How to Write a Narrative Essay

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How to write a narrative essay? A narrative essay is an essay that tells a story about a specific event or experience. Narratives have a point, and the narrative (story) is used to convey the point. A narrative includes all the key events of the story, presented in time order. The narrative essay is more than just a listing of events; it often uses descriptive and sensory information to make the narrator’s point and to make the story real for the reader. Consequently, narratives are often subjective rather than objective.

How to Write a Narrative Essay:

Narrative Essay Definition

How to Write a Narrative EssayA narrative essay is a format in which the author tells, or narrates, a story. They are non-fictional and deal with the author’s personal development. Unlike other forms of writing, using the first person is acceptable in narrative essays.

Narrative essays are different from short stories, which are fictional; the author is free to change the plot, add characters or rewrite the ending of a short story to better fit a narrative arc. With a narrative essay, the author must pull a cohesive narrative arc from her memory of true events. Narrative essays must include a thesis statement and the essay is used to support this. Short stories do not require a thesis statement.

Narrative essays often overlap with other forms of writing. Non-fiction narrative essays are considered a form of creative non-fiction, a genre that combines the truth-telling aspects of journalism with literary styles found in traditional fiction. Memoirs are similar to narrative essays. An organized collection of non-fiction narrative essays constitutes a memoir, but a single non-fiction narrative essay cannot be considered such. An autobiography is distinct from both a memoir and a narrative essay because it chronicles the events of a person’s entire lifetime, rather than focusing on specific experiences.

Conventions of Narrative Essays

As a mode of expository writing, the narrative approach, more than any other, offers writers a chance to think and write about themselves. We all have experiences lodged in our memories, which are worthy of sharing with readers. Yet sometimes they are so fused with other memories that a lot of the time spent in writing narrative is in the prewriting stage.

When you write a narrative essay, you are telling a story. Narrative essays are told from a defined point of view, often the author’s, so there is feeling as well as specific and often sensory details provided to get the reader involved in the elements and sequence of the story. The verbs are vivid and precise. The narrative essay makes a point and that point is often defined in the opening sentence, but can also be found as the last sentence in the opening paragraph.

In writing your narrative essay, keep the following conventions in mind:

  • Narratives are generally written in the first person, that is, using I. However, third person (he, she, or it) can also be used.
  • Narratives rely on concrete, sensory details to convey their point. These details should create a unified, forceful effect, a dominant impression. More information on the use of specific details is available on another page.
  • Narratives, as stories, should include these story conventions: a plot, including setting and characters; a climax; and an ending.

To summarize, the narrative essay:

  • is told from a particular point of view
  • makes and supports a point
  • is filled with precise detail
  • uses vivid verbs and modifiers
  • uses conflict and sequence as does any story
  • may use dialogue

The purpose of a narrative report is to describe something. Many students write narrative reports thinking that these are college essays or papers. While the information in these reports is basic to other forms of writing, narrative reports lack the “higher order thinking” that essays require. Thus narrative reports do not, as a rule, yield high grades for many college courses. A basic example of a narrative report is a “book report” that outlines a book; it includes the characters, their actions, possibly the plot, and, perhaps, some scenes. That is, it is a description of “what happens in the book.” But this leaves out an awful lot.

Narrative Essay Writing Tips

How to Write a Narrative Essay

The earliest writers in every civilization have told stories to convey their messages. Homer’s tales of Cyclops, the one-eyed monster, and Circe, whose spells transformed humans into animals, not only entertained but informed and persuaded the ancient Greeks about geography, the gods, and humanity’s place in the universe. The ancient myth of Sisyphus, for example, tells of a greedy king who is condemned in Hell to roll a huge boulder to the top of a hill. Just before Sisyphus reaches the peak, the gods make the boulder roll back down, and Sisyphus must start all over again. Up and down the hill he chases the rock for all time. Over the centuries the story has been a parable about the empty lives of the greedy and also about the futility of much human effort.

Jesus frequently told stories to make his message stronger. “The Good Samaritan” and “The Prodigal Son” seem to stick in our minds much better than, say, a typical sermon on charity. When Jesus told a crowd, “Love thy neighbor,” a lawyer asked, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus, realizing the man wanted to put a limit on whom he was required to love, did not answer directly. Instead he told the story of a man beaten and robbed by thieves in his own country. The victim’s neighbors, a priest and local official, walked by without helping. Then a Samaritan, a stranger in the victim’s country, stopped, washed the man’s wounds, took him to an inn, and paid for his lodging. When Jesus finished, the lawyer knew the meaning of the word “neighbor,” not from definition, but from the actions in the story.

Why have these stories lasted so long? Because stories are more visual, more easily remembered than abstractions. When we recall Sisyphus groaning behind his boulder or the “good” men passing the injured man before the Samaritan stops to help, the writer’s abstract message flows along with the story.

Successful speakers from corporation executives to U.S. presidents know that telling a vivid story can be more effective than facts alone. People view a storyteller as creative and smart, as one who commands attention with powerful images.

Use Conflict

The heart of a good story is conflict: forces in tension with each other. The four common types are person vs. person, person vs. society, person vs. nature, and person vs. self. A saleswoman struggling against an employer who cheats clients is person vs. person; a social worker battling the city to hire more disabled people is person vs. society; a young man struggling to find the ski lodge after a sudden squall separates him from the group is person vs. nature; a woman trying to decide whether she should have an abortion is person vs. self.

Let’s look closer at what makes a good conflict and why it helps your story absorb readers’ attention. First, only real sparks make real fires. Conflicts that don’t deeply affect us won’t make strong stories. A story about a mother forbidding her daughter to date a certain boy does not sound very promising, no matter how it upset the writer. However, if the daughter learns that her mother has deeper motives—if, for instance, the boy reminds the mother of a boy who jilted her or of one she always wished she married instead of the daughter’s father—then we have more hope for this conflict. Or perhaps we will discover the mother is envious of the daughter’s social success. Or perhaps the daughter is dating a wild boy because she doesn’t like the relationship her parents have. Here we have something more meaningful. The best conflicts draw out some deeper significance in the characters or the action. If a conflict in your life really stirred you, there’s probably more to it under the surface. Peek under the rug.

Readers want conflict so they can care about the outcome, so they can cheer and fear and doubt with the narrator. They also want conflicts difficult to solve. Wrong vs. right or strong vs. weak doesn’t grip readers as much as conflicts in which wrong and right are murky or in which the forces opposed are equal.

Our lives are full of both inner and outer conflicts, but sometimes we don’t recognize them. Here are three almost sure ways to find a strong conflict to write about.

Think about the most intense turning points in your life. These have changed not only the outer course of your life but the inner course as well by developing your philosophy or identity. Readers want a story to matter to the writer, or it won’t matter to them. For this reason it is sometimes harder to write about a personal triumph—winning the big race or election—than about a defeat or a tragedy. Winning tends to keep our beliefs intact; often we learn more in losing. However, I can recall an excellent story a student wrote about winning a state wrestling match, because in his moment of triumph he stared into the eyes of the slumped man he’d defeated. Nor do big tragedies necessarily mean a person has grown. As Isaac Bashevis Singer said, “A wise man gets wiser by suffering. A person without wisdom may suffer 100 years and die a fool.” The moments that make us grow, that tear away the predictable boundaries of our lives, are the ones that make good essays.

Are there moments from your life that are too intense to write about? Sure. If you write a paragraph or two and find you really hate dealing with this material, it may be too fresh to see clearly or too raw a wound to reopen. But give it a few paragraphs to see. You may find that something you thought you didn’t want to deal with really sets your mind seething with powerful ideas and images. If it wants to pour out of you, keep going.

Look for good conflicts by thinking about an interesting person you’ve known: the resident rebel in family or town, the eccentric uncle, the homeless woman who hangs around campus, the “respectable” neighbor who abuses his children. You may be personally involved if you take sides with or against the rebel. You may debate whether to notify the authorities to help the homeless woman. Or, as an honest, intense observer, you may simply report the conflict you see. People who climb outside norms have built-in conflict. Your own rebellions may make good stories too.

Use classic themes of conflict. Certain topics have gripped readers’ imaginations for 3000 years because they touch the heart of our humanity. Facing death, rebelling against parents or social taboos, discovering your real identity, or initiation into the adult world of religion, sex, or war are irresistible to writers and readers alike. You can find all these conflicts in ancient Greek literature, in Shakespeare and in the hottest book or film just out. A more specific focus like forbidden love, as in Oedipus, Romeo and Juliet and The Liar’s Club, may draw on all four themes.

How does this help you? Well, suppose you’re exploring a conflict about child abuse in your family for a narrative essay. You can deepen the potential of such a story by going beyond the fear and physical danger—connect it to rebellion, taboo, identity and initiation themes. If little Joel is beaten regularly for spilling his milk, how does that connect to his teenage rebellion (or lack of rebellion), to his willingness to engage in other taboo acts, to his sense of who he is, and to his sense of what being an adult means? If you’re just trying to describe what happened exactly as you remember it, you’ll be missing the real purpose of writing a narrative essay, which is to learn more now than you knew when you were experiencing or watching the story unfold in real life.

Brain teasers can suggest conflicts for narrative essays. A bug list will surely turn up conflict in your life. You can do a general one first and then pursue the one that most intrigues you. Dig out the depth of your dissatisfaction. The alternate viewpoints brain teaser can also help you tell an honest story. Look at the story you’re considering from the viewpoint of the other people involved to discover your weaknesses and their strengths. This allows you to make real opponents in the story, not just cardboard cutouts. Because a major aspect of storytelling is making readers visualize the story, sense brain teasers will stimulate your imagination.

Use Complication

After finding a powerful conflict, you must make it grow more complicated as the story continues. The novelist E. M. Forster said he always imagined one of his readers to be a person who only wanted to be surprised by new twists, new angles, new insights in each paragraph. If the story stagnates, it’s usually because it has ceased to convey new information. This does not mean you must have continuous earthquakes and car crashes. Moving forward can be a matter of mental twists and insights.

Creating complex conflict often means discovering competing ideas in yourself; at each turn in your essay ask if you really felt 100 percent as you wrote. The spots where you waver or doubt need to be in the essay to lead the reader through your honest decision making. Making choices creates conflict and reveals your character and theme. Stories in which things happen to a passive narrator lack this element. We are often victims of fate, accidents, and bad luck, but the key moments in our lives are the ones we can do something about, the ones in which we choose our destiny.

How to Ruin a Story

Teachers and textbooks don’t often advise students how to mess up; but if you’re interested in ruining a story, here are three ways to do it. First, give a lot of background in the opening. If you’re going to tell the story of your great fishing adventure, start the story with getting ready the night before, your restless sleep, waking, breakfast, packing the car, driving to the dock, and casting off. This is boring in one sentence. Imagine how boring it can be stretched out to a full page! If you want an exciting start, begin the essay like this: “I was rebating my hook when I realized that a squall had just blocked off the sun and was heading straight for our boat.” Or start when your buddy spills the lantern fuel into the campfire. If the story is about meeting a wonderful person during a vacation, start with the moment the wonderful person bumps into you with his cotton candy and tangles it in your hair. Don’t start with packing, travel, unpacking, and setting up on the beach.

The Romans used the expression in medias res (in the middle begin) to describe starting where real conflict begins. Have your characters begin in motion, not preparing to move. Do this and you’ll be surprised how busy you’ll be telling the real story and how little time you need spend on that story killer—background.

A second way to ruin a story is to give away the ending. If the following sentence began a story, you wouldn’t want to read the rest: “Little did I know the first time Bob approached me after class to borrow a pen that in seven months we’d be married.” It’s dramatic but kills the rest of the story. Compare that to this opening: “There was absolutely nothing special about Bob that first day he approached me after class to borrow a pen. I would have completely forgotten him except the next day he handed me a dozen pens with a bow around them. Now I’ve got a nerd after me, I thought.” The second version lets us know something is going to happen, but not what.

Giving away the ending applies not only to events, but to the theme. Good readers enjoy figuring out the significance of the events, and an opening sentence like the following can ruin that: “I don’t know if I’ll ever marry again, but if I do I’ll put my wife ahead of my friends.” The writer of narratives must tease readers a bit, give them new events and ideas and also leave them a bit unsatisfied so they’ll keep reading.

Another way to ruin a reader’s enjoyment is to summarize events. Don’t bother with details—just cover big chunks of the story in a few words. Now it may seem like you can tell a bigger story by summarizing, but what you’re really doing is denying readers the pleasure of watching events unfold in front of them—smelling the air, hearing what the people say, and figuring out how events will turn out. When you summarize, it’s like someone rushing from the window to tell about the exciting events happening outside instead of letting you look for yourself.

So how do you make a reader feel “there”? Through scenes and moments seen up close. This means you probably shouldn’t write about three years of your life, about your entire football season, or about your entire relationship with a friend. Pick one sunset, one encounter on the team bus, one hour in the hospital’s cancer ward. Then you can give us the rich detail of the moment. When you think about it, that’s how we live—one moment at a time, and nearly all of them lost as soon as they pass. After they’re gone, we put a label on them—a summary.

Describing People

If conflict is the heart of a narrative, its body is the characters—the physical presence that moves the conflict. This is where your description must be sharpest, to make the people in your story jump off the page. We tend to make people in our stories reflect our own ideas, habits, and values instead of presenting them as they are. Using an alternate viewpoint brain teaser is the best way to overcome this. Give each main character—especially those with whom you disagree—a few minutes of rough notes. Think as they do. See as they see. What motivates them? What do they care about? This is essential for honest, vivid conflict. If you’ve been cheated by a salesperson, you must try to convey what she believes, perhaps her anxiousness to succeed, or you will create her as a fake cardboard figure.

Besides understanding how your characters think, you must help the reader see them. Here are some of the things that create a picture of a person in words:

  • Physical description
  • Habits
  • The way they talk
  • Their possessions
  • What others say about them
  • Gestures

The man who empties an ashtray three times during an evening communicates character through this habit. If he also picks threads from his sleeve and rearranges the couch pillow continually, his character will be dominated by neatness in a reader’s eyes. Gestures—like poking a listener with a forefinger while speaking, or wrapping a sweaty arm around your shoulder—also create character. In preparing to write about people, use the preceding list as a brain teaser, making a list of details for each item.

How do you know which details to actually include in the draft? Let’s take physical description as an example. Simple, factual description adds detail, but will rarely light up a page. The following is accurate and specific: “Gregory Bates has brown hair and brown eyes and is 5’10” tall and weighs 165 pounds.” But these words do not bring the unknown Mr. Bates to life; they should stay on the brain-teaser page. A reader assumes a person is of average build unless told otherwise. Brown hair and eyes are so common they only narrow Bates down to several billion people. Instead, search for and choose unique, distinguishing details: Bates’s Mohawk haircut, the wart on his chin, his gangly arms. The reader will automatically fill in the rest as “average.”

Here’s another trick to describe people: You want not just the unique features of the person but also those details that convey more than simple description. When choosing details from your brain-teaser lists, pick ones that suggest deeper aspects of the person, ones that capture personality or beliefs.

Take eyes as an example. No other part of the human body is described so often. Yet “the windows of the soul” attract more flies than fresh air, more clichés than fresh description. Soft, brown eyes, sky blue eyes, and sparkling eyes are dead eyes. A writer needs to find a twist: cow-brown eyes, winter-blue eyes, eyes sparkling like razors. Or are those eyes dung brown, chocolate brown, peanut-butter brown, sooty, muddy, or walnut? Make a list of all the kinds of brown you can think of and then choose the best one for your person’s eyes. This will give the reader something specific for better visualization. It will also convey more of the person’s character. Muddy eyes, for example, suggest vagueness, confusion, or even dirtiness of the personality. All of these browns are equally suggestive.

Possessions reveal character because they represent choices we make. True, most of us own many things unthinkingly—toothbrushes, pens, underwear. But our unique possessions represent conscious choice—the 20 boxes full of baseball cards or chest of grandmother’s lace doilies, the pink flamingo or religious shrine in our front yard, the Harley or Honda in our driveway. Gestures, habits, and what others say about someone also reveal character. A one-page brain teaser listing details should result in plenty to bring a person to life in words. If you can’t fill a page of notes, you don’t know enough about the person to write him or her into the story.


Like other aspects of describing people, dialogue must be distinctive—your characters shouldn’t sound like you but like themselves. If you use real people in your story, listen for their unique speech patterns and quirks of language. If you live in the northern states and have a person from the South in your story, he may use the words “polecat” instead of “skunk,” “sack” instead of “bag,” or “depot” instead of “station.” To a southerner, a Bostonian forgets r’s, as in “A bahbah cut my heyuh,” but adds r’s as in “That’s a good idear.” When I moved to Rochester, New York, I had to learn that asking for a “red hot” and a “pop” was not provoking a brawl but a request for a “frankfurter and a soft drink” (or is it a “wiener and a soda”?). Be careful of stereotypes, however. Few Californians really use Valleytalk (“like, gag me with a spoon, dude”); few southerners say, “Y’all come back fo’ grits, dahling”; and few people from New Jersey refer to their state as “New Joysee.”

More important are individual speech characteristics: the person who says “hey” or “ain’t” or “prevarication” or who addresses people as “honey” or “pal” or “sir.” Education levels show up in dialogue, too. “You ain’t puttin’ nothin’ ovah on me” and “I’m inclined to disbelieve that assertion” come from two different people saying the same thing. Age, use of slang, environment, and hobbies all influence our choice of words. People who are into computers, cars, television, or the military use vocabulary that reflects their interest, no matter what they talk about. Take a minute to think of a friend or relative who has a unique vocabulary or style of speaking.

A storyteller must try to capture the speaker’s voice. As you see, it’s legitimate to break spelling and grammar rules in dialogue for realistic effect. A street punk may not say, “We had quite a blast last night” but, “Freakin’ blast last night.” Describe these speakers based on their style:

  • “Isn’t that the cat’s pajamas, honey? We sat on the same stoop and I didn’t recognize him! Mr. Mahoney, the grocer! He could have been the man in the moon!”
  • “We can say with firm assurance that no such knowledge of any event could proceed without the bureau chief ’s tacit or at least implied consent.”
  • “It’s time for lunch, right? So I get him, right? We meet at the mall, right?”
  • “Ice it, pops. You beat up your chops too much.”

Someone once said, “Dialogue is what people do to each other.” In stories, you shouldn’t pass the time of day in small talk. Skip hello, introductions, goodbyes, and “please-pass-the-butter” talk. Concentrate on the meaningful scenes. Each piece of dialogue must move the story along. Dialogue can carry scenes in which important revelations are made about a character, the action, or the theme.

Ending a Story

It’s tough to wrap up loose ends, make a point and still have a kick ending when the conflict and action of the story are over. But don’t make it harder on yourself than it already is. Rather than trying to explain everything, it’s often better to suggest the conclusion. If you wrote about your bitter confrontations with your sister, you could end with the doorbell ringing and your hope (or would it be fear?) that it is her. Less can sometimes stimulate a reader’s imagination more.

Symbols suggest conclusions without stating a message openly. If you wrote about running away from home and were taken to a juvenile detention center, you might end by staring out the window at the road winding away toward the city to hint at the future.

A third option is to echo the opening. This rounds off a story, helps the reader recognize it as a whole. If you began with weather, why not end with weather? Rain could give way to sun—or sharper rain. An opening that begins with a letter from your dying grandmother could end when you find the letter you mailed her on the table beside her bed. Your father’s hand steadying your bicycle in the opening can be echoed as you notice his hand as he takes your arm down the aisle to be married.

How to Say Something Worth Saying

How can you make a story convey a good theme?

  • Tell the truth. Now that sounds simple, but the fact is that the most difficult lies to brush away from the truth are the ones we tell ourselves. Does the theme of your story sound too simple because you’ve given yourself a candy-coated cliché or a safe, predictable message? You must re-feel the events; ask yourself at every turn if you missed something or closed your eyes to something. Use the brain teasers on unquestioned ideas and clichés and alternative viewpoints to help break into new truths. But don’t worry at the outline stage if your theme isn’t outstanding. Theme requires drafting and revision to emerge.
  • Question your own motives along with everyone else’s. Be honest about aspects of the story that contradict your main idea. If the ending was basically good or optimistic, look for darker meanings lurking there. If it was a sad ending, look for positive aspects. Doing this will separate the superficial paper from the one that’s probing. The poet Coleridge once said, “No man does anything from a single motive.” Look for multiple causes for your actions and the actions of others.
  • Why have a theme? Why not just tell what happened? Because how you feel about what you did or what happened to you is more important than the event itself. A reader may make up his mind on his own, but he also wants to know how you interpret it. Working on theme also makes us learn something new.

Narrative Essay Structure

A narrative essay tells a story. In fact, narrative is another word for story. In this unit, you will learn how to organize and write a narrative essay. Even though the narrative essay has the same basic form as most other academic essays, it allows the writer to be a little more creative than academic essays usually do. Narratives can tell long stories or just a few minutes’ worth of excitement. While the narrative essay has a particular structure, narrative ideas are often used in different writing tasks, such as argument or compare-contrast.

Several important elements make up a good story:

  • Setting: The setting is the location where the action in a story takes place.
  • Theme: The theme is the basic idea of the story. Very often the theme will deal with a topic that is common in life or human nature, such as independence, envy, courage, failure, and success.
  • Mood: The mood is the feeling or atmosphere that the writer creates for the story. It could be happy, hopeful, suspenseful, or scary. Both the setting and descriptive vocabulary create the mood in a narrative.
  • Characters: The characters are the people in the story. They are affected by the mood of the story, and they react to the events in which they are involved.
  • Plot: The plot is what happens in the story, that is, the sequence of events. The plot often includes a climax or turning point at which the characters or events change.

Just like other types of essays, an effective narrative essay also includes these elements:

  • a thesis that sets up the action in the introduction
  • transition sentences that connect events and help the reader follow the story
  • a conclusion that ends the story action and provides a moral, prediction, or revelation

Narrative Essay Introduction

The introduction of a narrative essay is the paragraph that begins your story. In the introduction, you describe the setting, introduce the characters, and prepare your audience for the action to come. Of course, the introduction should have a hook and a thesis.

Narrative Essay Thesis

In most types of essays, the thesis states the main idea of the essay and tells what the organization of the information will be. However, in a narrative essay, the thesis introduces the action that begins in the first paragraph of the essay. Look at these example thesis statements:

  • Now, as I watched the bus driver set my luggage on the airport sidewalk, I realized that my frustration had only just begun.
  • I wanted my mother to watch me race down the steep hill, so I called out her name and then nudged my bike forward.
  • Because his pride would not allow him to apologize, Ken now had to fight the bully, and he was pretty sure that he would not win.

These thesis statements do not tell the reader what happens. They only introduce the action that will follow. The paragraphs in the body will develop the story.

Narrative Essay Body

The body of your narrative essay contains most of the plot—the supporting information. The action in the plot can be organized in many different ways. One way is chronological or time order. In this method, each paragraph gives more information about the story as it proceeds in time—the first paragraph usually describes the first event, the second paragraph describes the second event, and so on.

Transitional Sentences in Narrative Essays

In an essay with chronological organization, each paragraph ends with a transitional sentence. Transitional sentences have two purposes: (1) to signal the end of the action in one paragraph, and (2) to provide a link to the action of the next paragraph. These sentences are vital because they give your story unity and allow the reader to follow the action easily.

Narrative Essay Conclusion

Like academic essays, narrative essays need to have concluding ideas. In the conclusion, you finish describing the action in the essay. The final sentence can have two functions:

  1. It can deliver the moral of the story by telling the reader what the character(s) learned from the experience.
  2. It can make a prediction or a revelation (disclosure of something that was not known before) about future actions that will happen as a result of the events in the story.

Look at these examples:

  • Moral: The little boy had finally learned that telling the truth was the most important thing to do.
  • Prediction: I can only hope that one day I will be able to do the same for another traveler who is suffering through a terrible journey.
  • Revelation: Every New Year’s Eve, my wife and I return to that magical spot and remember the selfless act that saved our lives

If you describe the sights, smells, and sounds of the story, you will bring the story alive for the reader. Try to include a few adjectives in your sentences. The more descriptive the information, the more the reader will connect with the story you are telling. Make readers feel that they are there with you as you experience what you are describing.

Narrative Essay Outline

  1. Introduction
    1. Lead-in: Background information that sets the tone and draws the reader in
    2. Tie-in: A sentence that connects the lead-in with the thesis statement
    3. Thesis: Sentence which states why this experience was so important or memorable
  2. Body
    1. Details about the beginning of the event or experience
      1. Specific supporting ideas, details and examples
      2. Sensory and descriptive details
    2. Details about what occurred during the event or experience
      1. Specific supporting ideas, details and examples
      2. Sensory and descriptive details
    3. Details about what happened in the final stage of the event or personal experience
      1. Specific supporting ideas, details and examples
      2. Sensory and descriptive details
  3. Conclusion
    1. Reiterate: Rephrases the thesis
    2. Review: Summarizes your main supporting ideas
    3. Reflect: Indicates the significance of the experience
    4. Wrap-up: Leaves the reader with a deep and powerful last thought

NOTE: Each paragraph should focus on one specific aspect of the event or personal experience instead of skimming over a series of events.

Key Components of a Narrative Essay

  1. Some significant event, experience or relationship provides the organizing focus/idea
  2. Sensory and specific supporting details that give the reader a close-up of the events, experience or relationship (e.g. scenery, season, scents, sounds, dialogue, etc.)
  3. Events or activities in time sequence (i.e. Beginning, Middle, End or Aftermath).
  4. Unified: everything in the essay refers to the central idea or focus
  5. Written in one tense (usually past tense) and from one point of view (first or third person)
  6. Transitional phrases that help the reader follow the sequence of actions

How to Write a Personal Narrative

There is very little mystery to writing the personal narrative essay. There is no proper topic for such an essay. An essay can be about a variety of personal experiences. You, the writer, have the right to say what you want about your personal experience. You can write about anything — Aunt Sally, the funky necklace you bought at a garage sale, the harrowing experience of being stuck in an elevator, the best Christmas you ever had, the worst day of your life. No topic or subject is off-limits; therefore there are endless opportunities to write an essay about your personal, point-of-view of what happened. Often the reason behind wanting to write a personal essay is unclear. Once the writing begins and the events are recorded and recounted it becomes clear that the writer is searching to find the meaning, the universal truth, the lesson learned from the experience. When writing, rewriting and good editing coalesce, a personal narrative essay becomes a beautiful thing. It shows how the past or a memory’s significance affects the present or even the future.

We all have stories to tell. But facing a blank page is intimidating. Knowing where to begin becomes a real dilemma. A good place to start is with the word I. Write I was, I saw, I did, I went, I cried, I screamed, I took for granted. “I” is an empowering word. Once you write it on the page it empowers you to tell your story. That’s exactly what you are going to do next. Tell the story. Get it all out. Don’t worry about how many times I appears in the text. Don’t worry how scattered and unfocused thoughts are. Write however your mind tells you to write. This style is often called freewheeling writing or stream of consciousness. Once the story is all down on paper you will go back and begin to shape the essay into a form that says exactly what you want it to say about your experience. If you’re discouraged over what you’ve written, back away from it. Let it rest. Take a walk. Do something that distracts your mind from writing the essay. Many writers find that even while doing something other than writing, their writing mind continues to work out what needs to be said and continues to uncover the multi-layered associations and voices of what they’re writing about.

Personal narrative essays are essentially non-fiction stories, ones that are neatly arranged like a road map that take the reader from point A to point B to point C. In life, and in our own personal experience, things aren’t so straightforward as A-B-C. Characters, facts, places, conversations and reporting what happened, where you went, what you saw and what you did isn’t always so neatly pulled together. That is your job, as the writer, to pull together all the elements so they bring the reader to the universal truth, the lesson learned or insight gained in your experience. How do you do this? Through re-writing and re-writing.

Each time you redo the story more will be revealed to you. You will get “in touch” with the universal truth. Every rewrite of the story will lead you to the “aha!” Once you get the “aha!” the next rewrite will show dramatic improvement. You will be able to arrange events into a chronological sequence that best suits the aha!. When you know the “aha!” create events, think up examples to better illustrate the theme of your essay. Use the senses when describing anything. Example: … It was a stellar day. The air had a salty tang to it as it blew off the ocean. Little white caps broke not more than twenty feet out then rushed to meet the shore. Above me sea gulls screeched and circled in a cloudless blue sky. The sun was in its Spring zenith…. The more descriptive language you use, the more you will place the reader right there in the experience with you. Colorful or hard-driving language are the tools of the essayist.

Essay writing forces you to shape your experience until it can be fully understood by others. Use every tool available in the writing craft. Construct dialogue, use metaphors but most importantly, use language with a wide breadth of sensory detail. If you find yourself getting lost, stop writing. Start reading other essays. Every issue of Reader’s Digest always has at least two. Read eight back issues of a magazine with personal narrative essays in their content. By osmosis, you’ll get the feel of how essays are constructed. Go back and do the rework on yours. Include dialogue, include examples that best support or illustrate the “aha!” of the experience you’re writing about. Beef up the description of a character. Give them succinct, meaningful dialogue that pushes the reader closer and closer to the “aha!” of your essay.

The next step is to get feedback on what you have written. If someone close to you or someone really intimate with the experience you’ve written about says, “Hey, that’s not the way it happened,” don’t worry. Little white lies are serving to drive the “aha!” of the experience into the mind of the reader. Your truth is embedded in your writing. To enable the reader to visualize or grasp the concept, little white lies are a necessity. Listen to the responses of readers, then go back a rewrite the portions that were unclear to the reader.

Next, have someone read the essay aloud to you or you read it aloud into a tape recorder.

Listen to the flow of words. Listen to where the reader stumbles. Listen where pauses fall. Listen to where the reader runs out of breath. These are all clues as to where more refining or tweaking need to be done. Go back and do it! You are close to sitting back in the chair and saying, “Yes! This is exactly what I wanted to say about what I experienced.” It is a beautiful feeling. Work to achieve it.

To recap how to write a personal narrative essay follow these points:

  • Write I on a blank page.
  • Tell the story as it flows from your mind.
  • Let the story rest in its scattered, unfocused form.
  • Begin rewriting. Shaping events in a way to best suit what you want to say.
  • Rejoice when the “aha!” of your experience is revealed.
  • Re-write, re-write, and re-write. Little white lies are okay.
  • Use language that is full of words that tap into the senses.
  • Get feedback from a reader.
  • Re-write.
  • Have the essay read aloud. Listen.
  • Fine tune and tweak.
  • Grin from ear-to-ear when everything on the page reveals the “aha!” in the experience perfectly.
  • And – Kudos on a job well done!

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