4.2 Narration

The Purpose of Narrative Writing

The purpose of narrative writing is to tell stories. Any time a person tells a story to a friend or family member about an event or incident, the individual engages in a form of narration. A narrative can be factual or fictional. A factual story is one that is based on actual events as they unfolded in real life. A fictional story is made up, or imagined; the writer of a fictional story can create characters and events as desired.

The big distinction between factual and fictional narratives is based on the writer’s purpose. The writers of factual stories try to recount events as they actually happened, but writers of fictional stories can depart from real people and events because the writers’ intentions are not to describe real-life events. Biographies and memoirs are examples of factual stories, whereas novels and short stories are examples of fictional stories.

Because the line between fact and fiction can often blur, it is helpful for writers to understand their purpose from the beginning. Is it important that writers recount history, either their own or someone else’s? Or does their interest lie in reshaping the world in their own image—depending on how writers would like to see it or how they imagine it could be? Our answers will go a long way in shaping the stories people tell.

Ultimately, whether the story is fact or fiction, narrative writing tries to relay a series of events in an emotionally engaging way. Authors want the audience to be moved by their stories—through laughter, sympathy, fear, anger, and so on. The more clearly they tell their stories, the more emotionally engaged the audience is likely to be.

The Structure of a Narrative Essay

Major narrative events are most often conveyed in chronological order—the order in which events unfold from first to last. Stories typically have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and events are typically organized by time. Certain transitional words and phrases aid in keeping the reader oriented in the sequencing of a story.

The following are the other basic components of a narrative:

  • Plot. The events as they unfold in sequence.
  • Characters. The people who inhabit the story and move it forward. Typically, there are minor characters and main characters. The minor characters generally play supporting roles to the main character, or the protagonist.
  • Conflict. The primary problem or obstacle that unfolds in the plot that the protagonist must solve or overcome by the end of the narrative. The way in which the protagonist resolves the conflict of the plot results in the theme of the narrative.
  • Theme. The ultimate message the narrative is trying to express can be either explicit or implicit.

Writing a Narrative Essay

When writing a narrative essay, authors begin by deciding whether to write a factual or fictional story. Next, they engage in prewriting strategies such as freewriting about topics that are of general interest to them.

Once authors have a general idea of their writing, they sketch out the major events of the story in order to develop the plot. Typically, these events will be revealed chronologically, and will climax at a central conflict that must be resolved by the end of the story. The use of strong details is crucial as authors describe the events and characters in their narrative. They want the readers to emotionally engage with the world that they create.

As always, it is important to start with a strong introduction to hook the reader into wanting to read more. The writer should try opening the essay with an event that is interesting, to introduce the story and get it going. Finally, the conclusion should help resolve the central conflict of the story and impress upon readers the ultimate thesis of the piece. The ending of the story for the main character may be positive or negative. Writers include vivid details in their stories using the five senses so the reader will be able to experience the story.


Writers use language in a variety of ways. They may use dialogue to convey details that accurately represent the characters and setting of their local story. Or, they may remember the voices of family members. How are they different from other voices? In Hawaiʻi, there are many languages, including Hawaiʻi Creole English (Pidgin). Pidgin varies depending on place and time. The spelling of Pidgin words is up to the writer, and it’s based on how the words sound. “What” could be spelled “wat” or “wot.” Writers may switch between languages (e.g., Pidgin and English) depending on circumstances. This is called code-switching. Accurate representation of dialogue increases the authenticity of a story.



Most stories have a main character who wants to achieve a goal (e.g., surviving a wipe out while surfing, winning a championship, passing a course, graduating high school). There are obstacles that a main character encounters while trying to achieve a goal (e.g., strong waves, a highly skilled opponent, procrastination, self-doubt). Then the story shows the main character’s response to obstacles and whether or not the goal is achieved. If your topic is autobiographical, think of a memory that you don’t mind sharing with the class. Regardless if the story is autobiographical or fictional, plan the characters and plot. As you write your short story, the story may turn out differently than you expected, and that’s fine. This is a starting point.

  1. Character Exercise for Your Narrative Essay
    1. How many characters will you have in your story?
    2. Who are these characters? Describe each of the characters. For each character, list information on their backstory, their qualities, their goals/desires. How will these characters interact with one another?
    3. Will you use first person (“I”) or third person (“He/She”) to tell this story?
    4. Whose point of view will you tell the story from? Through which character’s eyes will the reader experience the story from?
  2. Plot Exercise for Your Narrative

A. Introduction and Rising Action

1. Who is the main character (protagonist) of this story?

2. What is the main character’s goal/desire?

3. Who/what is the obstacle your main character experiences when trying to achieve a goal/desire?

4. What does the main character do when encountering this obstacle?

B. Climax

1. Is the main character successful or unsuccessful in achieving his/her goal/desire?

C. Falling Action

1. What happens after the climax?

D. Resolution

1. What happens at the end of the story? Is this a happy ending? What is the lesson learned?

E. Setting

1. Where does the story take place?


Parts of this section is adapted from OER material from “Narration“ in Writing for Success v. 1.0 (2012). Writing for Success was adapted by Saylor Academy under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 License without attribution as requested by the work’s original creator or licensor.

The section on Code-Switching and other parts is original work by the authors of this text.


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English Composition Copyright © 2019 by Contributing Authors is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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