How to write a narrative essay

person writing a narrative essay

A favorite assignment for English classes, this kind of writing is supposedly among the easiest kind to write. A narrative can be defined as a "story," but it could be a true story or a fictional one. You may write to entertain, persuade, or inform your audience, but narrative may have a more practical application. You write a narrative if you are filling out a police report about an accident or a burglary, or explaining your symptoms to your health care provider. In these real life cases, it is extremely important to explain clearly and completely.

Types of narration

You could write about something that happened to you, something that happened to a person close to you, or something that you read or heard about. Your closeness to the story will have a big effect on decisions you make about the writing process.

When writing about yourself, you will obviously use the first person: I, me, we, us. Writing about another person requires the third person, because you're telling about what he, she, or they did. An alternative would be to address your reader directly using "you." This last alternative is not generally recommended. (Save it for how-to-do-it writing.) 

That was then, this is now

Another choice you have is whether to use past or present tense. The most normal choice would be past, since the incident has already occurred. If you prefer to give the reader the impression of being in the scene, you may decide to use present tense. This is the way we often tell stories to our friends: "I'm walking down the street and this guy comes up to me and says . . . " But something that works orally may not always be the best choice for a written task. If your narrative is for an assignment, make sure you check it with your teacher first, since this method may not be acceptable.

Whichever you decide to use, make sure to keep the tenses consistent. Don't switch back and forth from past to present. Also, make sure your tenses work together to show time relationships.  This may require a review of participles and “perfect” and “progressive” verb tenses. Find a good grammar book that explains sequence of tenses. 


One reason that this kind of writing is considered easier than others is that the arrangement is predetermined. In most cases, you will tell the story in the order that it happened. In order for it to make sense to the reader, it should be presented in chronological order. Although this order is obvious, there may be times when it makes more sense to change things around. You may want to save an important detail until last for dramatic effect. For example, you may describe an amazing feat performed by someone, and at the very end you add the shocking news that the person was blind or in a wheelchair or wearing a full-body cast.

Well begun is half done

Another change of order can be effective in order to create an effective beginning. You may want to describe the final results of the story first to get your reader's attention. "You may wonder how I ended up dangling upside down from a tree branch in my backyard" is a much more compelling start to a story than "I woke up one morning and walked out into my backyard."

A variation on this technique can also be used to create a "frame" for your story. Pick out a significant detail from the story and begin with it. Then return to the same idea at the end. Make sure you vary the wording. 

Consider your audience

Have a clear picture of your reader in mind. The knowledge and experience your target audience brings to the reading should influence your choice of words. Obviously, you would tell a story differently to a preschooler than you would to an engineer. But other audience differences are more subtle. If you’re writing to sports fans, you can expect them to understand the specific terms you use and the players and league acronyms you refer to. When writing for a broader audience, define those terms.

A good exercise is to write a list of the main events of the story. Then tell it to a friend or colleague. Observe expressions as you narrate. Is your listener getting it? Or does his or her face register confusion? This will help you know whether you’re on the right track. Adapt the storyline accordingly. 

Why are you telling the story?

Before beginning to write, have a clear idea of your underlying reason for writing the story. Defining your purpose will help you decide how much to include and how to present it. A narrative used to inform will contain only the bare bones details. If you plan to entertain, you will have to add some humorous points and work on your timing. Think of oral presentations of stories. A stand-up comedian uses a completely different approach than someone telling a scary story around a campfire. 

Add descriptive details

A narrative with no details about the people involved or the places where the action is happening is borrrrring. The emphasis should always be on the action. However, without the context of a setting or a feel for the characters involved, the writing will fall flat. Use some of the techniques you have used in your descriptive writing to dress up your narrative. 

The end

Your ending should feel like an ending. Avoid simply trailing off or adding a weak phrase like “and that’s all,” or the painfully trite “they lived happily ever after.” When your readers reach the final sentence, they should be well aware that they have been informed, entertained, frightened, or fooled. Everybody loves a story—but it must be a story well told in order to achieve its purposes.