Writer and Pulitzer Prize nominee Scott Russell Sanders once compared essay writing to “the pursuit of mental rabbits.” Similarly, author Dinty W. Moore of Brevity Mag calls the act of writing a narrative essay “a hunt, a chase, a ramble through thickets of thought, in pursuit of some brief glimmer of fuzzy truth.”
The narrative essay as an art form has become widely popular in the last years among both the readers and the writers of the genre. And for us writers, there is always more room for experimentation and improvement when it comes to writing narrative essays, discovering different ways of telling a story, embellishing a piece with vivid details, taking risks with different types of opening the piece, applying the elements of fiction to nonfiction, and so forth.
Naturally, we cannot cover all tips, tricks and lessons that can help us become better writers in a single post. That’s why I chose to focus on eight essential ideas in this mini guide. Each of these ideas we’ll go over briefly will help you take your essay writing craft to a new level.
In her essay, “To Fashion a Text,” Annie Dillard says that writing an essay is like rearing children—willpower has very little to do with it. She then adds, “If you have a little baby crying in the middle of the night, and if you depend only on willpower to get you out of bed to feed the baby, that baby will starve. You do it out of love. Willpower is a weak idea; love is strong. You don’t have to scourge yourself with a cat-o’-nine-tails to go to the baby. You go to the baby out of love for that particular baby. That’s the same way you go to your desk. There’s nothing freakish about it. Caring passionately about something isn’t against nature, and it isn’t against human nature. It’s what we’re here to do.”
Knowing that you’re in love with writing your stories as much as we love reading them, I hope that this tiny guide will give you ideas about how to get better at the craft of writing and telling your stories—if that’s what you’re here to do.
Secret #1: A captivating essay has a situation and a story.
Renowned essayist and memoir writer Vivian Gornick says, “Every work of literature has both a situation and a story. The situation is the context or circumstance, sometimes the plot; the story is the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer: the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say.”
Two of the examples she gives are Theodore Dreiser’s book An American Tragedy and Edmund Gosse’s memoir Father and Son. According to Gornick, the situation in An American Tragedy is Dreiser’s America, and the story is the pathological nature of hunger for the world. The situation in Gosse’s memoir, on the other hand, is fundamentalist England whereas the story is the betrayal of intimacy necessary to the act of becoming oneself.
When a narrative essay has a clear situation but an unclear story, the reader is bored to death. The piece lacks the juice that makes the reader want to read it all the way to the end. On the other hand, when a narrative essay has a juicy story but the situation is not defined well, the reader feels a bit lost and ungrounded because the container that should provide the context is missing. After all, a story and its meaning cannot emerge in a void.
Questions to Consider:
- What is the situation inherent in your essay? What is the circumstance, plot, or backdrop that will function as a container, giving the story a meaningful context?
- What is the story your essay will tell? What is the insight or wisdom that will be revealed during the transfer of your story from you, the writer, to the reader?
- What is it that both you and the reader will have discovered or realized at the end of the piece? In what ways will your reader be able to create their own personal meaning on the topic?
Secret #2: A captivating essay has a reliable narrator.
An unreliable narrator is a narrator, whether in literature, film, or theater, whose credibility has been seriously compromised. The term was coined in 1961 by Wayne C. Booth in The Rhetoric of Fiction. Some of the famous literary works where the narrator is an unreliable one are Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye and Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.
Award-winning novelist Deb Caletti says that an unreliable narrator can sometimes be purposefully used in a work of fiction to generate just enough suspicion or to withhold just enough information, without losing the reader’s connection to the character. However, an unreliable narrator is not a desired element in a work of nonfiction—especially in a narrative essay or memoir. When you’re writing an essay, where you are the narrator telling your own story, the reader takes it for granted that you’re telling the truth. Unlike in fiction, you must make sure that the narrator—you—is truthful and reliable at all times. The reader depends on you to tell your story as it is so that your experience becomes a mirror for them to process their own experience and story.
Confronting the truth can get messy and involve pride or denial. It’s surely a tough task that requires much time and introspection. Besides, each time you tell a story, you recreate your own version of events even though your intention is not to bend the truth. It’s just that you can process and understand your experiences only from your subjective and shifting viewpoint. Still, make sure that your narrative essay is built on a foundation of “uncompromised” truth.
Writing a narrative essay is about telling the truth. Your truth. That is what your reader is interested in finding about. They want to explore your take on something which you carefully uncover for them one step at a time until the entire picture is laid out for them. So, set out to write what you know. Be honest. But tell it slowly—with great care and lucidity.
Questions to Consider:
- Is your narrative essay built on the truth—your honest truth? Are you a reliable narrator the reader can fully depend upon and believe?
- Are you telling them the story slowly, revealing one layer of your truth and experience at a time (without causing an overwhelm by dumping it all on them)?
- Does your essay clearly convey where you’re coming from?
Secret #3: A captivating essay is written with intent.
Marion Roach Smith, the author of the fabulous little book The Memoir Project, says, “Whether your goal is a letter home, a blog post, an essay, or book, you must stop rehearsing and learn to write with intent.”
This is about knowing what story you want to write and why you want to write it. It’s about stopping to practice and starting to commit to doing whatever needs to be done to get that story on paper.
Writing with intent is about writing with purpose. It’s a deviation from “process-oriented writing” towards “product-oriented writing.” It’s no longer writing just for yourself, but acknowledging and accepting that you’re also writing for your reader, and thus, setting a goal to finish your story regardless of any inner and outer obstacles that may appear on your writing path.
In a narrative essay written with intent, the reader senses—between the lines—that the writer has something important to say and that, like a resolute captain, he or she is determined to follow a determined route that will take the ship to its destination. You feel guided and effortlessly follow their lead, knowing well that the discovery when you get there with the writer will matter to you, too. You feel the power of the writer’s purpose and desire to tell the story as well as their commitment to their focus.
Questions to Consider:
- What is the purpose of your narrative essay? Why are you writing it?
- What is it that you want to say by writing it?
- What are the potential obstacles on your path that could lead you astray, causing you to lose track of your purpose and your “why” for writing this specific story? How will you deal with them?
Secret #4: A captivating essay offers a single slice, not the entire cake.
Have you watched the movie City Slickers? In it, there is a scene where Curly and Mitch have a conversation as they ride their horses side by side. Here is how the dialogue goes:
Curly: Do you know what the secret of life is? [holds up one finger]
Mitch: Your finger?
Curly: One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and the rest don’t mean shit.
Mitch: But, what is the one thing?
Curly: [smiles] That’s what YOU have to find out.
When you’re telling a story in the form of a narrative essay, you feel drawn to offering the reader the entire picture. And because your story is embedded in you, the periphery of that big picture is often very wide because in real life, a story is always connected to other stories and then sub-stories. The whole thing is an intricate web of threads connecting to one another in a zillion different ways.
While this intricateness is about the nature of human life, it’s not a good idea to try to fit the entire tapestry into a single narrative essay. Instead, you choose, combine, and compose the threads of a single story—your “one thing”—and you weave them. At the end, it’s not just your story—it also becomes your reader’s story because they find themselves and their own human condition in it. They get moved and transformed by a snapshot of your “slice” and what you chose to tell them about it.
Therefore, a narrative essay that captivates the reader is almost always a wisely selected slice of a narrative. An essay must choose and drive forward only one slice of the big story and leave all the other story slices on the table—perhaps for another essay or to be included in a longer memoir.
Questions to Consider:
- What is your story about? What is your “one thing” you choose to tell the reader about?
- What is the “whole cake” when you look at the big picture of your story? What is the “slice” of it you choose to tell in this particular narrative essay? What other “slices” and details do you need to leave out?
- What must definitely be included and said? Why?
Secret #5: A captivating essay leaves the reader transformed.
Unraveling a story you’ve been familiar with and then telling it to someone else is, by no means, an easy feat. With each story, the writer goes on a new quest, makes a new discovery, and composes their findings in written words. Even though the subject of a narrative essay is extracted from the writer’s own life and reflects their unique experience, in a captivating essay, the reader is able to resonate with the storyteller and make their own meaning—simply because they recognize themselves in the universality of the writer’s human experience. In other words, the reader is transformed through the retelling of the experience of the writer.
Think of each narrative essay you desire to write as a mini “hero’s journey.” Imagine that your story (a.k.a. your narrative essay) includes the many stages of Joseph Campbell’s narrative structure, “Hero’s Journey”—a challenging quest that involves an adventure, an inner or outer mentor, a threshold, a conflict, tests, allies and enemies, obstacles and rewards, a resurrection, and the homecoming with the elixir. The essay, from the first until the last word, charts a transformation you have personally experienced. And that experience conveyed through your words acts as a surrogate for your reader’s own transformation.
One of the ways of making this happen is intending to write “what you wished you knew before what you will write about happened.” And this brings you back to your “why” and the questions: “Why are you writing this story? What is it that you want to say?”
Questions to Consider:
- What inner transformation does your story describe?
- What is the universal theme (or what are the universal themes) that will probably resonate with your reader?
- Does your story provide the fertile ground for the reader to experience an insightful inner transformation through witnessing your words and story?
Secret #6: A captivating essay captures the reader from the first hello.
The beginning is everything. The first few seconds a reader spends reading the intro of your narrative essay will determine whether they will keep reading it or not. Nowadays everyone is overloaded with information coming from all directions (think Facebook!) Our attention span has become shorter than any time in human history. Studies say that you usually have 50 seconds or 15 words to convince your reader to continue reading. When there is so much competing for your reader’s attention, you must make sure that you grab them at first hello; in other words, in the first paragraph of your essay. There are many ways to start your essay with a hook and make the reader want more. Here are some ideas you can apply to do that:
- Start with a personal anecdote.
- Tell a seemingly unrelated anecdote and connect it to your topic in an unexpected manner.
- Describe a dramatic scene.
- Describe an intriguing (unusual, strange, funny, painful, etc.) person, place, or thing.
- Create a metaphor.
- Establish juxtaposition.
- Use irony.
- Start with a quote or a joke.
- Establish a conversation with your reader.
- Make an unusual comparison between two things or two people.
Whatever you do, don’t begin with the beginning of your actual story! Now, let’s look at a few examples of catchy beginnings from remarkable essays, shall we?
The beginning of “Seeing” by Annie Dillard:
“When I was six or seven years old, growing up in Pittsburgh, I used to take a precious penny of my own and hide it for someone else to find. It was a curious compulsion; sadly, I’ve never been seized by it since.”
The beginning of “Salvation” by Langston Hughes:
“I was saved from sin when I was going on thirteen. But not really saved. It happened like this. There was a big revival at my Auntie Reed’s church. Every night for weeks there had been much preaching, singing, praying, and shouting, and some very hardened sinners had been brought to Christ, and the membership of the church had grown by leaps and bounds. Then just before the revival ended, they held a special meeting for children, “to bring the young lambs to the fold.”
The beginning of “In Bed” by Joan Didion:
“Three, four, sometimes five times a month, I spend the day in bed with a migraine headache, insensible to the world around me. Almost every day of every month, between these attacks, I feel the sudden irrational irritation and the flush of blood into the cerebral arteries which tell me that migraine is on its way, and I take certain drugs to avert its arrival. If I did not take the drugs, I would be able to function perhaps one day in four.”
The beginning of “The Knife” by Richard Selzer:
“One holds the knife as one holds the bow of a cello or a tulip—by the stem. Not palmed nor gripped nor grasped, but lightly with the tips of the fingers. The knife is not for pressing. It is for drawing across the field of skin. Like a slender fish, it waits, at the ready, then, go!”
Questions to Consider:
- How does your narrative essay open? If you were the reader, would you want more after reading the first few sentences?
- What would “not beginning from the beginning” look like for your specific story?
- What unusual intro could perfectly lead into the story while hooking the reader’s attention?
Secret #7: A captivating essay is painted with details.
Writer and teacher Pat Schneider, author of the groundbreaking book Writing Alone and with Others says, “If I tell you my character has gray hair, you will not see her. If I tell you she has a tiny scar at the upper left corner of her lip from which protrudes one gray whisker—you will make up the rest of her face with absolute clarity. If I tell you my character is waiting in a car, you won’t be ‘caught,’ but if I tell you he pushes his fingers down in the crack of the seat where the ancient leather has pulled away from the seat of the frame, and pulls up a small coin purse with a folded note in it—you will be mine.”
Details are what make a narrative essay come alive. When you don’t just tell the reader what happened and why it happened but also paint “how it happened” using concrete, vivid details to describe people, objects and places, you will captivate your reader.
Memoirist and writing teacher Judith Barrington says that beginning writers often veer away from concrete details, worrying that by being too specific their story won’t be “universal.” But in her opinion, it is precisely in the particular details of one person’s story that the writing opens itself up to its readers, allowing them to enter that story rather than stay at a distance, as they do when the writing is more abstract. According to Barrington, “memory resides in specific sensory details, not in abstract notions.”
To bring into your narrative essay more of the vivid, tangible details, put your senses to work. Images grounded in sight, smell, sound, taste, or touch will stay with your reader long after they have finished reading your piece. However, don’t overdo it by drowning your readers in excess detail. Use your common sense and make sure that the details you choose to include are relevant and within context.
Questions to Consider:
- How do you describe the people, places and objects in your narrative essay? Do you use abstract language or concrete details?
- What senses can you put to work to write scenes that are rich and vivid with specific details?
- Do you do more than relying on adjectives for spicing up your descriptions?
Secret #8: A captivating essay is fresh and unique.
Let’s face it: Shakespeare was onto something in Sonnet LIX, when he implied that there really is nothing new under the sun. Every single story—just like every single topic or every single message—has already been written, told and shared in all genres by quite a few writers and storytellers. Some people have even researched and concluded that there are only 20 master plots and 36 dramatic situations that can occur in a story or performance.
But don’t be discouraged. People won’t read your writing and stories for new “content,” but because they want to hear it from you, find out about your unique experience and your take on it, hear it from your unique voice, be inspired by your unique perspective, and be transformed by your unique insight. They will read your work because it is you who is telling the story, regardless of the fact that hundreds of other famous and not-so-famous writers have written pieces on the same topic.
Questions to Consider:
- What are the elements that make your voice, writing style, and storytelling unique?
- Do you allow your voice to be heard unapologetically in your essays?
- Does your personality seep into your writing?
Like most writers, Mary Karr, the author of The Art of Memoir, also hates formulas and checklists. And yet, she has three essential principles she keeps in mind when writing any type of personal narrative. We believe Karr’s tiny list of three items also makes sense when writing a narrative essay:
Paint a physical reality that uses all the senses and exists in the time you’re writing about—a singular, fascinating place peopled with objects and characters we believe in. Should include the speaker’s body or some kinesthetic elements.
Tell a story that gives the reader some idea of your milieu and exploits your talent. We remember in stories, and for a writer, story is where you start.
Package information about your present self or backstory so it has emotional conflict or scene.
The rest, as Karr says, is secondary.