Employing Narrative in an Essay

Mark Twain once wrote, “Don’t say the old lady screamed—bring her on and let her scream.”  What he was trying to convey is the power of storytelling, or narration, in a piece of writing.  Many times it is more effective to tell a story, to let the old lady scream, than to just state facts or state an argument—that is, to say the old lady screamed.  Narrative essays are essays that enable you to tell a story (or stories) to make a point.

A well-chosen and well-told story will capture and hold your readers’ attention, arousing their curiosity or sympathy, and making your ideas more thought-provoking and memorable.

A narrative essay is usually focused around a single event or person, and is often personal in nature.  A narrative essay is a writing occasion in which you will likely use “I.”  But, a narrative does not necessarily have to be biographical; it could be a story about someone you know, or even an event from popular culture or history.  The important thing is that the story is compelling (if it’s not going to interest your reader, why would you tell it?) and that it makes some kind of point. Remember, even though it is a narrative essay, it is still an essay.  Although a narrative essay is not a traditional argumentative essay, in which you have a thesis and several supporting points, it still has a purpose and tries to get the reader to think a certain way about something; it just seeks to achieve this purpose through a story rather than facts and quotations, etc.

Here are some things to keep in mind when brainstorming and writing a narrative essay:

  • Choose your story thoughtfully.  Don’t just write about the first thing that comes to mind.  If you are writing a personal essay, brainstorm about people and events in your life that have been particularly challenging, inspiring, or that changed you in some way. Chances are, if it is a gripping story to you, it will be to your readers.  But you don’t have to write about great, dramatic things to be interesting.  Everyday things can often be the most profound.
  • Think about the significance of your story.  Why does it matter to you, why are you wanting to tell it?  What do you want to convey to your readers?
  • Consider the most effective way to relate your narrative.  Should you start at the beginning of the story, in the middle of things, or at the end, looking back?  Which parts of the action should be emphasized?  What is your point of view in the story?  Would a snatch of dialogue or a direct quotation from people in the story be useful or should you paraphrase/summarize what they say?
  • Employ clear, concrete, meaningful details.  You want your story to be evocative, to describe people and places and experiences, but you don’t want to overload your reader with unnecessary information.
  • Use vivid action verbs.  Flee from blandness.
  • Don’t just show—tell: the story should show the event’s significance, but you will also need to explain the significance, at least a little bit, likely in your introduction or conclusion.

You can also use narrative in essays that are not specifically narrative essays.  An anecdote is a type of narrative often deployed in regular argumentative essays.  An anecdote is simply a brief, especially interesting story, usually something that could be related in a few sentences.  Good essay writers often give an anecdote in their introduction as a hook or sometimes in their conclusion to drive their point home more powerfully.  These narratives do not tend to be personal, but are generally stories from history, literature, or contemporary culture.  In a short essay on how the essence of love is waiting, Roland Barthes concludes his text with this anecdote:

A mandarin fell in love with a courtesan. “I shall be yours,” she told him, “when you have spend a hundred nights waiting for me, sitting on a stool, in my garden, beneath my windows.” But on the ninety-ninth night, the mandarin stood up, put his stool under his arm, and went away (40). [1]

By using a brief story rather than just reiterating his point, Barthes makes his conclusion much more forceful and his entire essay more memorable.  So even when you are not writing narrative essays, always be thinking about how you can apply the rhetorical richness of narrative to all your essays, and make note of particularly compelling stories you hear, so you can always be prepared to breathe life into a lifeless essay with a little narrative.

[1] Barthes, Roland. A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Hill and Wang, 2001.


Read one or two narrative essays; you might consider texts by Annie Dillard, Joan Didion, or David Sedaris. Analyze the way they tell their stories, how they convey significance, how they describe people/places, and what kinds of verbs and diction they use.

See also:

 In the Moment