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Tips on Writing a Narrative Essay

Narrative essay is a style of writing that relies on "in-scene" recreation of your life. You are, essentially, the protagonist of your own story. 

 

Good narratives have a lot of dialogue and they include a lot of sensory detail (sight/sound/taste/smell/touch). They allow the audience to experience bits of your life for themselves. 

 

We want people to know what it's like to experience our lives. We want them to feel the feelings we feel. To know what hurts us. To know our sense of ourselves. To know what it feels like when we love. 

 

 

Do:

 

  • use a lot of dialogue

    Dialogue keeps the sense of time flowing in a narrative. Narratives shouldn't step "out of scene" too much. Having a lot of dialogue grounds us in a moment, a particular space, a particular series of events. 

  • use simple dialogue tags or action tags

 

"Why haven't I seen you?" she asked. 

or 

"Why haven't I seen you?" She was holding the chain of her necklace in her mouth, rubbing the metal between her lips thoughtlessly.

More elaborate dialogue tags (exclaimed, pontificated, expounded, etc) draw attention to themselves and pull you out of scene. Tags like "said," or "asked" fade into the background and the audience doesn't notice them. They're too busy "listening" to the conversation. 

Action tags are a good alternative to traditional tags because they provide a visual image in addition to the auditory image of the dialogue. The image should be of the person who is speaking. 

 

  • establish scenes with people who matter to you

  • choose specific scenes in specific places

  • have a sense of time moving forward 

  • give us visual images--let us "see" you

  • give us auditory images--let us "hear" you

  • use a lot of sensory detail 

 

 

Don't

 

  • have too much "out of scene" discussion

  • talk too much about feelings. 

 

If you've set the scene for us and are allowing us to experience it, we will feel the feelings and you don't have to tell us to. Talking about feelings takes us out of scene. Whenever you want to talk about feelings, instead try listing what it smelled like, what you could feel on your skin, what you could taste in your mouth. 

 

 

In-Scene Examples:

 

One:

Last year I sat in my bishop’s office to discuss leaving the church.

 

The room smelled like my childhood. The walls were upholstered in burlap, the floors covered with industrial carpet, pictures of Jesus on the wall. The bishop tried to be kind. Tried to understand my reasons.

 

“I just…” I struggled for words and I didn’t struggle for them at the same time. Everything I wanted to say was just below the surface, and I had clamped down on it out of reflex, knowing there are things you are not supposed to admit out loud. “Keeping the commandments…” I said, “doing the ‘right’ thing… It has hurt us. It has hurt us irreparably.”

           

“I don’t understand,” he said. “How could keeping the commandments hurt you? Couldn’t you explain a little more?”

           

There was a sour taste in my mouth. I felt like if I were to speak, it would fill the room. How do you explain what it means to find yourself in a position utterly in conflict with your fundamental biology? How do you explain what it feels like to know in your heart that you are not intrinsically wrong. That your ontology isn’t a mistake to be sorted out in the eternities?

           

I might have opened and closed my mouth a couple times before I spoke again. I know the room felt small. There was the bishop’s face, the warmth of my husband’s hand in mine, and the things I didn’t feel like I could say.

 

 

Two:

 

            On a Tuesday, you were making a pie crust. 

            Flour dusted the tops of the counters of your kitchen, and I held it between my fingers, feeling the gritty friction. 

            A baby was in a bouncy chair in the doorway. Bounce, bounce, bounce, bounce, he went, and on each bounce he made a sound. Ah, ah, ah, ah. 

            You laughed at him. 

           “Do you ever wish you could remember what it felt like?” I asked. “To bounce up and down and up and down? To have no thought of loneliness, no thought of hunger, or despair? Just… the feeling of the floor beneath your feet?”

          “Oh, he is going to be hungry in approximately five minutes.” You rolled the dough into a perfectly round, perfectly thin layer. You folded it over, dusted it with flour, and you rolled it again. 

        “I don’t know how you do that,” I said. “How you get it to be so perfectly round.”

       “It is a gift I have,” you said. “One of my more important ones." 

 

Three:

 

The other night, Heather was watching a particularly terrible TV show. Celebrities were in various costumes—monsters, ravens, aliens, pineapples. Their faces were obscured and a panel tried to guess who they were based on their voices alone. 

      

I lay next to her, playing Candy Crush until I ran out of lives, then I’d reset the clock on my phone to get more lives. 

            

Her foot was underneath the covers, the sole of it resting against my leg. My skin was cold and her skin was warm. 

           

 All day long the Utah State legislature had been debating a bill on conversion therapy. The public comment period was filled with stories of people who’d been “cured,” their wicked inclinations purged, their heterosexual-passing marriages now pure, due to a practice that has more in common with torture than therapy—a practice that has been shown to increase suicides, and be utterly unsuccessful in changing orientation.

 

“This,” I said to her, leaning my head against her arm. “This is the thing they want to change. The thing they find so unnatural. The fact that I want to lie next to you in bed, our skin touching. I want to cheat at Candy Crush while you watch terrible television and that is so horrible it is worth torturing children, sometimes literally to death.”

She looked at me and she didn’t say anything.