report said that ‘imaginative’ essays like this are among the most poorly answered in exams. Therefore you should only attempt this if a good idea comes to mind, and you are confident of your plotting and writing skills. (However, the examiners also said that some of the best essay answers are narrative.)

You will usually need to use some description, and some dialogue to make your story interesting and lively. Be sure then, that you know some suitable descriptive words or phrases, and that you know how to set out and punctuate dialogue.

Also make sure that you are not telling a whole life story. For such a short essay you really can only focus on one particular event.