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!

Memoir Writing

How to Make Your Memoir Matter

Bookstores are filled with memoirs written by everyone from Michelle Obama to Elizabeth Gilbert to Frank McCourt. When we first think of memoirs, we think of the stories of people whose lives are of great importance, like Ernest Hemingway or Patti Smith. But, that’s really not the case. There are tons of examples of bestselling memoirs from unknown people. It’s not the life of a famous person that interests us, but their story. And everyone has a story. The key to writing a memoir that resonates with your audience is finding that story and connecting it to your audience.

First, a note about readers. We’re selfish creatures. No one read Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir Eat, Pray, Lovesimply because we had a dying need to know how much pasta she ate during her time in Italy. We read her story because we wanted to know what we could take away from it to enrich our own lives. We read, your readers will read, not to know what happened to you, but to know how what happened to you can teach us a lesson about our own lives. That is the challenge of writing a memoir that matters.  

Tips for Creating a Memoir that Impacts Your Audience:

  1. Start Small

Home in on a small moment for your memoir. By choosing a small moment, you give yourself the opportunity to stretch it out using sensory detail and reflection. A large moment, such as your first year of kindergarten, will require vague language in order to tackle the full length of time. General language makes it challenging for your audience to visualize your story. To the contrary, picking a small moment, such as the time you cried because your teacher refused to exchange your white milk for chocolate (true story—I’m still not over it, Mrs. V), jettisons your audience into the scene. Can’t you taste the disappointment of a 5 year-old denied chocolate milk?

  • Use Vivid Details

Vivid details pull your reader into the story and offers them the opportunity to feel the experience along with you. To piggyback on the chocolate milk example, you could describe the room smelling of playdough and the feel of the moist paper milk carton you held in your hands. These details help your reader follow along with your story just as they would a movie. You’re making their brain work—and they’ll thank you for it!

  • Incorporate Reflection

An effective memoir not only tells the story of what happened but also reflects on the events, offering insight and understanding the author gains along the way. Your audience doesn’t just want to know that you didn’t get the chocolate milk, they want to know how that made you feel. They want to know what impact that moment had on shaping who you are. And, if possible, they’d love to know the greater significance of that moment. Why did that chocolate milk mean so much to you? (Did you think your teacher didn’t like you, and then you took the denial of your preferred milk as yet another sign of her disapproval?). The key to reflection is balance. Your audience wants to know these things, but they need to be carefully balanced with the story. Remember, it’s a memoir not a journal. So add some reflection but keep the story centerstage.

  • Show Significance

When writing a memoir, it’s important that the audience understands why this moment was significant in your life. Given all the moments you could have written about, why choose this one? Showing significance requires a bit of vulnerability. You need to share with your audience how this event impacted your life. But trust your audience. Bring them along for the ride with your details, your insight, and your small moment, and they’ll appreciate your giving them something to take home with them. Perhaps they’ll see how when your teacher denied you chocolate milk again the next day, you walked up to her with tear-soaked eyes and asked her why. Having no reason to deny you, she gave you the milk that was rightfully yours. Your audience will relate to the importance of standing up for yourself no matter how hard it is. 

Consider the significance your parting gift to the reader. Let them take home a lesson and apply it to their own life.

Most importantly, enjoy the process! Writing memoirs is one of the most fulfilling forms of writing because it is your opportunity to share an important moment in your life with an audience. Make it touching, sad, funny or satirical. But above all, make it yours!