How Do I Write a Good Narrative Essay?

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Welcome to your all-in-one English Language tutorial about how to write a good narrative essay.

In most high school level and post-secondary level exams, you may have to write a narrative essay as a compulsory component of your English Language paper or make the choice to write a narrative essay from of a given number of options.

So, let’s assume that you had just chosen a topic/question about narrative essay writing in your WASSCE, NECO, JAMB, GCE or IGCSE English Language paper.

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The obvious question would be, how can you write a good narrative essay?

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We are going to look at all the steps you need to go through to make sure that your final essay will give you nothing lower that the grade you have been dreaming about.

Are you ready to learn how to write a good narrative essay which can easily command an A or B score?

Then come along with me.

Is the question about narrative essay writing?

There are pointers to this. It is important to be sure in order to avoid deviation in your essay.

Words or phrases which direct the candidate to narrate include the following:

  1. “Give an account of ………”
  2. “Write a story ………”
  3. “Narrate a popular tale……”
  4. “Write ……. describing what happened”
  5. “Write a report ……. on activities during your term of office”
  6. “Tell them what happened”

Any time you come across any of the above expressions or similar ones in your essay question, note that you are supposed to use the narrative approach. 

What it means to narrate …

To narrate is to tell a story. It is about giving a straightforward, cohesive and interesting account of a series of real or imaginary events which occurred / happened in the past.

So, when the topic says say /tell /describe / give an account etc. of an event or story which occurred / happened in the past, it is asking you to narrate.

That is, to remember the important and interesting aspects of the event and recount all that, to someone or a group of people interested in knowing as much as possible about it.

Narration and description may overlap

Very often narration and description go hand in hand.

This is so because, it is assumed that your audience knows nothing or very little about the story or events you are narrating to them.

Therefore, in order to make them understand fully what you are saying, and in order that their interest in the course of the narrative is sustained, you will need to describe vividly objects, persons, places events and actions.

KEY REQUIREMENTS OF A GOOD NARRATIVE

Vocabulary, sentence structure and expression matter a lot in narrative essay writing. To be able to write a good narrative essay, therefore, you need to pay attention to the below points.

Remember to use simple, familiar words and phrases.

Your reader has to understand what you are saying in order to enjoy or appreciate the narrative.

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You can only do this if your words and expressions are easy to understand.

Note that the examiner will assess your composition based on how much sense you have been able to make.

It is never true that the more difficult, complex and strange your words and expressions are, the better you can show the examiner that you “know English” and therefore the higher the marks he or she will award you.

Here is the truth rather …

What is true is that simple familiar words and expressions add to the beauty and clarity of your composition. These are what attract the higher marks.

One danger with the temptation to use difficult words is that they may not in any way be appropriately used.

You will attract a minus for using irrelevant words or constructions.

Another danger is this: You may misspell the word and attract a minus for mechanical inaccuracy.

Again problems of relevance material will be created when you begin to repeat ideas by writing cumbersome sentences.

So, you see, there is absolutely nothing to gain from using “big” words.  Instead, there is so much to lose.

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On the other hand, there is a great deal there for you to gain by using simple, concise words and constructions.

Be interesting … use words which generate interest.  

Dr. Samuel Johnson, the famous English writer once said

The worst fault a writer can commit is to be dull.

Try not to sound dull. Create as much interest in the narrative as possible. But please, don’t overdo it.

Use picturesque, exact, appropriate and imaginative words, proverbs, figures of speech and idiomatic expressions relating to such important elements of storytelling as time, place people or characters and events.

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 Be simple and keep to the point

Consider the following:Simple Versus Complex/Cumbersome expression:

He had a very large farm which belonged to him.

“which belonged to him” is completely irrelevant. It is repetitive.

The candidate should have just written:

He had a very large farm.

or 

He owned a very large farm.

Tense matters a lot in the narrative essay.

The commonest and most serious error made by students in writing any narrative essay is the confusion of tenses.

Do the following to avoid committing this error or to, at least, minimize it.

Be consistent in your use of tenses.

Do not mix up tenses in the course of your narrative essay.

Use the chosen tense throughout.

You may then ask what tense is the best tense to use if you want to write a good narrative essay?

Here comes the answer, especially if you are a senior high school level candidate: the past tense.

Indeed, some more experienced writers use the present tense in telling stories and recounting events. The objective here may be to give the story more life in order to make it more real.

Now, listen to me. Given your relative limited experience with writing and its conventions, the safest thing you can do is to narrate in the past tense. Do not forget to do so consistently.

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Let’s look at the following example taken from a WASSCE candidate’s narrative essay:

Many years ago, there was a man who lived in a village called Anansekrom. He has a very large farm which belongs to him.

Can you see the problem?

Obviously, the candidate has committed an avoidable and unpardonable error by following the past tense verbs (was and lived) in the narrative with two present tense verbs in a row!

You can see clearly that the above two sentences are the opening (the very first) lines of a narrative essay.

Already, and sadly so, the candidate has carelessly thrown away some three (3) marks out of a total of fifty (50) marks.

This is what I’m pleading with you to avoid, my dear friend.

Limit your use of “-ing constructions.

Because, if not used properly and sparingly, they can make your narrative sound clunmsy, occasionally ambiguous and difficult to follow.

Instead of writing such constructions as

  • On my realizing that I was in danger, he fled …….
  • He being the eldest son, I came forward ………
  • Having discovered the hidden treasure John told me to…………
  • Vulture, being someone who wouldn’t want to be fooled twice, Rabbit asked him why …

use adverbial clauses beginning with: when, after, as soon as, since as etc.

  •  As soon as I realized that I was in danger, I fled …..
  •  Since he was the eldest, he came forward ………..
  • When we discovered the hidden treasure we shared ………
  • Since vulture was someone who wouldn’t want to be fooled twice, he asked Rabbit why …

Content: Factual or fictional?

Many candidates face the problem of finding the right stories for their narrative essays.

Interestingly, some candidates have the notion that the English composition question demands the same hard facts as may be demanded in the case of an Economics or Biology question, for example.

This notion is false, to say the least.

The world of English composition is a democratic world of freedom of choice, movement, expression etc.

It is only true that like everywhere else, these freedoms must be enjoyed within the limits of the rules governing each type of composition.

As far as the choice of material is concerned, there are two major sources:

Personal Experiences (Facts)

Our lives are filled with experiences, pleasant or unpleasant. Most of them exciting and interesting.

Things either happened to us personally or we were eye-witnesses to them happening to people close to us or even not related to us in any way.

Whenever an essay question asks you to narrate an incident or tell a story, you are free to dip your hand into your store of experience and pick  any experience which best suits the demands of the topic.

In this case, you will be narrating real happenings.

Nevertheless, in order to sound interesting, you have to fill the gaps in that real incident with your own original, creative details.

Imagination and creativity

It is never compulsory that whatever material you choose for your composition should be a purely factual or real historical event.

Do you still hold on to the belief that you will fail if you don’t write facts in your English language essay just as you will have done for an Economics essay?

Please discard that belief now. The English Composition Examination in general, and the narrative type in particular, is keenly interested in knowing how creative candidates cab be.

So my dear friend, create something interesting from your imagination.

You may make it look factual by providing fictional details (figures, dates, places etc.) where necessary.

Use your creative talent

One thing that I always tell my part-time students is this:

If there is any group of people who should be the most successful essay writers then this group is the group of liars!

Yes the “gifted liar” imagines and creates things on the spur of the moment.In fact, more often than not, such an individual ends up convincing or even entertaining their audience

Thankfully, we all have the inborn tendency to tell lies at least for the purpose of getting out of very difficult, dangerous situations.

You must use this same creative power to write captivating stories.

One piece of advice though: don’t overdo this; you may end up exaggerating.

An exaggerated account of an event lacks realism. It hardly has anything in common with real life situations. And this may cost you dearly.

For instance, it is a bit of an exaggeration to write:

“Mr. Chairman, in the area of sports our school chalked many successes in the last academic year. Notable among these was our winning of the gold medal at the London  Olympic Games  …. I should also mention our soccer team’s brilliant performance at the recent World Cup tournament…

How could these be?

Are schools represented at the Olympic Games and the World Cup?

No.

So exaggerations of this nature are not only unrealistic but will also not get you any significant marks for content. If anything they deny you of valuable marks.

Therefore, be creative: use real or imaginary facts that are realistic for your material. This way, you will attract a respectable score for content.

where, when, who, how, what …

Let your narrative always address these key areas: where, when, who, how, and what

  • Where: State and describe clearly places of all actions.
  • When: State and describe specific times.
  • Who: Make sure to name frequently the major participants in the events you are narrating.
  • How: You must also describe the manner of actions and utterances.
  • What: Do not summarize your story. Instead, narrate in detail all the main events that come together to make the narrative one beautiful whole.

HOW TO BEGIN AND ARRANGE PARAGRAPHS AND IDEAS/EVENTS IN A NARRATIVE

Linking Expressions

You have to join your paragraphs in such a way that your ideas and events flow naturally from one to the next in subsequent paragraphs.

The following are some words and phrases that you can use to properly begin one paragraph and therefore join it to the preceding one in a narrative:

Shortly after that, Just then; Immediately after; As soon as; Shortly afterwards; No sooner had … than; Hardly had … when; The next thing, All of a sudden; Soon afterwards; As a result; When; Eventually; To my utter dismay; Contrary to their expectations; The next day was the time for ……; The D-day finally arrived; Then out of the blue ….

You may also use appropriate proverbs or popular wise saying to introduce a new paragraph whose idea is closely linked to that of the preceding one.

Here is an example for you …

Coming events, they say, cast their shadows. Okukuseku woke up the next day to the horror of a terrible sight in front of his house ……………

Logical Sequence

In order that you achieve your goal to write a good narrative essay, I will urge you to pay close attention to the way you presents the order of events in your story.

Relate the events in the order in which they happened.

The best way to make this happen for you is to plan and arrange your narrative carefully at the beginning. Do not mix up events.

At the WASSCE and similar levels, you are required to be straightforward in your narration. Any forward and backward movement in the narrative could spell your doom

You know why? Because you can hardly handle this properly in a way that will enable you to write a good narrative essay.

The best stories or narratives, in general, are built around a CAUSE and EFFECT sequence. That is, one thing happens as a result of something else which happened earlier.

In other words, it is one event or action which causes another one. This will then lead to a climax and to a happy or a sad ending.

How to introduce and conclude a narrative essay

Your introduction and conclusion play a vital role in your effort to write a good narrative essay.

In fact, the first and last paragraphs are the most important parts of any narrative essay.

Introduction

Begin your narrative essay with a striking sentence, expression, quotation or proverb.That is in a situation where the question has not given you a specific one.

Again, it is important not to overdo this. Whatever you write must be appropriate to the question and to your chosen content.

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Conclusion

The concluding paragraph of a narrative, on the other hand, should show clearly that you are at the end of the narrative.

PLEASE NOTE: Where a concluding sentence or phrase is given you by the topic/question remember to write a conclusion that will perfectly bind the body of the narrative and the required concluding line together.

Additional techniques to enrich your narrative essay

It is most helpful to use as many as possible of the following techniques in your stories in particular.

Please, you will not indicate by writing that you are about to use any of them. If you understand them, knowing exactly how they work and can be used, they will show in the narrative, thereby giving it an ‘A’ quality.

Suspense

Every good writer uses this technique which keeps their audience or reader in eager anticipation of what will happen next.

In the narrative essay (especially in short stories), keep the audience, and for that matter the examiner, perpetually interested in reading your narrative to the last word.

How do you work this out as you try to write a good narrative essay?

Simple.

By making them eager to know what will happen next or what will be the fate of a good or bad character.

This is how you can convince your audience and your examiner that you are a good storyteller.

And, trust me, your examiner will bountifully reward you because you have been able to make them realize that you know how to write a good narrative essay.

Quite often, and for your level, you only need to keep the most important part of the story away from the audience until around the end.

In the meantime, keep reminding your audience, by your use of words, expressions etc. that something big is just about to happen to that character or idea.

Personification, Simile, Onomatopoeia, Irony, Metaphor and Idiomatic Expressions, Setting, Climax, Oxymoron and so on.

Your narrative essay comes alive and kicking with a proper dose of imagery. Your correct use of personification, simile and metaphor as well as other figures of speech and idiomatic expressions will allow you to write a good narrative essay.

  • In personification, you give human life, personality, speech, action etc. to inanimate or non-human beings. e.g.
  • Instead of: He became very rich,

      Write: His wealth grew rapidly. 

  • Instead of: The people thought their chief would come out of hiding after the festival but he did not appear.

      Write: The festival came and went but the chief did not show up.

  • In simile, you use “like” or “as” to compare what you are talking about to something else so that the meaning and effect become clearer, more interesting and more striking

 Example: Don’t just say “The news spread very quickly” but say “The news spread like wildfire in the harmattan”

  • In metaphor, you are still comparing for the same effect. However, you don’t use “like” or “as” Example: She stamped her feet on every suggestion I put forward.
  • Idiomatic expressions are very many. You are aware of many of them. Use those that are appropriate to your narrative.

 For example, instead of : His friends left him in his time of need

Write: They left him in the lurch, to face the music alone.

Striking setting …

Setting involves the time, place and atmosphere of an event.

To create a striking setting, be specific about time and highly descriptive about places in your narrative essay (especially where your narrative is a fictional story)

Also, do not forget to use words to evoke the appropriate atmosphere.

For example, where you are writing about a festival, make sure to depict an atmosphere of joy and not sadness.

Here is an example for you:

On Saturday morning, as early as the birds started to announce the break of another day, the youth of Gomoa Brofo poured onto the streets like locusts in their colourful sportswear. They were ready to go on “a float” through the town’s principal streets and also to the outlying villages of  Ngyiresi, Adaa and Ohua.

They blew whistles, beat drums, rang bells and sang popular ‘jama’ songs amidst loud but measured clapping. It was an amazing spectacle to watch. Some elderly men and women refused to be left out of  the frenzy. They shook their tired bodies to the beat of the music coming from ancient, ancestral drums that are only brought out on special occasions like this…

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Onomatopoeia

Occasionally, use words which suggest the sound or sense of an action or occurrence.  

Example:

Instead of: The bigger man fell down

Write: The bigger man hit the hard earth with a thud.

Use other words like: crack, boom, splash, screech, roar, jingle, click, chime and toll if you really want to write a good narrative essay that your examiner will love.

Climax

Here, you reserve your main points/events/outcomes by building up from the least important and then surprise your audience with the most striking one.

 Look at these examples.

  1. She looked at the baby kindly, then smiled and exploded into loud laughter 
  2.  King lion looked offended. He started walking away. Then, all of a sudden, he turned round, grinned broadly, and without warning hit rabbit hard in the face with his left paw. Rabbit screamed…

The reverse of climax is anticlimax or bathos. You can use that too.

33 Examples of Oxymoron in Literature

Irony

You use irony by making the characters in your narrative essay say the opposite of what they mean.

Irony is also present when events or actions result in consequences which are the opposite of what was expected.

Example:

Ananse planned to punish and pay Tortoise in his own coins. He, therefore, called Tortoise to his house the next day and said; “Tortoise, you are the best friend that I ever had. Last night, you really showed me what it meant when the elders say “It is the parent who loves his child that will reprimand him”. My dear friend, I have planned to thank you with a feast of rice and stew with soft drinks. I want only the two of us to be present. I want you alone to enjoy the fruits of your labour. A good dog, as the saying goes, deserves a good bone …”

It is obvious that Ananse has a wicked plan.

He means to punish Tortoise rather than thank him. This is irony.

You can see that this manner of telling a story is more interesting and more effective than what comes next:

“Ananse planned to punish and pay Tortoise in his own coins. He told tortoise that what he did was very annoying. Ananse said he would never forgive Tortoise and that he would one day punish Tortoise since Tortoise was a bad friend…”

Wrapping it all up …

One good narrative essay is one big shot in the arm for your dream of earning a very high grade in your WASSCE/NECO/JAMB/IGSCE etc. English Language test.

With a clear focus on the points in my mega Narrative Essay Tutorial, you cannot fail to deliver the goods on the D-day.

Make sure you get it right.

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About Ralph Nyadzi

Ralph is a professional blogger, founder and CEO of RN Digital Media Ent. He spends his day working as an online entrepreneur, e-learning strategist and a test prep coach. If you can't locate him anywhere on the web, just doing what he knows how to do best, check him out on his farm or in the kitchen. He lives with four cats in the Central Region of his native country, Ghana.

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