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Narrative Essay: Definition, Examples & Characteristics

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  • 0:05 Defining a Narrative Essay
  • 1:03 Characteristics: Perspective
  • 2:18 Characteristics: Storytelling
  • 4:31 Characteristics: Organization
  • 5:41 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kelly Roach

Kelly earned her Master of Mass Communication from Arizona State and has taught consumer behavior and communication courses at the undergraduate level.

Essays come in many forms. In this lesson, you'll learn all about a narrative essay, from its basic definition to the key characteristics that make for an engaging and effective essay.

Defining a Narrative Essay

Meet my great uncle, Jeb. Jeb loves to tell a good story. In fact, his stories are often so good they seem a little too good to be true, if you know what I mean. Take for instance his tale of deep-sea fishing in the Gulf of Mexico. Just before a tropical storm hit, he single-handedly caught the largest red snapper ever seen. But, compelled by kindness, he released it back into the ocean before he thought to take a picture. And then was the time he was asked by NASA to join a team mission to Jupiter...

Turns out, while Jeb's stories may not be the most accurate, they are certainly engaging, which is one of the most important qualities of storytelling, or creating a narrative. Simply put, telling a story is narrating. A narrative essay gives an account of something for your reader. Do you remember your first day of school? What about the first time you rode a bike? If someone asked you to tell him or her about these things you'd be creating a verbal narrative essay.

Characteristics: Perspective

Now that you see what a narrative essay is, let's talk about the qualities of a narrative essay. A narrative essay most often tells a story from the writer's perspective. The essay defines a specific point of view. All this means is that the narrative essay tells the story how you see it.

Ever heard the saying, there are three sides to every story: yours, mine, and the truth? In a narrative essay you are sharing your side of the story. Because you are telling the story as you see it, sometimes it can be persuasive, like that time you promised the police officer you didn't slow down for the school zone because you simply couldn't see the flashing sign since it was covered by Mrs. Jones' oleanders. It's your side of the story, and you are trying to convince the police officer to see it from your perspective, thus being persuasive and saving you a potentially expensive ticket.

Have you ever had a friend stop to tell you a story where they start setting up all of these details and going on and on, and you're just sitting, waiting, knowing that surely there will be a point, and it never comes? That's something you don't want to happen in a narrative essay. If a narrative is not being persuasive, part of the mission is at least to get you to appreciate the value of the story. There needs to be a point.

Characteristics: Storytelling

As we've discussed, a narrative essay is essentially storytelling. This means the characteristics that make for an engaging story usually make for a good narrative essay as well. Why, even when we're not sure Uncle Jeb is telling the truth, will we still sit for hours to listen about his fishing expedition or trip to Jupiter?

Telling a good story goes beyond just having a beginning, middle, and end. Closely related to having a point, there needs to be a plot that is developed and carried out through the narrative. Basically, a plot is all of the major events of a story working together to give it a point.

One reason we sit and listen to Uncle Jeb as he describes the stormy waters in the Gulf before he caught the red snapper is because we know it's building up to the main idea of his story. It's probably somehow related to the big catch he'll get to soon.

When he does finally make his way to the part of the story where he makes the big catch, that's another essential part of the narrative essay: the climax. Much like your rambling friend, a story or narrative essay without a climax leaves you unsure of the point. The climax is where it all comes together; it's the most important piece of the story and often the most intense and exciting.

Another key element to storytelling is pacing. Think about most action movies you've seen. As they get to really eventful or important parts, you'll notice things start to slow down, sometimes even moving in slow motion. For Uncle Jeb, he'll probably spend a good five minutes telling you all about his big catch, describing the struggle with the line, hoisting the fish into the boat, how it flipped and flopped around on the deck, and so on.

On the other hand, details that aren't as key to the plot move faster. While talking about driving to the marina, getting the boat ready to set sail, and the ride out to his favorite fishing spot, he might just spend a minute or less. While these details help round out the story, they aren't as essential to the plot or climax.

Choosing to spend five minutes, or in an essay, five paragraphs, on one part of the story and one minute on another is exactly what pacing is all about. A good story spends time emphasizing important details, while including, but not necessarily lingering on, less important ones.

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