A narrative essay is one that tells a story. You might be used to thinking of storytelling in connection with personal relationships, where we’re telling our stories all the time to friends, family, or romantic partners. Or you might think of the narratives you read in literature classes—from great storytellers like SophoclesShakespeare or Toni Morrison. Some of your biggest exposures to storytelling probably come through movies, TV shows or even YouTube videos.

The Narrative in Professional Life

You might not be used to thinking of how important storytelling skills are in school or professional life. But consider the fact that your college application essay can be pivotal in determining whether you get into the school of your choice. And high-quality storytelling can pay off big-time beyond beyond college too. A good narrative essay assignment should show you how practically valuable it will be to develop your ability to write a compelling story.

Sometimes students scoff at narrative assignments because they don’t see how practical such assignments are. For instance, even a student who has settled on a good narrative topic might say, “What’s the point of writing a story about my eighth grade biking accident? I’m studying to be a biomed engineer, not a friggin’ novelist!” There’s an assumption here that biomedical engineers don’t need narrative writing skills—but in many cases that assumption will be misguided. And the student who writes about his eighth grade biking accident may actually be able to make a meaningful connection between that experience and his desire to develop treatments for others who go through physical trauma.

Engineers of various types, along with MBA’s, marketing or sales professionals and others, will often be asked to produce a writing sample on the spot when they go for job interviews. Employers want to see that applicants will be able to write accomplished proposals or reports for supervisors or clients. A graduate with an engineering degree in such a situation might choose to write about her senior design project. If she’s acquired good storytelling skills, she could write a compelling narrative about how she helped to address technical challenges while also resolving conflicts among members of her design team. Such a narrative essay, in showing the applicant’s communication skills, technical knowledge and leadership qualities, would be a powerful piece of self-marketing. In many such cases, narratives written with skill and attention to audience have helped applicants land coveted positions.

Writing a Compelling Narrative

So how do you write a strong narrative essay? Begin by thinking analytically about the elements that draw you into a good story. A compelling narrative essay, even though it focuses on factual events, will use many of the qualities you enjoy in a good piece of fiction:

  • Opening hook to get your audience interested or curious
  • Sharply drawn characters
  • Plot—that is, a chain of events with an interesting cause-and-effect dynamic
  • Vivid sensory description of people, events, and settings
  • Dialogue
  • Tension
  • Climax

Show, Don’t Tell

One of the most important qualities of a good narrative is sensory description that brings the settings, people and events alive for the reader. Even if you have really compelling raw material to put into your story, it takes some work to conjure a vivid reading experience. According to the award-winning writer Flannery O’Connor, good storytelling “deals with reality according to what can be seen heard, smelt, tasted and touched.” So you’ll need to appeal to the senses of your audience.

Take the example of the narrative about the bicycle accident mentioned above. If the writer simply “tells” the reader about the accident, it’s probably not going to be very interesting—it will just seem generic, lacking in the specificity and detail that readers want. Here’s an example of merely “telling” about an event:

Last summer I was out for a bike ride with my friend. We were going really fast and I tried to make a sharp turn. Because of my speed and gravel on the road, I lost control and crashed my bike. My leg and head were injured. The pain was terrible. My friend had kept going, but fortunately he turned around and came back to help me.

Here’s an example of how using sensory details to “show” the reader what happened (and how it felt) can transform a boring passage into a description that will really engage your reader:

Kevin and I were pedaling fast down Radnor Avenue. He was a few yards ahead of me, his crew-cut head pitched forward and his flannel shirt whipping up like a plaid cape. When we got to Tilghman Road, he leaned into his turn and I followed. I was squinting so hard from the glare of the August sun that I didn’t see the treacherous patch of gravel I was heading for. Just when I’d twisted the handlebars sharply to the right, I heard the crunch under my tires and felt a sick drop as the bike swept out from under me. Suddenly I was sprawled on the macadam, my head and left leg banging with pain. Bright red blood mixed with gravel showed through a gash in the knee of my jeans. A few feet away my Denali racer lay on its side, the handlebars bent and the front wheel still spinning. I looked up the road. Kevin was just starting to turn around to pedal back to me.

Hook Your Audience with the ABDCE Method

One good way to catch and sustain the interest of your readers is by using a formula that fiction writers employ to create curiosity and suspense. When you use this ABDCE method, you begin with Action, because that is what usually attracts us the most in any story. Once you’ve hooked your readers with the action, you move on to Background—this is where you fill the audience in on what they need to know about your people and situations in order to get the full effect of what comes later. The background might cover what led up to the action you started with, for instance. After the background, you move into Development of the story by describing the central chain of events. What you’re developing is a plot that creates drama, tension, maybe suspense. The development will reach its greatest intensity in the Climax of your narrative, which should cover the most pivotal and dramatic events of your story. After the climax comes the Ending, where you suggest the significance of the foregoing events by showing their aftermath.