Short Fiction – the narrative essay #amwriting

We discussed micro fiction in Monday’s post. Today we’re continuing to look at writing short works by looking at the narrative essay/article. Many will wonder just what a narrative essay is.

narrative essayIf you enjoy reading magazines like the New Yorker, Harper’s, or Reader’s Digest, you have read and enjoyed many narrative essays.

A narrative essay/ article is not a newspaper article, which (usually) deals in facts – who, what, why, when, and where.

The primary purpose of an essay is to offer readers thought-provoking content. Many narrative essays take an event and play fast and loose with the facts. Some elements are exaggerated, and others might be skipped over. The same is true of how the people involved are portrayed.

It might detail an actual event but will be colored and shaped by the author’s personal point of view.

A-supposedly-fun-thing-first-edition-coverThe narrative essay conveys our experiences and ideas in a form that is easy to digest, so writing this kind of piece requires authors to have some idea of the craft of writing.

A list of highly regarded narrative essays and links to them can be found at 40 Best Essays of All Time (Including Links & Writing Tips) (

To write a good narrative essay, an author must understand the publishing industry’s grammar and mechanics standards. This is critical because the people who read this kind of work are dedicated readers.

Dedicated readers might vary in their level of formal education, but all are knowledgeable and will recognize when a writer is untrained.

I enjoy reading narrative essays when the author uses the opportunity to explore themes and subthemes.

Theme is vastly different from the subject of a work. Theme is an underlying idea, a thread woven through the story from the beginning to the end, binding the plot together. An example I regularly use is the movie franchise Star Wars.

  • The subject of the first three movies is the battle for control of the galaxy between the Galactic Empireand the Rebel Alliance. That is what the story is about.
  • Two of the themesexplored in those films are the bonds of friendship and the gray area between good and evil—moral ambiguity. Each character arc and every incident explores this struggle in subtle ways.

Original_New_Yorker_coverA narrative essay is a story that begins with an experience you once had. You know how that event began and ended. Just like any other form of short fiction, a narrative essay has a plot arc.

  • Make an outline as you must develop both content and structure.
  • Take some time to consider how you want your account to be perceived by the reader.

The arc of an essay is the same as that of a fictional story. It has

  • an introduction,
  • a plot,
  • characters,
  • a setting,
  • a climax,
  • a conclusion.

It’s not a memoir, so exposition must be limited. For me, the challenge is to not frontload the story. Offer the information at the moment the reader needs it. We must convey the most information with the least number of words.

If you love writing prose and choosing the right words, this might be a good medium for you.

Authors of narrative essays sometimes meet with criticism regarding the subject matter and how they present their opinions. This is because narrative essays often present profound and (sometimes) uncomfortable ideas.

A skillful writer can offer these concepts in a way that the reader feels connected to the story, even if they disagree.

Good essays express far more than mere opinion—they tell a story. The story is what keeps the reader engaged.

If you are writing about an actual event, names should be changed for your protection. This is because narrative essays are filled with information. They expose the places we go and detail the people we meet.

Harpers_Magazine_1905We don’t want to disclose too much information about ourselves or the people we have encountered. An honest narrative essay contains an author’s opinions. Sometimes those sentiments are not glowing accolades. One can lose friends if they aren’t careful.

Those who write narrative essays can make a living because literary magazines have open calls for them. Editors and publishers are seeking well-written essays/articles with fresh ideas about wide-ranging topics.

Some will pay well for first publication rights.

HOWEVER – if you want to be published by a reputable magazine, you must pay strict attention to grammar and editing.

Never submit anything less than your best work. After you have finished the piece, I suggest you set it aside for a week or two. Then come back to it with a fresh eye and check the manuscript for:

  • Spelling—misspelled words, autocorrect errors, and homophones (words that sound the same but are spelled differently).
  • Repeated words and cut-and-paste errors. These are sneaky and dreadfully difficult to spot. Spell-checker won’t always find them.
  • Missing punctuation and closed quotes. These things happen to the best of us.
  • Dropped and missing words.

As I mentioned above, don’t be afraid to use your words. Readers of narrative essays have a wide vocabulary. But there is one caveat to that:

  • Never use jargon or technical terms that only people in certain professions would know unless it is a piece in a publication geared for that segment of readers.

Above all, be intentional and active with your prose, and be bold. I enjoy reading works by authors who are adventurous in their prose.


And on that note, we must be realistic. Breaking into any sort of traditional publishing is difficult. You will have trouble selling your work at first. You haven’t gained a reputation yet, and no one knows what to expect from you.

Also, you may have gauged your audience wrong, and your work might not appeal to the first editors you send it to.

Don’t be discouraged by rejection. Rejection happens far more frequently than acceptance, so don’t let fear of rejection keep you from writing pieces you’re emotionally invested in.

I have said this many times, but it is true:

How you handle critiques and rejections tells editors what kind of person you are to work with. Rejection allows you to cross the invisible line between amateur and professional.

Always take the high ground. If an editor has sent you a detailed rejection, don’t be angry or upset at their remarks. No editor sends a detailed rejection unless they see promise in the author’s work.

  • Let it rest for a day or two, then respond with a simple “thank you for your time.”

367px-Saturday_evening_post_1903_11_28_aTake some time to review what you submitted, keeping those comments in mind. Then form a plan to address those issues with a rewrite.

If you received a form letter rejection, don’t reply. But do look at your work critically and try to see what can be changed to improve it.

When you receive that email of acceptance, celebrate.

There is no better feeling than when someone, whose publication you respect, liked your work enough to publish it.


Filed under writing

8 responses to “Short Fiction – the narrative essay #amwriting

  1. “Don’t let rejection get you down “As someone who once edited a few magazines and made the decisions on what to print, not only did I know what to expect when sending out articles, essays, short tales etc. I already knew the pitfalls. I had seen them all over the years so I should have stood a much better chance of getting accepted than your average punter. In addition, many of those I was submitting to knew me or knew of me. Print magazines in the UK is a limited market. Even then I had many rejections before they started publishing my work. I had gone to a great deal of effort and did not submit until it was “Perfect”
    Still there were and still are many rejections. I have a folder of rejection letters and let’s just say that folder is no longer slim. It is difficult but you can get there with effort and perseverance.

    Liked by 1 person

    • ❤ There are so many, many reason why a piece is rejected. On the rare occasions I do sell something we celebrate. I'm so glad you took the time to comment, Ray. I think people will be glad to know that even people established in the industry struggle with this.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. You are very welcome, but I was just stating the facts. Tis a hard workplace today. Many writers. Dickens would receive rejections these days. “For goodness sake shape your diction, Charles and stop using silly names for your characters”. “Mr. Blunderbuss and Miss Flugelhorn are not going to work with me. …Muttered,… ametuer… It should be more like dear old Will, we liked him. Knew where we stood with “Will” these new whippersnappers don’t know they were born. Harrumph.

    Liked by 1 person

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