Composition 03a: Organizing Narrative Essays


Organizing Narrative Essays


A narrative essay is by definition the story of something.  It could be one’s own personal story (a personal narrative), or the story of a group of people, an event or series of events in history, or even of the development of a concept, idea, problem, or debate.  Depending on the subject and purpose of the essay, the narratives produced in academic writing vary widely in content, style, and even point of view.   No matter what the subject, narratives relate events as they occur over time.  Given this principle, it is often helpful to structure narrative essays according to a timeline, a sequence of events organized in time.  


Developing a timeline for your narrative can then help you then develop an idea map or outline for your essay, using the methods that we discuss in this chapter.  The most difficult thing for many students to confront when organizing the narrative is how to break up a long story into more manageable chunks.  It may be helpful to imagine that you are filming a movie of your narrative.   Moviemakers, regardless of whether they are Hollywood directors, independent documentarians, or amateurs with video cameras, organize their stories around scenes or episodes that relate to each other over time.  


As you break down your narrative, you need to consider which “scenes” are the most important to render and describe to your audience, and how they relate to each other over time.  Most narratives focus on key “turning points” in the story.  These are often experiences or events beyond the participants’ control; revelations, connections, or discoveries they make; key decisions by those involved; and specific actions the characters take.  These turning points often take their narratives in a new direction, introducing a new idea or episode in the larger story.   You may find it helpful to think about how these elements structure your own narrative. 


These turning points, however, must be related to each other logically in time for a reader to make sense of them.  A decision, for example, may lead to a subsequent action, which may lead to unforeseen events or experiences, and then further decisions.   A reader must be told by the narrative how these things are related over time using appropriate sequencing words.   A short example:


Scene / Episode 1:


I decided to get a cup of coffee at the coffee shop across the street from my apartment.

Scene / Episode 2:


When I stepped off the curb to cross the street, a bicycle messenger ran over my foot; I felt a screaming pain from my little toe.

Scene / Episode 3:


After a few minutes, I realized the pain in my foot wasn’t going away and I would have to go to the hospital.

Scene / Episode 4:


It took me nearly a half an hour to limp back up to my apartment to get my cell phone, call my brother and ask him to drive me to the Emergency Room.


Each “scene” in the mini-narrative above leads with a turning point: the decision to get coffee leads to the narrator’s toe being run over by a bicycle, which leads him to an injury and a trip to the hospital.  The red text above situates each new scene in relation to the last one, using sequencing words like “after,” “when,” and words that indicate the passage of time, like “it took me nearly a half an hour.”