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Let’s talk about how to take your next writing project from good to great—whether you’re working on a personal narrative essay, a poem, or something entirely different.

What Is a Narrative?

Before you start working on different elements of narrative writing, it’s helpful to understand what exactly a narrative is. 

Taking the most literal meaning, the narrative definition is really just another word for story; it’s the way in which a story is crafted through joining together different events, experiences, or details to make a complete tale. 

You may have heard the word “narrative” in a number of different contexts and have questions about the specifics. What is a personal narrative compared to an essay? What is a narrative poem and how is this a different narrative form to other fictional writing? 

It’s important to remember when considering the narrative meaning that, ultimately, your work can take on any form that you like, be it a song or play, a long-form essay, or even a game. If it tells a story, it’s a narrative.

The narrative form can be either spoken or written and fiction or nonfiction, depending on what fits the story best. Narration, for example, is the process by which a story is audibly told and is what gives a story narrator their title–they are the guide through which the story is being revealed to us. Throughout history, narration has been an important form of communication, along with being vital in human development. It helps children to process what they learn in their day-to-day life and commit this information to memory through retelling what they understand about a situation. 

Storytelling, in particular oral storytelling, has also led to the development of language throughout the centuries and across cultures. Narratives in all forms have been the foundation upon which our traditions and values have been built on, and continue to be an important part of our daily lives.

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Creative Nonfiction: How to Craft a Personal Narrative

What About Narrative Essays?

When we start to think about “what is a personal narrative?”, the first place that we usually go to is nonfiction and narrative essays. But what is a narrative essay? 

Often referred to under the umbrella of creative nonfiction when it comes to narrative definitions, personal essays are typically based around a real experience that you’ve had and, like descriptive essays, allow you to develop your ideas more creatively than other long-form writing methods such as academic papers or journalistic articles. They’re usually written from a first-person perspective and draw on poignant moments and experiences from the life of the writer. 

Writer and editor Roxane Gay
Writer and editor Roxane Gay discusses how to write a great narrative essay in her Skillshare Original class, Creative Writing: Crafting Personal Essays with Impact.

It’s likely that you’ve written a personal narrative essay at some point, possibly without even realizing. College applications commonly use narrative prompts to encourage you to think creatively about a topic while demonstrating your skills in framing a story from beginning to end, your use of language, and how to engage a reader. 

For good narrative essay examples, these application prompts are a great place to start. Take a look at some of the suggestions and try writing your own. They usually keep them open-ended so that any student can use them—something like “recall a time when you faced a struggle or challenge, how you were impacted by this, and what you did to overcome it” is typical for this type of narrative prompt.

Another popular form of personal essay is the literacy narrative. You may be asking yourself “what is a literacy narrative?” The clue is really in the name! These stories are focused on writers discovering their relationship with words, whether that be reading, writing, or speaking. Many of the world’s most notable writers have coined literacy narratives for magazines and journals, detailing their earliest memories of reading and writing, or reflecting on their process as a novelist, poet, journalist, or screenwriter.

5 Examples of Narrative Essays

Skillshare instructor Sari Botton introduces some of the key elements that you’ll want to think about when writing your personal essay.

1. “Goodbye to All That” by Joan Didion

Joan Didion’s book of personal narrative essays, Slouching Towards Bethlehem is one of literature’s most beloved collections.

“I was in love with New York. I do not mean ‘love’ in any colloquial way, I mean that I was in love with the city, the way you love the first person who ever touches you and never love anyone quite that way again.”

2. “Self-Reliance” by Ralph Waldo Emerson

American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson was known for his exceptional personal narratives, delivered in both written and spoken form. His work is one of the best narrative essay examples of the 19th century.

“My life is not an apology, but a life. It is for itself and not for a spectacle. I much prefer that it should be of a lower strain, so it be genuine and equal, than that it should be glittering and unsteady.”

3. “Notes of a Native Son” by James Baldwin

Reflecting on his life as a Black man in early- to mid-twentieth-century America, James Baldwin’s narrative essays are frequently referenced to this day.

“Harlem, physically at least, has changed very little in my parents’ lifetime or in mine. Now as then the buildings are old and in desperate need of repair, the streets are crowded and dirty, there are too many human beings per square block.”

4. “My Life as an Heiress” by Nora Ephron

Nora Ephron may be known for her romantic comedy screenplays like You’ve Got Mail and When Harry Met Sally, but she began her career as a writer and found widespread success with her personal essays.

“I never knew why my mother wasn’t close to her brother, Hal. I can guess. It’s possible that he didn’t help out financially with their parents. It’s possible that she didn’t like his wife, Eleanor. It’s possible that she resented forever the fact that her parents had found the money to send him to Columbia but made her go to a public college. Who knows? The secret is dead and buried.”

5. “Joy” by Zadie Smith

British essayist Zadie Smith has won numerous awards for her work and is a global best-selling novelist.

“Perhaps the first thing to say is that I experience at least a little pleasure every day. I wonder if this is more than the usual amount? It was the same even in childhood when most people are miserable. I don’t think this is because so many wonderful things happen to me but rather that the small things go a long way.”

Other Types of Narratives

Narrative Poetry

What is a narrative poem? It can be difficult to tell the difference between this and any other kinds of poetry, but the heart of this type of work is in the story itself. 

Most narrative poems are written in metered verse and make the voice of both the narrator and characters clear throughout. The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge are two of the world’s most famous narrative poems.

Scripts and Screenplays

Narratives told via film or television have added complexities. Action, or screen direction, is written into the script to help the actors know cues and behaviors that they should portray, but none of this is available to the end viewer. Where a traditional narrative is based on descriptive language for these moments, scripts and screenplays must rely strictly on character dialogue and setting to convey the story. 

Folk Stories

Folk tales are one of the oldest forms of storytelling. Although entirely fictional, the narrative of a folk story is based around cultural identity and values that can be passed on to each subsequent generation. They often include oral elements like proverbs, jokes, songs, common expressions, and sayings that are specific to that group or subculture.

Myths and Fables

Part of the family known as prose narratives, myths and fables are similar to folk stories in age and purpose. Myths are typically more imagination-driven, often used to explain the mysteries of life and nature. Fables, on the other hand, usually have a moral message and frequently use animals who behave in humanlike ways to convey this lesson.

Novels

Novels are usually the narrative form that most people are familiar with. They’re typically longer works that are written in prose and published as books. The earliest novel is thought to have been written in the 11th century and there is much debate over the standard length for this type of narrative, with novellas falling somewhere between novels and short stories.

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