What Is A Narrative History Essay Samples

Writing Narrative History


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What is Narrative?

  • The Telling of a Story. Simple. You do it everyday. In fact, this is one of those things on which you can try too hard. Don't make it harder than it is.
  • Narrative is not a chronicle. Sometimes budding historians think of narrative history as a sequenced listing of things that happen. Nope. That is a chronicle. That is different than narrative. Much more boring. Narrative does not list events, it tells their story.
  • Narratives are accounts. Giving accounts of events is standard communicative behavior and narratives are nothing but accounts refined and designed.

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How to write a narrative?

I highly recommend the following steps:

  1. Just sit down and put the story on paper. Let it flow. You give accounts all the time. Don't worry about sophistication or scholarlyness. Just tell the story.
  2. Go back over your notes and knowledge of the events. See what you have left out that you think needs to be part of the story. Rewrite your narrative to include these things. Notice that there is a sequence between 1 and 2. Don't let your need to include the right things and everything muck up your narrative flow in 1. Do it in 2.
  3. Work to achieve artistic quality in your narrative. Now it is time to use the advice below. Rewrite your narrative to the specifications below.

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Locating the Narrator

  • Whose voice will perform the narrative? Normally in a rhetorical study of narrative, the voice will be yours, using the 3rd person to describe the events leading up to and through the communication event. But think of other options as well. For example, perhaps you are writing the narrative as a first person account of the communication event - you are the person delivering the discourse or experiencing the discourse (Kent Ono's account of a letter to his mother). Perhaps you use the 1st person to describe your search for a historical fact (Wilbur Samuel Howell's search for Jefferson's logic in the Declaration of Independence). Perhaps you want to write the account of a member of an audience experiencing a great speech (Gore Vidal's account of Lincoln's First Inaugural).
  • What will you let him/her see? The author is always in control of the narrator. You will determine what the narrator sees. All that happens will not be in the narrator's account. That is because as a scholar you are always seeing from multiple perspectives and performing sophisticated reasoning that places some elements of observation in context and dismissing others as errors. So, you need to think about what you will let the narrator report and how you will let him/her craft the story.

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The Plot

  • Basically the sequence of events and/or choices that make up the action of the narrative. The plot is more than a chronicle or list of the events, however. It asserts connections. It provides structure to the unfolding of the events.
  • A plot has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Decisions must be made about where to begin telling the story and where to end the telling.
  • The shaping of a plot entails a series of decisions by the author. Among these are:
    • Entailed in the choice of beginning and end is a basic decision on scope and circumference. That is, where will the circle be drawn - in time and in influences - in telling the story. One can confine the telling of the story of a speech to the day of the speech. Or one can begin the story at the decision to deliver such a speech and end the story at the limit of the effect of the speech. Or one can begin telling the story at the point where the speaker acquires her training as a speaker. Or one could begin telling the story somewhere else. The point is that stories begin in different places depending on the connections that one draws. How broadly to draw those connections is a fundamental decision of plot.
    • Plots are shaped by decisions about what will be the driving force of the plot. For example, one might tell the story of a speech by focusing on the speaker, on the speaker's training, on the situation to which the speaker responds, on the demands of the genre of the speech, and so forth. Burke's Pentad may be helpful here. It is one scheme that can frame a decision about the driving force. Will the plot be driven by the character of the speaker (agent-centered)? by the choice of what the speaker wants to accomplish (purpose-centered)? by the circumstances of the speech (scene-centered)? by the selected theory of speaking (agency-centered)? or by the unfolding events in which the speaker finds herself (act-centered)?
    • What to include in the story. Decisions about which choices and events are important to telling the story are important decisions in constructing the plot. They should be driven not by their sheer occurrence, but by their importance to the unfolding storyline.
    • Pace. Time is a manageable dimension of storytelling. Sometimes you cover a lot of time in a sentence or two. Sometimes you slow down time to gaze at a particular moment and take it apart to show influences. Do so consciously. And do so from the point of view of the narrator. In other words, even though you may know a lot about a moment of choice, it may be a moment that went by amazingly quickly for the speaker. So, your point of view may dictate that your writing style produce rapidly passing events clashing into each other and leaving the speaker carried along by the events.
  • There are standard plotlines that may be appropriate to structuring stories. Particularly useful in accounts of communication events are:
    • Quest. This plotline features a search for some object or outcome. (See Howell on the Declaration of Independence).
    • Agonistic Conflict. This plotline places the communication event within the framework of a struggle between two powerful forces in which the outcome is in doubt.
    • Climax. This plotline portrays the building of demands on the speaker or speech, and reaches its pivotal point at the communication event. The key to the writing is giving the sense of building demands followed by the relief of the building tension following the speech.

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Moments of Action

  • Narratives are built around accounts of moments of action. Actions give a plotline its movement; they are moments along the plotline.
  • Accounts of communicative events tend to be constructed of four kinds of moments: a moment of choice by a communicator, the moment of performance of the message, the moment of interaction with the audience, or the moment of effect from the communication. Other kinds of moments become relevant as the plotline incorporates them.
  • Moments of action are the places where the elements of the story gather. Elements of influence flow into the moment of action, and effects flow from it.
  • Write your accounts of moments so that there is unity of action. You my think about this in terms of Burke's pentad. "Any complete statement of motives will offer some kind of answers to these five questions: what was done (act), when or where it was done (scene), who did it (agent), how he did it (agency), and why (purpose)" (Kenneth Burke, Grammar of Motives [1945; Berkeley: Univ of California Press, 1969], xv). Not only should all elements be present in a well rounded description of a moment, but the qualities of each should be consistent with the action.

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  • A good narrative also takes its quality from the character of the people who inhabit the plotline. Because communication is a human action, the character of the communicator is often a central element of the accounts of communicative events.
  • Identify the people that are central to your plotline. Decide how the character of each will be communicated in your narrative.
  • Character is developed from:
    • Value choices. Develop the forces on all sides of choice which define the moment of choice. Show the communicator responding to those forces with their choice. Describe the reasons for the choices as well as the choices that are made.
    • A pattern of choices. Construct the narrative around the series of choices that mark the action. The character of those involved come from the texture of repeated choice.
    • Set character in relationship to the times. The tensions between the person and his/her times is a major component of character. How does the person fulfill the character of his/her times and how does s/he resist?

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Narrative and Proof

  • Narrative is not merely a writing form, but in history must respond to questions of veracity. You have an obligation to seek out the factual implications of your account and do the historical work to check them against facts.
  • Walter Fisher indicates that the credibility of your narrative will revolve around two dimensions:
    • Coherence. That is, an account must be rich enough and consistent in its form so that it has a solid feeling of reality.
    • Fidelity. That is, an account must ring true with the experience of the reader. Narratives of human behavior achieve their credibility through their plausibility.

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A final checklist of key qualities in good narrative

  • Concentrate on the becoming, not on what it became. That is, what is interesting in narrative is the unfolding of the events. So put your emphasis on development of the events.
  • Provide dynamism. Choices are paths taken, and paths not taken. Communicate the implications of choice. Let the reader see the implications of the choice.
  • Resist clocks and calendars and geography. Do not be bound by the pacing of the clock or the calendar. You will create time and space as you write a narrative. You will control time through pacing and geography through scope and circumference. Manage these in the service of your narrative.
  • Leave your reader with the experience, not just understanding. In reading your narrative, the reader should be able to be there, to experience the time and place.
  • Develop vivid characters. Be sure that you have enough moments of choice to communicate the character of the people communicating in your account.

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Burke's Pentad

The five terms of the pentad are:

  • Act. What happened?
  • Agent. Who was involved. This can, of course, be more complex. There can be co-agents that work together to facilitate the act or counter-agents whose struggle defines the action.
  • Scene. The background in which the action is set. Many things can be a part of your description of the scene. You simply need to figure out what happened in the context that shapes the act.
  • Agency. Roughly how the events are shaped. This is the structural element: how the agents go about doing the action. It enters into accounts of communication events often because various theories of communication may give a communication act its character.
  • Purpose. Why the agent performed the act? Also key in communication acts because the dominant theory of communication pictures messages as purposive.

The pentad is a way of thinking through the shape of your account. Burke urges at least two uses:

  • Locate the central term. An account of an event will feature one of these terms as its key shaping force. For example, an historian may tell how the character of the speaker (agent) is the primary force shaping a speech. Or, he may picture the speaker as constrained in her response by the situation (scene) in which she finds herself (Bitzer's Rhetorical Situation). Or, he may describe a eulogy in which the careful requirements of the form (agency) dictate the character of the speech.
  • Using the ratios track the influences of the terms. The ratios are the relationships between any two terms. Thus, the agent-act ratio stresses how the act takes its character from the character of the agent; The scene-agent ratio locates the formative force of the character of the agent in the character of the scene. In general, you want the qualities of all the various terms to coincide so that you have a consistent portrayal of character of the narrative. But other options are possible. You might want to project the character of the agent by showing how she successfully resists the forces that she encounters in the scene.

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To write a narrative essay, you’ll need to tell a story (usually about something that happened to you) in such a way that he audience learns a lesson or gains insight.

To write a descriptive essay, you’ll need to describe a person, object, or event so vividly that the reader feels like he/she could reach out and touch it.

Tips for writing effective narrative and descriptive essays:

  • Tell a story about a moment or event that means a lot to you--it will make it easier for you to tell the story in an interesting way!
  • Get right to the action!  Avoid long introductions and lengthy descriptions--especially at the beginning of your narrative.
  • Make sure your story has a point! Describe what you learned from this experience.
  • Use all five of your senses to describe the setting, characters, and the plot of your story. Don't be afraid to tell the story in your own voice.  Nobody wants to read a story that sounds like a textbook!

How to Write Vivid Descriptions

Having trouble describing a person, object, or event for your narrative or descriptive essay?  Try filling out this chart:

What do you smell?

What do you taste?

What do you see?

What do you hear?

What might you touch or feel?






Remember:  Avoid simply telling us what something looks like--tell us how it tastes, smells, sounds, or feels!

Consider this…

  • Virginia rain smells different from a California drizzle.
  • A mountain breeze feels different from a sea breeze.
  • We hear different things in one spot, depending on the time of day.
  • You can “taste” things you’ve never eaten: how would sunscreen taste?

Using Concrete Details for Narratives

Effective narrative essays allow readers to visualize everything that's happening, in their minds.  One way to make sure that this occurs is to use concrete, rather than abstract, details. 

Concrete Language

Abstract Language

…makes the story or image seem clearer and more real to us.

...makes the story or image difficult to visualize.

…gives us information that we can easily grasp and perhaps empathize with.

…leaves your reader feeling empty, disconnected, and possibly confused.

The word “abstract” might remind you of modern art.  An abstract painting, for example, does not normally contain recognizable objects.  In other words, we can't look at the painting and immediately say "that's a house" or "that's a bowl of fruit."  To the untrained eye, abstract art looks a bit like a child's finger-painting--just brightly colored splotches on a canvas.
Avoid abstract language—it won’t help the reader understand what you're trying to say!


Abstract:  It was a nice day. 
Concrete:  The sun was shining and a slight breeze blew across my face. 

Abstract:  I liked writing poems, not essays. 
Concrete:  I liked writing short, rhythmic poems and hated rambling on about my thoughts in those four-page essays. 

Abstract:  Mr. Smith was a great teacher.
Concrete:  Mr. Smith really knew how to help us turn our thoughts into good stories and essays.

Sample Papers - Narration

Sample Papers - Descriptive

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