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What Should a Narrative Essay Format Look Like?

by Kori Morgan

Narrative essays give you the opportunity to write about a moment that shaped your values, molded your beliefs or taught you a valuable lesson. Using storytelling elements like characterization, dialogue and description, a narrative essay dramatizes your experience, much the way a fiction writer uses these devices to unfold a short story. Structure, development and detail are all necessary to developing an effective narrative essay.

The Hook

A narrative essay begins with an opening that introduces readers to the characters, setting and conflict. Rather than starting with lengthy details or narration, good introductions drop readers in the middle of the action. For example, if you're writing about learning how to ride a bike, you might open with a description of your parents cheering you on as you ride across the yard, then fall over on the sidewalk. This introduction sets up the challenge you faced and generates sympathy in readers, encouraging them to read on.

The Story Arc

In short stories, fiction writers often use the traditional structure of rising action, climactic action and falling action. Because your essay also has a plot, you too will employ these elements. Your essay's action should move toward a significant moment, such as an accomplishment, failure or realization, that encapsulates the importance of your experience. For example, you could expand your bike essay by showing how falling didn't defeat you; you continued to try up to the moment your parents pushed you off, and you finally could ride on your own.

The Story's Vivid World

Without detail your essay will merely summarize your experience, but the sights, sounds and smells that make the memory so vivid can help readers experience the emotions you felt when you lived through it. For example, the essay about learning to ride your bike might describe the scrape of pavement against your knees when you fell, the rich scent of freshly mowed grass and the exhilarating feeling of wind against your face as you achieved your goal of riding a bike.

The Final Moment

A narrative essay's last paragraph should leave readers with an understanding of why this experience was so important to you and how you changed as a result. In the bike-riding essay, you might end with a description of how you rode not just across your family's yard but down the street and toward the next block, the farthest you'd ever been from home alone. This image communicates that learning to ride a bike wasn't just a lesson in perseverance but also a big step toward independence.

About the Author

Kori Morgan holds a Bachelor of Arts in professional writing and a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing and has been crafting online and print educational materials since 2006. She taught creative writing and composition at West Virginia University and the University of Akron and her fiction, poetry and essays have appeared in numerous literary journals.

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