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How to Write a Better Narrative Essay for Freshman Composition

How to Write a Better Narrative Essay for Freshman Composition


By David E. Hubler
Contributor, Online Learning Tips

You’ve enrolled in a degree program and have signed up for freshman composition among your initial courses. One of the first assignments you may receive is to write an essay about a personal incident that made a lasting impression on you. The topic for this narrative assignment could range from the first time you failed a test to being stood up by your prom date to the death of a close family member.

You might regard such assignments as easy because 1) the incident actually happened to you and 2) you assume you know all the relevant details.

The trouble comes when you try to write it down. You either don’t know where to begin or you write down every detail you recall, starting with your birth.

Before you hit the keys on your computer and start writing, consider precisely what happened to you and when. Also, think about why this was such an important event that you want to write about it.

Recalling all of this information will help you to create a brief timeline, which you can use when you prepare to write.

Get Your Essay Reader to the Scene of the Action Promptly

For example, if you and a couple of friends encountered a bear while you were on a camping trip in the mountains, don’t start your essay recounting how you and your friends got the idea for the trip over Cokes one hot, muggy night a month before school let out for the summer. Don’t provide a list of all the outdoor gear you needed to buy at the local REI store and how you earned the money to pay for it.

Go to the scene of the incident promptly. This might mean omitting the humorous flat tire episode on the highway or the stop at a dumpy-looking diner for lunch that had the best cheeseburgers you’d ever tasted.

If you saw the recent film “Jackie” about first lady Jacqueline Kennedy, you’ll recall that the movie did not begin with her childhood or even with her husband John F. Kennedy becoming president. The entire film focuses on her emotional state in the days after JFK’s assassination. That narrow focus holds the audience’s interest. That storytelling technique is how you will hold your readers’ interest.

Introduce the Key Characters in Your Essay at the Scene of the Incident

Think like a film scriptwriter. Open your essay at the campground. Briefly introduce your fellow campers and provide a little backstory about why you all were there. A graduation trip perhaps? Or a long-planned getaway?

A descriptive sentence or two will suffice. By thinking in chronological terms for the story, you create a workable outline for your essay.

Set the Scene and Introduce the Main Action

Now comes the hard part, the entrance of the bear. What was happening just prior to the appearance of the bear? Was it still daylight or had the sun set? Were you pitching your tent? Were you out scouting for wood to build a campfire? Did one of your party wander off and did everyone go out to find him? How did you first realize you had a visitor? What kind of feelings and emotions did the animal provoke in you? And what happened subsequently?

Follow the Writer’s Adage: Show, Don’t Tell

Whenever it’s possible, use relevant dialogue to keep your story moving. Don’t write, “Sam was frightened and he asked me what the bear was doing there.” Instead, write the following:

“What’s that bear doing here?” Sam whispered. “He lives around here, I guess,” I replied, backing away.

Note how the latter construction conveys the fear you both felt.

A Good Narrative Essay Ends with a Few Enlightened Thoughts

Since you are writing about a life-threatening incident, it’s obvious that you survived it. Your conclusion needs to explain how the appearance of the bear affected you. Were you surprised by how well you reacted in the face of danger? Did you gain an appreciation of the fragility of life? Did you learn something about your friends you never knew before? Did seeing the bear in its natural habitat strengthen your love of nature?

By following these steps and answering these questions, you’ll be able to create a coherent, thoughtful and interesting narrative essay.

About the Author

David E. Hubler brings a variety of government, journalism and teaching experience to his position as a Quality Assurance Editor at APUS. David’s professional background includes serving as a senior editor at CIA and the Voice of America. He has also been a managing editor for several business-to-business and business-to-government publishing companies. David has taught high school English in Connecticut and freshman composition at Northern Virginia Community College. He has a master’s degree for Teachers of English from the University of New Hampshire and a B.A. in English from New York University. In March 2017, Rowman & Littlefield will publish the paperback edition of David’s latest book, “The Nats and the Grays, How Baseball in the Nation’s Capital Survived WWII and Changed the Game Forever.”