Chapter 3: Paragraph Structure

3.2 Narrative Paragraphs

Learning Objectives

  • Identify the differences in form between descriptive and narrative paragraphs.
  • Know the major differences between autobiographical and biographical narratives.
  • Recognize the structure of autobiographical and biographical narratives.
  • Identify the importance of personal growth in a narrative paragraph.
  • Stress the importance of personal growth within your own narrative paragraph.

Unlike descriptive paragraphs—which strive to explain why a person, place, object, or event is important—a narrative paragraph demonstrates the development of a person through the chronological retelling of an important event. In addition, a narrative paragraph should indicate how a person has changed or learned from this experience. The experience should unfold much like the plot of a novel or short story, beginning with the individual facing a problem and ending in the resolution of the problem and subsequent growth of the individual. Thus, the action of the problem should unfold as the telling of the event unfolds, much like the action of a short story builds as the plot progresses.

However, just as in descriptive paragraphs, you must describe the event that is progressing, effectively drawing your readers into the development of the individual. Think of how invested—or perhaps uninvested—you become in the stories you read. Why do you connect with certain characters and not with others? Often, you connect with characters you feel you can relate to in some way or with events that you can imagine experiencing. Thus, it is essential to clearly and concisely indicate the action of the event being described. Your readers must be able to imagine being at and participating in the event. However, you must keep in mind that you can provide too much information to the reader. Make sure all the details you provide are relevant to the narration. For instance, when narrating an event, you do not need to include details that do not add to the feeling of an event. Otherwise, the readers will feel unconnected to and uninterested in the development of the individual.

While describing the event is crucial to the reader’s understanding and interest, the subject’s feelings, thoughts, desires, or insights are integral to creating the sense of personal growth. Without these components, the reader will be unable to track the person’s development and change. Essentially, in order for the reader to see that the individual has transformed, you must present the inner thoughts, desires, and feelings of the person before and after the alleged transformation. This way, the reader can compare the thoughts and feelings from before the change with those after and ultimately evaluate the personal growth of the individual on their own.

Since the personal growth in the narrative is the most essential component, choosing the individual and experiences is an important decision. As a writer hoping to engage the reader, you must carefully consider both the events and the individual that you choose. Not only must you choose an event that points toward eventual personal growth, but you must also choose an individual who is compelling. Generally, a narrative paragraph can either be autobiographical or biographical in nature. That is, the narrative can be written by you and about you, or the narrative can be written by you and about someone else. Moreover, in choosing to write about yourself or about someone else, you decide the organization of your paragraph.

Autobiographical Narrative

An autobiographical narrative is one of the most personal types of paragraphs. Not only are you writing a paragraph that expresses your own views and thoughts, but autobiographical narratives are based upon your own life experiences.

Thus, it follows that the organization of the paragraph will also be more personal in nature. Unlike a narrative paragraph based on another individual, an autobiographical narrative will always contain your personal thoughts, desires, and motivations. While it is hard to know the motives of other individuals when writing a biographical narrative (unless you know the individual well), you always have access to the motivations for your own personal development. Hence, when you organize your autobiographical narrative, you must organize your paragraph around the event that promotes your personal growth and the feeling you experienced before, during, and after this event.

There are several ways to incorporate your thoughts, feelings, and motivations into the organization of your paragraph. First, you can consider integrating your description of certain events with your motives and thoughts for the events. This way, you present the event and your motivations both in chronological order and simultaneously. This means that you are describing the event and your feelings as they occurred, or at the same time. Second, you can consider blocking your description of your event and your feelings, providing a set of sentences describing the event followed by a set of sentences describing your motivations. You could also reverse this blocking format to first provide your motivations and then the description of the event.

Table 3.6 Examples of both paragraph types
Integrated description and motivations Blocked descriptive and motivations
Today, I stepped into a new stage of my life by moving into my own apartment. I am so excited, because I have always lived with roommates, and this will be my first time living alone. I was able to find a great used couch on Facebook Marketplace that I have set up in the living room. My friends think living by myself will be lonely, but I am really enjoying setting up my place exactly how I want it. After we got everything moved in, I spent the afternoon rearranging furniture, putting dishes away, and hanging pictures. Today, I moved into my new apartment. We got up at 6 a.m. to load up the truck up with all of my stuff and drop it off at my new place. That took most of the morning. I was also able to find a used couch on Facebook Marketplace, which we picked up and brought over. I spent the afternoon rearranging furniture, putting dishes away, and hanging pictures.

It was a very exciting day. I have always lived with roommates, so this will be my first time living alone. My friends think living by myself will be lonely, but now I can set up my place exactly how I want it. It feels like I am entering a new stage.

How do these two examples compare? Although they both narrate the same event, is one more effective than the other? Generally, the first organizational scheme (when you integrate description and motivations together) is the most seamless. By incorporating the two together, you provide the reader with a more complete picture of the event—as if the reader is experiencing the event as it unfolds in your narration. However, sometimes this formatting does not work, specifically with complicated events. If you feel that the event you are narrating is too difficult to explain or clarify, then you should consider separating your description and thoughts. However, you do need to be aware of how this affects the story you are telling. Do you want the importance of the event to be at the end? In doing so, you make the event seem more suspenseful, and you can make the reader more compelled to finish your narrative. Nevertheless, organizing your paper in this way places more of a burden on you as a writer because you must clearly connect the separate ideas in the paragraph.

Regardless of the organizational scheme you choose, you must properly describe your personal growth. In order to do so, you must organize your paragraph around one significant event. If your paragraph centres around one main event that helped shape your personal growth, the majority of the body should describe the one event while the introductory and concluding sentences should include your thoughts and feelings from before and after the event to help clarify how the occurrence helped shape you.

Biographical Narrative

Unlike the much more personal autobiographical narrative, a biographical narrative tends to be more formal and less personal. While you can easily include how you felt or what you thought during events in your own life, it is harder to indicate how others thought or felt during action in their own lives. Sometimes, if you are writing a biographical narrative about a close friend or relative, or if you have interviewed the individual you are writing about, you can include specific insights and motivations. If you do have access to the person’s thoughts and feelings, you can easily organize your biographical narrative as you would an autobiographical one. However, usually, you will have to infer how a person felt or what they thought from their actions in certain events.

If you must write a biographical narrative about someone you do not know or someone you cannot interview, you must suggest the person’s motivations through analyzing actions. For instance, if someone apologizes for past behaviour, then you can infer that they feel regret about the incident. You could then analyze the events following this apology to see if the individual’s apology was genuine. In other words, you could see if the individual’s behaviour changed after the apology or if the individual changed their actions in significant ways. In order to vocalize the analysis in your paragraph, you must suggest to your reader that the individual started acting and behaving differently in response to a past experience. For example, you would need to stipulate that the good behaviour following the apology means that the individual regrets past actions. On the other hand, if an individual’s actions after an apology do not change (if the person continues to make the same mistake, for instance), you can infer that the person does not regret or feel sorry for past actions.

Review Questions

  1. What is the purpose of a narrative paragraph?
  2. How does a narrative paragraph differ from a descriptive paragraph?
  3. What are the two ways you can organize an autobiographical narrative?
  4. How do you show the feelings and thoughts of other individuals when writing a biographical narrative?
  5. Write an autobiographical narrative about your experience as a writer. Be sure to stress how you have grown as a writer by including both descriptions of past situations and your feelings and thoughts about these situations.


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Building Blocks of Academic Writing Copyright © 2020 by Carellin Brooks is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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