- Identify techniques of factual storytelling and descriptive writing, which will culminate in the writing of a personal narrative essay
- Use point of view, plot, transitions, characters, conflict, theme, and sensory details in an essay
What Is Narration?
Narration means the art of storytelling, and the purpose of narrative writing is to tell stories. Any time 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. In addition, 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 in real life. A fictional story is a made-up, or imagined, story; the writer of a fictional story can create characters and events as he or she sees fit.
The big distinction between factual and fictional narratives is based on a writer’s purpose. The writers of factual stories try to recount events as they actually happened, but writers of fictional stories can depart from real people and events because the writers’ intents are not to retell a real-life event. Biographies and memoirs are examples of factual stories, whereas 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 laughter, sympathy, fear, anger, and so on. The more clearly you tell your story, the more emotionally engaged your audience is likely to be.
The use of strong details is crucial as you describe the events and characters in your narrative.
To create strong details, keep the human senses in mind. You want your reader to be immersed in the world that you create, so focus on details related to sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch as you describe people, places, and events in your narrative. For more information on sensory details, see the chapter on Description.
The Structure of a Narrative
Every day, you relate stories to other people through simple exchanges. You may have had a horrible experience at a restaurant the night before, or you may have witnessed a curious interaction between other people. In each one of these experiences, there’s a story, and when you begin to share a personal experience, you often communicate in a narrative mode.
There are two main types of narratives: narratives about a personal experience and narratives about other people’s experiences.
Narratives about the writer’s personal experience typically use the first-person “I” pronoun because the narrator is the person who was physically present for the events described. The writer chooses details and language that reveal the narrator’s feelings about the events that are taking place.
Narratives written about other people’s experiences typically use the third-person pronouns “he, she, it, they.” Some writers opt to report third-person narratives objectively to relay events in a way that is both accurate and dispassionate. Examples include history books, lab reports, and news stories.
Regardless of the narrator’s point of view, 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. Certain transitional words and phrases aid in keeping the reader oriented in the sequencing of a story. Some of these phrases are listed here:
Chronological Transitional Words
after/afterward as soon as at last
before currently during
eventually finally first, second, third
later meanwhile next
now since soon
still then until
Other basic components of a narrative are:
- Plot – The events as they unfold in sequence.
- Characters – 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, also known as 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 a Narrative Essay
When writing a narrative essay, start by asking yourself if you are writing a factual or fictional story. Then freewrite, brainstorm, or mind map about topics that are of general interest to you.
Once you have a general idea of what you will be writing about, you should 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.
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 event that is interesting to introduce the story and get it going. Finally, your conclusion should help resolve the central conflict of the story and impress upon your reader the ultimate theme, or unifying idea, of the piece.
Professional Writing Example
“Fish Cheeks” by Amy Tan is an example of a well-written personal narrative. As you read the following narrative, try to determine the narrative’s point of view, plot, characters, transitions, conflict, and theme. See if you can identify areas where the author has included descriptive details.
I fell in love with the minister’s son the winter I turned fourteen. He was not Chinese, but as white as Mary in the manger. For Christmas I prayed for this blond-haired boy, Robert, and a slim new American nose.
When I found out that my parents had invited the minister’s family over for Christmas Eve dinner, I cried. What would Robert think of our shabby Chinese Christmas? What would he think of our noisy Chinese relatives who lacked proper American manners? What terrible disappointment would he feel upon seeing not a roasted turkey and sweet potatoes but Chinese food?
On Christmas Eve I saw that my mother had outdone herself in creating a strange menu. She was pulling black veins out of the backs of fleshy prawns. The kitchen was littered with appalling mounds of raw food: A slimy rock cod with bulging eyes that pleaded not to be thrown into a pan of hot oil. Tofu, which looked like stacked wedges of rubbery white sponges. A bowl soaking dried fungus back to life. A plate of squid, their backs crisscrossed with knife markings so they resembled bicycle tires.
And then they arrived – the minister’s family and all my relatives in a clamor of doorbells and rumpled Christmas packages. Robert grunted hello, and I pretended he was not worthy of existence.
Dinner threw me deeper into despair. My relatives licked the ends of their chopsticks and reached across the table, dipping them into the dozen or so plates of food. Robert and his family waited patiently for platters to be passed to them. My relatives murmured with pleasure when my mother brought out the whole steamed fish. Robert grimaced. Then my father poked his chopsticks just below the fish eye and plucked out the soft meat. “Amy, your favorite,” he said, offering me the tender fish cheek. I wanted to disappear.
At the end of the meal my father leaned back and belched loudly, thanking my mother for her fine cooking. “It’s a polite Chinese custom to show you are satisfied,” explained my father to our astonished guests. Robert was looking down at his plate with a reddened face. The minister managed to muster up a quiet burp. I was stunned into silence for the rest of the night.
After everyone had gone, my mother said to me, “You want to be the same as American girls on the outside.” She handed me an early gift. It was a miniskirt in beige tweed. “But inside you must always be Chinese. You must be proud you are different. Your only shame is to have shame.”
And even though I didn’t agree with her then, I knew that she understood how much I had suffered during the evening’s dinner. It wasn’t until many years later – long after I had gotten over my crush on Robert – that I was able to fully appreciate her lesson and the true purpose behind our particular menu. For Christmas Eve that year, she had chosen all my favorite foods.
Questions for Discussion
- What point of view does Amy Tan use in “Fish Cheeks”?
- Who are the characters in the narrative?
- Where does Amy Tan use transitions?
- What is the main conflict in the narrative? How is it resolved?
- What is the theme of “Fish Cheeks”?
- What are three examples of description from this narrative?
Student Writing Example
The following essay, “Bayou Monster,” was written by an English 101 student, who wrote this personal narrative to challenge the idea that a monk’s life is boring. As you read this story, look for places where the author has incorporated the same narrative techniques found in Amy Tan’s essay.
It was a scorcher that day. The wind and trees were no help. The shade was only being supplied so far off the bank. Baseball caps can only do so much to protect the head from the sun’s powerful rays. The mosquitoes were rampant, their feeble attempt at survival. There was a lack of warm-blooded animals for them to prey on. We were the likely targets, the only ones that would dare venture that far out into a swamp. In addition to the nagging pests, the feebleness of the body takes its toll on the mind. Doubts began to swirl in my head of when we would ever stop to rest. Thoughts of unrest, discomfort, and selfishness shot from my bones up to my brain, causing a disinterested taste on my part for this “lovely day out.”
Just as my thoughts became increasingly negative and the downward swirl of discomfort was reaching the highest degree, I heard, “Get ready; it’s our first one!” Suddenly a slight rush of energy came out of nowhere, pushing me forward onto my toes, ready for what came next. As the boat slowed for the approach, I snapped a quick glance around. I noticed the others received the same kind of rejuvenation that I had experienced. Their heads moved forward toward the front of the boat, their bodies posturing upward to get the best look. Suddenly, I found myself hanging halfway off the front bow reaching down for a rope that had spent most of its existence submerged in nature. After I grabbed the rope, the next hardest thing to get a handle on was my fear, which manifested itself in the form of unsteady hands. As I pulled the rope further into the boat, I thought, “This stuff only happens in movies.” The partner boat was only a few feet away, readied with cameras, and smiles behind the lenses.
What I saw next was unutterable. Coming up behind the rope was a massive net. The net wasn’t the problem, though; rather, what the net contained had my mind tangled a bit. At first glance, anyone would say, “It’s a fish.” It looked like a fish, moved like a fish, and it certainly smelled like a fish. Drawing closer to this mysterious creature, I tried to get a better look at it. Suddenly there was an eerie sound. Caused by a mix of fluid and air being pushed through a small hole at a high rate of speed. I told myself, “This beast has lungs.” As the rest of its body surfaced, it became clear that the creature I had helped pull from the water was not just any old fish. It was a prehistoric monster that made its way through the waters of history until now. It had teeth the size of my fingers, eyes that had seen little sunlight, and a head the size of my torso. It suddenly became difficult to breathe normally. I was in shock.
Thanks be to God and all that is good for our fearless boat captain. He had seen this sort of thing before. This became clear when I glanced up to find a smile bigger than the sun on his face. Though a few teeth were missing, it did not seem to stifle his cheer. Oh, the laughter that came from this large man. His amusement caused my discomfort. Sheepishly, I managed to ask, “What are we going to do with that thing?” His answer was clear, striking, and firm. Looking over the specimen wrapped in the net behind me, he said, “We’re going to kill it and eat it.” Indeed, we did. Carefully and with much fear, we pulled this living hunk of marsh onto the deck of the boat. Watching its every move as he untied what was left of the mangled nets. He then calmly requested his “special tool” from behind the steering wheel. With a crooked smile and a strange sense of confidence, he said smoothly, “Just a little amnesia.” Then the inevitable happened. Thud! Thud! Thud! He raised the hatchet high in the air and delivered several deadly strikes to the uppermost part of the beast’s head. After the third swing, the beast ceased to move about on the deck of the bayou cruiser. It let out its final breath, almost a sigh of relief. We all stood there in silence for a moment, trying to process the most eventful and mysterious five minutes of our lives.
Before we knew it, we had the monster back at the camp to be cleaned and packaged. Several grown men had to grab its slimy body to fashion a hoist over its snout to get it onto the deck of the cleaning station. As we grabbed it, our eyes were fixed on its massive teeth. We wondered if the beast would awake from its seeming lethargy seeking revenge. Once a few pictures were snapped of us with our accidental catch, we began to clean the alligator garfish with much frustration. Fish that large have skin like armor, making it difficult even for the experienced veterans. Research showed that although it is an exceptionally large fish, it wouldn’t have topped the world record holders. I like to share this fishing story from time to time with friends and men who tend to boast of their “biggest catches.” It is a fond memory to share with many, especially those who call my life “boring.” If they only knew.
Questions for Discussion
- What point of view does the author use in his essay? How does it differ from Amy Tan’s essay?
- Who are the characters in this narrative? Which ones are major? Which are minor?
- Where does the author use transitions? Why do you think he placed them there?
- What is the main conflict in the narrative? How is it resolved?
- What is the theme of “Bayou Monster”? What is one sentence that reveals the narrative’s theme?
- What are three examples of description in this narrative?
What is an exciting or interesting true story you like to tell? Summarize it in one sentence.
Who are some characters that appear in your story?
What are some transition words you notice yourself using when you tell this story?
What might be a possible theme of this story?
- Point of view
Narration is the art of telling lively, engaging stories. Personal narratives are true stories that authors tell about either their lives or the lives of people around them. The elements common to most narratives include narration, description, point of view, transitions, characters, plot, conflict, and theme. By using these elements in your writing, you will be able to successfully complete a personal narrative essay.
Now that your personal narrative is complete, reflect on the writing process. What was the most challenging part of composing your narrative? Which part would you consider the easiest?
Additional Chapter Sources
Amy Tan’s short essay “Fish Cheeks” first appeared in Seventeen magazine. ©1987. All rights reserved.
Student work, “Bayou Monster,” reproduced anonymously with permission. All rights reserved.
Storytelling; the written or spoken account of related events
The perspective through which a story is told; stories can be told in first person (I), second person (you), or third person (he, she, they)
A change from one subject, place, state, or time to another
The sequence of events in a story
People who appear in a story
The problem, challenge, or obstacle a character must face in a story; types of conflict include human vs. human, human vs. nature, and human vs. self
The underlying idea, message, or lesson in a story