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Overarching Narrative Essay

I. What is a Narrative?

A narrative is a story. The term can be used as a noun or an adjective. As a noun, narrative refers to the story being told. It is the account of events, experiences, and details. It also refers to the story-telling process. As an adjective, it describes the form or style of the story being told.

The adjective use of the word narrative has its roots in the Latin word, narrativus, which means “suited to narration.” The noun usage of the word appeared in the French language in the 15th century and is defined as “a tale, story.”

Narrative is pronounced (năr′ə-tĭv), or “narr, uh, tive”.


II. Examples of Narrative

If you look at narrative when used as a noun, you will find many examples. Most things written in the first-person are narratives. A novel written from the point of view of the main character is a narrative. The essay you wrote, entitled “What I did on my summer vacation”, was a narrative. An article written by a blogger about his/her experience travelling across the United States on a bicycle would most likely be a narrative.

If you look at narrative when used as an adjective, you will find that it complements just about any form of writing or art. There are narrative poems, narrative works of visual art, narrative essays, or narrative dances. If you can make something tell a story, it is narrative.


III. Types of Narrative

Rather than there being “types” of narrative, narrative, itself, functions as an adjective, transforming other things. The narrative voice, or narrative style can be used to transform virtually anything into a story.

For example:

  • Other forms of art can also be considered narratives. You can choreograph a narrative dance or paint a narrative series of pictures. The important element is that your creation tells a story.
  • Autobiographies are, essentially, narrative. They are written in the first-person and describe the events of the story-teller’s life.
  • Theatrical monologues are narrative. In a monologue, the character tells an intimate story, often addressing the audience, asking questions and seemingly seeking answers from them. In Hamlet’s famous monologue, that begins “To be or not to be,” he is seeking answers to the great philosophical questions of life and death. He is discussing them with himself and the audience, trying to puzzle them out and inviting the audience to do the same.
  • Essays can also be narrative. An essay is a literary composition about a single subject. You have probably written many. A narrative essay is simply an essay written in a style that tells a story. They are often personal, anecdotal, and told from the writer’s point of view.

IV. The Importance of using Narrative

Everyone loves a story! Everyone has a story. Everyone wants to tell a story. Everyone can relate to a story. That is why it is important to use narratives.

Narrative is an engaging writing style. It immediately invites your audience into your world and offers them a chance to participate in the story you are telling. A reader can easily get wrapped up in a narrative. It is also a style that invites discussion and participation. By using it you tell your audience that this story is not over. They can take it home and think about it. They can retell it, add to it and change it.

Narratives are social. They are at the heart of how we communicate as social beings. If you look for definitions, descriptions, and discussions of what narratives are, you will find many references to the natural humanity of narratives. They are a part of who we are and how we share that with others.

Have you ever read an article that just bored you to tears? Maybe you thought it was “dry”. (Maybe you feel that way about this article?) There is a good chance the author did not make good use of narrative, and thus never managed to draw you in.


V. Examples of Narrative in Literature

Narratives can be found everywhere in literature. They appear in every style, form, and genre.

Example 1

Fiction: Don Quixote, by Miguel de Cervantes is the tale of a man who is determined to be a knight. You may remember references to a madman on horseback fighting windmills? This is that book. It is a standard and classic example of a book written in the narrative voice.

Example 2

Beloved, by Toni Morrison is the tale of an escaped slave, who remains haunted by things in her past. It is another more modern and ground-breaking narrative work.

Example 3

The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien, that popular story about Bilbo Baggins, a fantasy creature called a hobbit who travels through Middle Earth and has unexpected adventures, is also a first-person narrative.

Example 4

Nonfiction: The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas is the autobiography of a man who was a slave, an abolitionist, a writer and a newspaper editor. It is one of our country’s great historical works and it is written in the narrative voice.


VI. Examples of Narrative in Pop Culture

Narratives are everywhere in popular culture. In fact, popular culture is, in itself, an overarching narrative. It is the system of stories that weave in and out of one another to make up the story of the human race. Culture is open-ended and ever evolving, and that is what makes it a narrative. We participate in our own story, along with those around us, and make it up as we go along.

Example 1

If we want to look at smaller examples, journalism and the news is an excellent form of narrative. Something happens and someone reports on it. Someone else picks up the story, adds a few details and comments, and publishes that. Then, someone else comes along, follows the same pattern, and the narrative continues.

Example 2

Even more specifically, headlines have become increasingly narrative with the explosive popularity of social media. Writers try and draw in readers by inviting them into the discussion of a topic. In social media, you have just a few words, and maybe a picture, to interest your audience and get them to open your link. In order to do this, there is a trend to write narrative headlines such as these:

He opened the jar of peanut butter and what he saw will blow your mind.

She gave her toddler a crayon and you will never believe what happened next.

Example 3

Blogs are also excellent examples of narratives as they include first-person accounts of experiences while inviting comment and conversation from readers.

Example 4

Music is also a wonderful place to find narratives. People have an innate need to turn their stories in to songs. Turn on your stereo and you will find an endless number of narrative. American Pie by Don McLean is one of the great narrative musical creations in our country’s history. It is written in the first person and tells a cryptic story of the history of our music and a fatal plane crash.

A long long time ago
I can still remember how
That music used to make me smile
And I knew if I had my chance
That I could make those people dance
And maybe they’d be happy for a while…


VII. Related Terms

Narrator: a person who tells a story or gives an account of something.

Story: a synonym to the word narrative. Some suggest that stories are closed ended with a beginning, middle and end, while narratives are larger open-ended discussions, comprised of stories, with listener participation.

“Here is what I would like you to know,” writes Ta-Nehisi Coates. “In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage.” He maps this argument with historical information and other data, but the declaration is also rooted in memory. There is one formative experience in particular Coates shares: the moment in the Baltimore of his youth when another kid pointed a gun at him. The place: a parking lot. The time: sixth grade. The effects and related revelations: lifelong and ongoing. You can hear Coates read the passage aloud here. It appears early on in Between the World and Me, Coates’s bestselling and National Book Award-winning work of 2015.

When I teach personal narrative writing to my composition students, my overarching goal for the assignment is that it should hone their sensitivity to small or simple starting points, to seeds, like Coates’s, that germinate. So the personal narrative I assign is the Signature Story*. Any experience can be made into a story, but a Signature Story is one to which the mind returns repeatedly: it comes from an experience that continually or recurrently resurfaces, influencing behavior, thinking, choices, emotions, values…etc. We might recall a certain Signature Story freely in conversation; others, we might tell more sparingly—only to certain people in certain circumstances, for example. Still other Signature Stories might be silent ones… experiences we relive, but “tell” only to ourselves.

Either way, this is the heart of the idea: a Signature Story reminds a person of something essential about who they areinthe world they inhabit.

Any time Coates or any other author recounts a past personal experience in order to make a point about present reality, students can dissect it as an example Signature Story. In doing so, the big teaching questions are these: functionally, how does personal experience play into argumentative writing? How does it play into expository writing? And craft-wise, how do writers render tangled moments of their lives as discrete narratives in the first place, and then wield the resulting stories for specific audiences and purposes?

The Assignment

Once I’ve introduced the idea of Signature Stories and we’ve taken Coates’s passage as an example, I acknowledge to my students that we each have a whole collection of Signature Stories. That is, many crucial moments accumulate during a life, and furthermore, they don’t always mean the same thing to us over time. But students’ task, in the Signature Story assignment, is to choose a single experience with a discernible effect. It has to be something they can write about with candor, and about which they are game to receive constructive criticism.

The prompt has some of the usual pitfalls: many students want to write about something too recent, or something too huge. Popular choices I’ve learned to discourage up front include the story of a student’s entire senior year of high school, for example (too huge; hard to make a plot), and the story of moving into their college dorm (too recent for most composition students—mostly freshmen—to comment on with much depth). With mixed feelings, I also discourage students from writing about fresh trauma: I remind them we critique one another’s writing at several stages in the assignment, and recommend they choose material they have the energy for sharing, scrutinizing, dismantling, and overhauling.

The first active step involves a version of Linda Barry’s kitchen tables exercise (haphazardly recreated from my memory of a radio interview with her until I found this 2013 transcript from “All Things Considered”), an activity which tends to convince students they have more vivid access to their memories than they previously thought,
and thus a crucial step in turning their attention from Coates’s Signature Story to the minutiae and moments that matter most in their own lives.

The sequence of lessons that follow:

Freytag’s Triangle. Students learn this traditional narrative structure and the basic parts that constitute plot: conflict, turning points, the crisis action, and change. They must chart their own experience as a series of discrete and active scenes that build to the crucial moment that affected (and continues to affect) them.

Imagery. Students review the five senses, although transitioning from “telling” to “showing via sense” is harder than they anticipate. Much peer exchange can be valuable here as they get the hang of identifying opportunities in which to use sensory perception.

Characterization. Students learn to present themselves as a character in a story: they must decide which aspects of their personalities to reveal/emphasize on the page, and which aspects are irrelevant to the story at hand. They learn to simplify themselves strategi

Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft is a great resource whether applying narrative principles to fiction or, as in this assignment, nonfiction.

Major student challenge #1: discerning and articulating the significance of the experience. The more students revise and rewrite according to the skills introduced above, the more concrete their analysis of the experience tends to become. But they often begin their stories based on an instinctive sense that a certain experience was important, only later uncovering exactly how and why.

Major student challenge #2: maintaining an allegiance to literary tools (namely, action or imagery). Composition students often seem more inclined to file a report of their experiences than to apply literary techniques. But I find that repeated revision activities in all three of the above areas not only make for more lively writing, but also—crucially—it raises the analytic bar. In other words, more practice applying principles of plot and image to an experience yields a more astute assessment of that experience’s impact. Many students will actually make major interpretive discoveries when they rewrite their stories using only sound, smell, taste, and touch (no sight) or when they temporarily edit out all reflection, look only at the progression of active scenes, and have to tell a partner what qualifies each scene as a turning point in the rising action.


I give students a rubric and assign points for:

(1) Using the principles of narrative—for building scenes driven by action.

(2) Using imagery—for showing rather than telling.

(3) Process: they get points for analyzing one another’s drafts in a workshop-model peer review.

(4) Finally, they get points for change: does the story reveal at least one substantial and lingering effect of the experience? And does it show (rather than tell) that effect on the main character by using action and image?

Thoughts on the Big Picture

Isolating a formative experience and recounting it with basic literary tools provides students with time/structure—but also the creative challenge—to reflect on socially crucial questions: how does a person’s lived experience shape who that person is? And what is it about any given experience that endows it with the power to shape us?

The way I see it, this assignment provides direct practice in civic literacy. The conceptual path is fairly simple: “experience X stuck with me, and looking back, I can see how that experience connects to XYZ approaches I’ve taken to living my life.” Then it’s just one more step to get from the particular to the systemic: “…and XYZ is actually part of a social pattern.”

Coates’s Between the World and Me is my current top choice of rich texts that make this move, but really, it’s everywhere: Three Ways My Parents Unintentionally Taught Me My Consent Doesn’t Matter, a May 2016 post in Everyday Feminism, for example, shows how the author internalized rape culture—in part from her (loving!) parents. (The author deconstructs her trained acquiescence by examining specific personal experiences that are, unfortunately, common enough to warrant the article over a hundred thousand shares in the three-ish months it’s been up.) While I have never asked students to question their own learned identities in this assignment, nor to make their own critiques of America’s social fabric, the assignment familiarizes them with a pattern. They begin to track how often narrative figures in to deconstructive projects in the published work they encounter, finding over and over, it’s the structure of the Signature Story that opens the door to social analysis.


*H/T to Dr. Bill Schneider, retired professor of anthropology and oral historian at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, Master’s thesis advisor, and stellar lifestyle coach in Subarctic/Arctic cold. This assignment marries narrative craft instruction with an exercise I first encountered when taking his course, “Oral Sources,” in which we told and wrote our own Signature Stories before soliciting the stories of others.


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