The Personal Narrative Essay


Write a narrative that connects to your reader

Strong narrative essays all have one thing in common–they feel like fiction. The key to writing a narrative that draws your reader in is recreating a true story that includes the essential elements of fiction, such as character arc, setting, dialogue and resolution. The difference between the narrative essay and fiction, though, is the veracity. The personal narrative retells true events; fiction does not.

There are many types of personal narratives, such as the hero’s journey, literacy, or reflective. Regardless of the type of essay you choose to write, they all have similar elements in common. Like all genres, understanding what makes a piece a personal narrative will help you create a stronger product.

Tips for Creating a Narrative that Impacts Your Audience:

  1. Start in the Action

Narrative essays tell a story. For the author, that means deciding which life events are worth telling. Much like writing a memoir, the narrative essayist must choose events that are integral to the theme of the essay. It may help to make a list of significant events in your life and choose one that taught you a lesson or moral. When beginning the essay, start as close to the action of that event as possible. Pacing is important for narratives. Beginning close to the action draws the reader in. Keep in mind you don’t need to tell the story linearly. Narratives can follow the same rules as fiction in terms of flashbacks and backstory. Be creative!

2. Create a Scene

Vivid details and a setting are as important in the real world as they are in the make believe world. Readers read for escape. A story draws them in using clear images and sensory elements because they can experience the story as if they were living it themselves. The fact that the story is true only contributes to the satisfaction the reader feels when she is finished.

3. Make it Feel Like Fiction

An effective narrative essay should incorporate the elements of fiction. Dialogue, setting, character arc, resolution, all of these components of fiction can and should be used to create an essay that retells true events through the lens of retrospection. 

4. Show Significance

If your story has a character arc, meaning the protagonist experiences some sort of internal shift or change, then it’s significant. Your goal as a writer is to show (don’t tell) your audience how and why this shift occurs. In “The Three Little Pigs,” the significance of the story is the arc of the pigs. The pigs begin the story believing that if they rush through building their homes, they’ll have more time to play. However, through a series of events, they learn that rushing is not worth the risk. The wolf drives the pigs to change their world to value the importance of hard work and dedication. That is your significance. That is why we have read the story of “The Three Little Pigs” over and over for generations. As an author, you should determine the why of your personal narrative before you begin writing. 

Most importantly, enjoy the process! A personal narrative is all about you. Find unique ways to make it your own!

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