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2.1: Narrative Essay

Difficulty Level: At Grade Created by: CK-12
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Learning Objectives

  • Identify the differences in form between descriptive and narrative essays.
  • 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 essay.
  • Stress the importance of personal growth within your own narrative essay.


Unlike the descriptive essays that strive to explain why a person, a place, an object, or an event is important, a narrative essay demonstrates the development of a person through the chronological retelling of an important event. In addition, a narrative essay 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 essays, 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 and disinterested in the development of the individual.

While describing the event is crucial to the reader's understanding and interest, the person'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 events that share a common theme, or that point toward the same idea, eventual personal growth, but you must also choose an individual who is compelling. Generally, a narrative essay 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 paper.

Autobiographical Narrative

An autobiographical narrative is one of the most personal types of essays. Not only are you writing a paper 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 paper will also be more personal in nature. Unlike a narrative essay 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 format your essay around the events that promote your personal growth and the feeling you experienced before, during, and after these events.

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

Below is a table containing examples of both table types.
Integrated description and motivations Blocked descriptive and motivations
My sixteenth birthday was when it all began. It was the first girl-boy party I had ever had. I had had to beg my parents for month to have that party. Once they said yes, I had worried for weeks about what I was going to wear. When the day came, I was so excited that my crush Brandon was coming. As I sat next to him during the movie, I could feel my heart race. We were sitting side by side, close enough to touch. I slowly moved my hand towards his, wondering if he wanted to hold my hand like I wanted to hold his and fearing that he didn’t.

My sixteenth birthday was at my house on a Saturday during the summer, and it would be a boy-girl party. I had planned the whole day. First, we would swim in the pool in my backyard while my dad and mom prepared hamburgers. After we ate, we would watch a movie in my living room. At the end of the night, we would have cake, and I would open my presents.

Since it took me weeks to convince my parents to have the party, I was very excited when it finally rolled around. My crush Brandon was going to come, and I hoped that he would finally make a move. I thought that the movie would be a perfect chance to show him that I wanted to be his girlfriend.

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 breaking your description and thoughts into two separate paragraphs. Although, you need to be aware of how this effects 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 paragraphs.

Regardless of the organizational scheme you choose, you must properly describe your personal growth. In order to do so, you must organize your essay around one significant event or a collection of interrelated specific events. Generally, the number of events you include defines the amount of detail you put into describing your events. If your paper centers around one main event that helped shape your personal growth, the majority of the body would describe the one event while the introduction and conclusion would include your thoughts and feelings from before and after the event to help clarify how the occurrence helped shape you. However, if your paper details a succession of events that culminate in your personal growth, the description of each event, including the insights and feelings associated with it, would be limited to a single body paragraph. In this case, the introduction and conclusion would still indicate how you felt and thought both before and after the transformation.

Biographical Narrative

Unlike the much more personal autobiographical narrative, biographical narratives tend 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 his or her motivations through analyzing his or her actions. For instance, if someone apologizes for past behavior, then you can infer that he or she feels 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 behavior changed after the apology or if the individual changed his or her actions in significant ways. In order to vocalize the analysis in your paper, you must suggest to your reader that the individual started acting and behaving differently because he or she was responding to a past experience. For example, you would need to stipulate that the good behavior following the apology means that the individual regrets his or her 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 he or she does not regret or feel sorry for his or her past actions.

Review Questions

  1. What is the purpose of a narrative essay?
  2. How does a narrative essay differ from a descriptive essay?
  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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Date Created:
Feb 23, 2012
Last Modified:
Aug 08, 2016
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