Chapter 4: What Are You Writing, to Whom, and How?
- Determine the purpose and structure of narrative writing
- Understand how to write a narrative essay
The Purpose of Narrative Writing
Narration means the art of storytelling, and the purpose of narrative writing is to tell stories. Anytime you tell a story to a friend or family member about an event or incident in your day, you engage in a form of narration.
A narrative can be factual or fictional. A factual story is one that is based on, and tries to be faithful to, actual events as they unfolded. A fictional story is made up, or imagined; the writer of a fictional story can create characters and events as he or she sees fit. Biographies and memoirs are examples of factual stories; novels and short stories are examples of fictional stories.
Ultimately, whether the story is fact or fiction, narrative writing tries to relay a series of events in an emotionally engaging way. You want your audience to be moved by your story, which could mean through humour, sympathy, fear, anger, and so on. The more clearly you tell your story, the more emotionally engaged your audience is likely to be.
Self-Practice Exercise 4.1
H5P: Narrative Writing Practice
For this exercise, you will be writing a rough plot summary of a narrative-style expository essay. We will use the freewriting strategy, where you set a timer (this time for five minutes) and write as freely as you can, trying not to worry too much about what is on the page but instead just working to get your ideas on paper. Don’t censor yourself — you can always edit later.
Choose one of these topics, or select something else you find more interesting:
Before you start, you’ll need to decide if your narrative will be factual (true story) or fictional (made up). Either is fine!
Set your timer for five minutes and write without distraction until it goes off. (If you would prefer not to type, you can of course do your freewriting on paper.)
- Look back at your freewriting and think about whether your narrative makes sense chronologically. Revise your freewriting into a rough draft that uses transitions in order to show the relationship between the events and express time.
Share your rough draft here.
- Remember to use transitions! In fact, let’s make note of the transitions you used above, and what they did for your draft (how did they help you explain the chronology of your narrative?).
The Structure of a Narrative Essay
Major narrative events are most often conveyed in chronological order, the order in which events unfold from first to last. Stories typically have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and these events are typically organized by time. Using transitional words and phrases help to keep the reader oriented in the sequencing of a story. Some of these phrases are listed below.
Transitional Words and Phrases for Expressing Time
- as soon as
- at last
- first, second, third
The following are the basic components of a narrative:
- Plot. The events as they unfold in sequence.
- Character. The people who inhabit the story and move it forward. Typically, there are minor characters and main characters. The minor characters generally play supporting roles to the main character, or the protagonist.
- Conflict. The primary problem or obstacle that unfolds in the plot that the protagonist must solve or overcome by the end of the narrative. The way in which the protagonist resolves the conflict of the plot results in the theme of the narrative.
- Theme. The ultimate message the narrative is trying to express; it can be either explicit or implicit.
Writing at Work
When interviewing candidates for jobs, employers often ask about conflicts or problems a potential employee has had to overcome. They are asking for a compelling personal narrative. To prepare for this question in a job interview, write out a scenario using the narrative mode. This will allow you to troubleshoot rough spots as well as better understand your own personal history. It will make both your story your presentation of it better.
Writing a Narrative Essay
When writing a narrative essay, start by asking yourself if you want to write a factual or fictional story. Then freewrite about topics that are of general interest to you. You will learn more about freewriting in Chapter 5: Putting the Pieces Together with a Thesis.
Once you have a general idea of what you will be writing about, sketch out the major events of the story that will compose your plot. Typically, these events will be revealed chronologically and climax at a central conflict that must be resolved by the end of the story. The use of strong details is crucial as you describe the events and characters in your narrative. You want the reader to emotionally engage with the world that you create in writing.
As always, it is important to start with a strong introduction to hook your reader into wanting to read more. Try opening the essay with an interesting event that helps to get the story going. Finally, your conclusion should help resolve the central conflict of the story and impress upon your reader the ultimate theme of the piece. See Appendix 1: Readings: Examples of Essays to read a sample narrative essay.
- Narration is the art of storytelling.
- Narratives can be either factual or fictional. In either case, narratives should emotionally engage the reader.
- Most narratives are composed of major events sequenced in chronological order.
- Time transitional words and phrases are used to orient the reader in the sequence of a narrative.
- The four basic components to all narratives are plot, character, conflict, and theme.
- The use of sensory details is crucial to emotionally engaging the reader.
- A strong introduction is important to hook the reader. A strong conclusion should add resolution to the conflict and evoke the narrative’s theme.