“It has always been on the written page that the world has come into focus for me. If I can piece all these bits of memory together with the diaries and letters and the scribbled thoughts that clutter my mind and bookshelves, then maybe I can explain what happened. Maybe the worlds I have inhabited for the past seven years will assume order and logic and wholeness on paper. Maybe I can tell my story in a way that is useful to someone else.”
It may sound trite, but it’s true: everyone has a story. Story is what makes up human experience. It’s what defines us, shapes us, motivates us. Narrative essays tell these stories, proving a point through the most familar, most powerful of communication constructs.
There are two types of essays that employ narration. The first, the personal narrative, answers six questions:
The second type, called a narrative essay (and the one I’ll refer to in this post) answers an additional question:
Why does any of that matter?
This additional aspect is what makes the narrative essay a superior vehicle to the five paragraph. Writers who remain in the five paragraph mode have a difficult time expressing the relevance of a topic to the bigger picture. Take, for instance, the first sample essay question I offered here. Most developing writers will choose a culprit, state it, then find three places in the play where that culprit makes itself known. The step that matters most – the one where the writer evaluates the culprit through the lens of society, morality, or literacy, gets ignored. What a reader gets is generally this: “Fate is responsible for Romeo and Juliet’s death because….”.
What a reader needs, on the other hand, is this: “Fate steps in at every turn, leading Romeo and Juliet to their tragic end. In this way, Shakespeare reveals his own personal attitudes towards free will and humanity’s inability to navigate predestined conditions.”
The second one is much stronger, right? But the five paragraph essay says a thesis can be only one sentence, and that three reasons must be included in that sentence. Critical thinking – analysis of the bigger picture – gets axed.
At this point you might be wondering – how can that sort of analysis come from the sharing of a story? The answer is quite simple:
The story sets the scene and creates an emotional connection between the reader and the writer. Once the events of the story have been revealed, the writer draws a connection between the story and the overall message.
How do you start? Take a page from the post on writing a descriptive essay: start with prewriting, gathering all the sensory details you associate with your topic. From there –
Get ready to write:
- Grab the reader’s attention in the opening
- start in medias res (the middle of things)
- set the stage with a description of the setting
- start with an intriguing statement that invites the reader into your text (“The last time I saw him, he was strong. Healthy. Vibrant. Mom warned me that this time, it would be different.)
- In the middle paragraphs, tell your story
- use vivid details to show instead of tell
- use the standard elements of plot (exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution)
- use dialogue to build your characters
- Draw a final conclusion in your closing. Try one of the following techniques to end:
- provide a final line of dialogue (He looked at me, his eyes untouched by the disease that have ravaged the rest of his body. “Life is more than the time you’re given, ladybug. It’s what you do with it that counts.”)
- use a definitive action (The battered sedan disappeared into the darkness, its fading tail lights a reminder of the man its driver used to be.)
- provide a statement of analysis (The last moments of his life left us more than a legacy. They left us hope for the future.)
Once you’ve mastered the narrative technique, consider blending it with other forms. Like description, it is highly adaptable and can be blended with definition, comparison, or cause and effect essays.
As a final note, many of my own blog posts use the narrative technique, especially those I have written about homeschooling and motherhood. I find that my readers connect to shared personal experiences, and the lessons that come from these moments are more easily transmitted when told in a personal way. Try following Nancy Horan’s lead and use stories as a way to reach your reader through shared experience. It’s how we’ve communicated for thousands of years, and I think it’s worth continuing.
Read more about the limitations of the five paragraph essay here. For additional alternatives, check out the rest of the days in this series:
Monday: The Descriptive Essay
Tuesday: The Narrative Essay
Wednesday: The Comparison Essay
Thursday: The Cause and Effect Essay
Friday: The Definition Essay
This post is part of the iHomeschool Network 5 Day Hopscotch
Information in this post was adapted from Fusion: Integrated Reading and Writing Book 2 (Kemper, Meyer, Van Rys, Sebranek; Wadsworth, Cengage Learning, 2013).