Writing a Narrative composition appeals to one of humankind's basic instincts, the impulse to share stories. Sometimes the aim of the story-teller is simply to entertain, to provide a moment of escape from the business of the day or the horrors of the night, but sometimes the aim of the story-teller is to instruct, to help others in their understanding of something. The best part of teaching in this way is that our listeners' natural resistance to heeding the words of others is low and they are not always aware that they are being taught anything until it's too late – we've got them.

The skills needed to narrate a story well are not entirely the same as the skills needed to write a good essay. Some wonderful short fiction writers are not particularly good essayists and vice versa. Still, it is useful to look at those elements that make up a good narrative and know how to apply what we learn toward making our essays as dramatic as possible whenever that is appropriate.

Review, also, the elements of the Personal Essay, as the personal essay and the narrative essay have much in common.

Descriptive Elements

The ability to describe something convincingly will serve a writer well in any kind of essay situation. The most important thing to remember is that your job as writer is to show, not tell. If you say that the tree is beautiful, your readers are put on the defensive: "Wait a minute," they think. "We'll be the judge of that! Show us a beautiful tree and we'll believe." Do not rely, then, on adjectives that attempt to characterize a thing's attributes. Lovely, exciting, interesting – these are all useful adjectives in casual speech or when we're pointing to something that is lovely, etc., but in careful writing they don't do much for us; in fact, they sound hollow.

Let nouns and verbs do the work of description for you. With nouns, your readers will see; with verbs, they will feel. In the following paragraph, taken from George Orwell's famous anti-imperialist essay, "Shooting an Elephant," see how the act of shooting the elephant delivers immense emotional impact. What adjectives would you expect to find in a paragraph about an elephant? big? grey? loud? enormous? Do you find them here? Watch the verbs, instead. Notice, too, another truth about description: when time is fleeting, slow down the prose. See how long the few seconds of the shooting can take in this paragraph. You can read the entire text of George Orwell's story by clicking HERE, and you can read additional essays by this famous author of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty Four at "The Political Writings of George Orwell."

When I pulled the trigger I did not hear the bang or feel the kick–one never does when a shot goes home–but I heard the devilish roar of glee that went up from the crowd. In that instant, in too short a time, one would have thought, even for the bullet to get there, a mysterious, terrible change had come over the elephant. He neither stirred nor fell, but every line of his body had altered. He looked suddenly stricken, shrunken, immensely old, as though the frightful impact of the bullet had paralysed him without knocking him down. At last, after what seemed a long time–it might have been five seconds, I dare say–he sagged flabbily to his knees. His mouth slobbered. An enormous senility seemed to have settled upon him. One could have imagined him thousands of years old. I fired again into the same spot. At the second shot he did not collapse but climbed with desperate slowness to his feet and stood weakly upright, with legs sagging and head drooping. I fired a third time. That was the shot that did for him. You could see the agony of it jolt his whole body and knock the last remnant of strength from his legs. But in falling he seemed for a moment to rise, for as his hind legs collapsed beneath him he seemed to tower upward like a huge rock toppling, his trunk reaching skyward like a tree. He trumpeted, for the first and only time. And then down he came, his belly towards me, with a crash that seemed to shake the ground even where I lay.

Do not forget that the business of the essay is to make a point. In his essay, Orwell succeeds in portraying the horrors of an imperialist state, showing how the relationship between the oppressed Burmese and the British oppressor is dehumanizing to both. When writing a narrative, it is easy to get caught up in the telling of the story and forget that, eventually, our reader is going to ask So What? — and there had better be an answer.

Read Jeffrey Tayler's "The Sacred Grove of Oshogbo" (first published in The Atlantic Monthly, used with permission) and try to determine exactly at what passage in the text do you become aware of the point of Tayler's essay. Take note of the rich detailing of the forest, the caretaker, and the minister from the city and try to describe how the details lend themselves toward the purpose of the article. Another Atlantic essay, Jeff Biggers' "Searching for El Chapareke," — filled with wonderful details of a remote town in Mexico — is also available here.

The Sacred Grove of Oshogbo

May 26, 1999

The driver steered his moped down the corrugated red mud road outside of the Nigerian town of Oshogbo, north of Lagos, with me bouncing along on the back seat. In front of a wooden gate he wobbled to a halt. The surrounding rain forest was dripping with humidity; wraiths of mist wandered between the big trees. I got off, paid him, and entered.

The Sacred Grove of Oshogbo was one place I had been looking forward to visiting in Nigeria. As prevalent as indigenous religions still are in West Africa, it is often hard to find public expressions of them in towns and cities; the Christianity brought by European slavers and colonialists has taken root and pushed most of these religions out of mainstream life. But in the Sacred Grove shrines honor all the local deities, including Obatala, the god of creation, Ogun, the god of iron, and Oshun, the goddess of water, whose aqueous essence is made manifest by the river running through the trees. The place is unique in the Yoruba religion, and that intrigued me.

As I passed through the gates I heard a squeaky voice. A diminutive middle-aged man came out from behind the trees — the caretaker. He worked a toothbrush-sized stick around in his mouth, digging into the crevices between algae'd stubs of teeth. He was barefoot; he wore a blue batik shirt known as a buba, baggy purple trousers, and an embroidered skullcap. I asked him if he would show me around the shrine. Motioning me to follow, he spat out the results of his stick work and set off down the trail.

We stopped in front of a many-headed statue. "Ako Alumawewe," he blurted out, sucking on the stick. A deity? I asked. He nodded and spat, then headed down the trail to another stone effigy, that of Egbe. After kissing the ground at its base, he held forth at length in mellifluous Yoruba. Since I spoke no Yoruba and he, it turned out, no English, it became clear that my visit wasn't going to be as edifying as I had hoped.


I looked back up the trail. A Nigerian man in penny loafers was making his way gingerly around the puddles and heading our way. He was young but a belly was already spreading under his white Izod shirt; he wore tight beige highwater trousers. It was clear that he was living a life of relative plenty. He introduced himself as Pastor Paul, from a church in Benue State.

"You come to look at the Grove?" he asked, shaking my hand. "Good. It's very touristic."

A young woman emerged from the trail. Her wardrobe, too, could have been bought on sale at JC Penney's, but unlike Pastor Paul, she was fit, with fresh eyes.

"My interpreter," Pastor Paul said, pointing to her. "Of course I can't understand these people. We have our own language in Benue State."

The little man talked up a storm in Yoruba, but the interpreter said nothing. Our guide then led us down to the river. The water ran bright green between the trees; monkeys jumped around the canopy above. Arising from a mess of roots was Oshun's statue, which occasioned a monologue from the little man.

"What is he saying?" I asked the translator.

"He says locals bring sacrifices to the gods here. Maize, moi-moi, cola nuts."

Father Paul shook his head, his brow wrinkling, his lips pursing. There were no locals about, I noticed. Where were they? Dodging oversized ferns, our guide hopped down the trail, and we followed him.

"Debel! Debel!" he said, pointing with disdain at a pug-nosed bust with an evil smirk standing amid a tangle of roots. The Devil.

The pastor's face retained its pinched expression. "Of course, this man is ignorant," he said to me, waving his arm in dismissal. I said nothing.

Up at a promontory above the river we found Olu Igbo — the lord of the forest. Placing his stick in his back pocket, the little man fell silent and bowed. It was indeed an awesome sight — a giant stone effigy standing among great trees, with huge eyes and long arms spread out like wings. Hoots and warbles percolated in from the foliage; rain began to fall but its drops, intercepted by the manifold layers of leaves above, hardly touched us.

The pastor harrumphed. "I tell my people in church to abandon these beliefs for God." His voice rang loud in the amphitheater of great trees. "Such ignorance. Our American pastors have a lot to say about how ignorant we are. We are trying to change, but these beliefs persist. Life is hard in our country. The people want to insure themselves, so they worship God and these idols. But it's ignorance. Don't you agree?"

"Why did you come here then?" I asked him as we walked back to the road.

"To see the skilled work of our artisans."

That was as good an answer as any. At the gate we tipped the guide and parted ways.

Jeffrey Tayler is a freelance writer and traveler based in Moscow, and is the author ofSiberian Dawn (1999). He contributes regularly to The Atlantic Monthly and files frequent dispatches for Atlantic Abroad.

This essay was first published in The Atlantic Monthly and then, online, in the "Atlantic Abroad" section of the Atlantic's Website, at http://www.theatlantic.com/unbound/abroad/jt990526.htm. It is used here with the kind permission of the editors of The Atlantic Monthly. At Atlantic's Web site, you can also find hyperlinks to several other fine examples of descriptive writing.

Read Mark Twain's little piece (below) about the troubles he has with his new watch, as another example of narrative writing. (There is very little in the way of paragraphing in this narrative, and as you read along you might want to think about how you would break this piece into smaller units of thought for your reader.) Answer the questions we pose after Twain's essay and apply them as well to Jeffrey Tayler's essay above.

An Instructive Little Tale

[From "Sketches New and Old", Copyright 1903, Samuel Clemens.
This text is placed in the Public Domain (Jun 1993, #16).]
(Written about 1870.)

My beautiful new watch had run eighteen months without losing or gaining, and without breaking any part of its machinery or stopping. I had come to believe it infallible in its judgments about the time of day, and to consider its constitution and its anatomy imperishable. But at last, one night, I let it run down. I grieved about it as if it were a recognized messenger and forerunner of calamity. But by and by I cheered up, set the watch by guess, and commanded my bodings and superstitions to depart. Next day I stepped into the chief jeweler's to set it by the exact time, and the head of the establishment took it out of my hand and proceeded to set it for me. Then he said, "She is four minutes slow – regulator wants pushing up." I tried to stop him – tried to make him understand that the watch kept perfect time. But no; all this human cabbage could see was that the watch was four minutes slow, and the regulator MUST be pushed up a little; and so, while I danced around him in anguish, and implored him to let the watch alone, he calmly and cruelly did the shameful deed. My watch began to gain. It gained faster and faster day by day. Within the week it sickened to a raging fever, and its pulse went up to a hundred and fifty in the shade. At the end of two months it had left all the timepieces of the town far in the rear, and was a fraction over thirteen days ahead of the almanac. It was away into November enjoying the snow, while the October leaves were still turning. It hurried up house rent, bills payable, and such things, in such a ruinous way that I could not abide it. I took it to the watchmaker to be regulated. He asked me if I had ever had it repaired. I said no, it had never needed any repairing. He looked a look of vicious happiness and eagerly pried the watch open, and then put a small dice box into his eye and peered into its machinery. He said it wanted cleaning and oiling, besides regulating – come in a week. After being cleaned and oiled, and regulated, my watch slowed down to that degree that it ticked like a tolling bell. I began to be left by trains, I failed all appointments, I got to missing my dinner; my watch strung out three days' grace to four and let me go to protest; I gradually drifted back into yesterday, then day before, then into last week, and by and by the comprehension came upon me that all solitary and alone I was lingering along in week before last, and the world was out of sight. I seemed to detect in myself a sort of sneaking fellow-feeling for the mummy in the museum, and desire to swap news with him. I went to a watch maker again. He took the watch all to pieces while I waited, and then said the barrel was "swelled." He said he could reduce it in three days. After this the watch AVERAGED well, but nothing more. For half a day it would go like the very mischief, and keep up such a barking and wheezing and whooping and sneezing and snorting, that I could not hear myself think for the disturbance; and as long as it held out there was not a watch in the land that stood any chance against it. But the rest of the day it would keep on slowing down and fooling along until all the clocks it had left behind caught up again. So at last, at the end of twenty-four hours, it would trot up to the judges' stand all right and just in time. It would show a fair and square average, and no man could say it had done more or less than its duty. But a correct average is only a mild virtue in a watch, and I took this instrument to another watchmaker. He said the kingbolt was broken. I said I was glad it was nothing more serious. To tell the plain truth, I had no idea what the kingbolt was, but I did not choose to appear ignorant to a stranger. He repaired the kingbolt, but what the watch gained in one way it lost in another. It would run awhile and then stop awhile, and then run awhile again, and so on, using its own discretion about the intervals. And every time it went off it kicked back like a musket. I padded my breast for a few days, but finally took the watch to another watchmaker. He picked it all to pieces, and turned the ruin over and over under his glass; and then he said there appeared to be something the matter with the hair- trigger. He fixed it, and gave it a fresh start. It did well now, except that always at ten minutes to ten the hands would shut together like a pair of scissors, and from that time forth they would travel together. The oldest man in the world could not make head or tail of the time of day by such a watch, and so I went again to have the thing repaired. This person said that the crystal had got bent, and that the mainspring was not straight. He also remarked that part of the works needed half- soling. He made these things all right, and then my timepiece performed unexceptionably, save that now and then, after working along quietly for nearly eight hours, everything inside would let go all of a sudden and begin to buzz like a bee, and the hands would straightway begin to spin round and round so fast that their individuality was lost completely, and they simply seemed a delicate spider's web over the face of the watch. She would reel off the next twenty-four hours in six or seven minutes, and then stop with a bang. I went with a heavy heart to one more watchmaker, and looked on while he took her to pieces. Then I prepared to cross-question him rigidly, for this thing was getting serious. The watch had cost two hundred dollars originally, and I seemed to have paid out two or three thousand for repairs. While I waited and looked on I presently recognized in this watchmaker an old acquaintance – a steamboat engineer of other days, and not a good engineer, either. He examined all the parts carefully, just as the other watchmakers had done, and then delivered his verdict with the same confidence of manner.

He said: "She makes too much steam – you want to hang the monkey-wrench on the safety-valve!"

I brained him on the spot, and had him buried at my own expense.

My uncle William (now deceased, alas!) used to say that a good horse was a good horse until it had run away once, and that a good watch was a good watch until the repairers got a chance at it. And he used to wonder what became of all the unsuccessful tinkers, and gunsmiths, and shoemakers, and engineers, and blacksmiths; but nobody could ever tell him.

  • Is there a point to Twain's narrative? Can you describe it and can you point to the place in the essay where the point becomes clear?
  • Twain calls the essay "An Instructive Tale." What do you make of that? How have you been instructed and how seriously do you take your "lesson"?
  • Does Twain's essay feel dated because he's talking about things that don't bother us, particularly, a hundred years and more after the essay was written? Could you write a similar essay today about appliances or your car breaking down?
  • Where would you have inserted paragraph breaks in that large paragraph – or do you think it is all right the way it is?