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There are many different kinds of writing you can use to tell a story. Novels, poems, memoirs, short stories, and lyrics are just a few examples. But have you heard of the narrative essay?
This writing format is a great way to share a personal story in a creative yet concise way. But there’s a bit more to narrative essays than that.
The definition of narrative essay is a piece of writing in which the author recounts something they personally experienced. However, narrative essays are much different than pulling out your journal and free writing about what you did that day and all the different emotions you’re feeling.
Don’t be mistaken: Journaling is an incredibly useful coping skill. It just serves a different purpose than a narrative essay. The main point of a narrative essay is, well, to make a point. In a personal narrative essay, you leverage your experiences in order to impress a certain message or lesson upon the reader. The personal aspect of narrative essays helps drive the point home even further.
For instance, perhaps you want to tell the reader about that time you missed the winning goal in an important soccer game. You were mortified and dreaded the reaction from your teammates, but their actions pleasantly surprised you—and you realized that their care for you didn’t hinge on whether or not the ball hit the back of the net.
Or, maybe you want to share how a terrifying accident changed your perspective on what’s truly important in life. Perhaps you want to make an argument for how much better it is to see movies in the theater than to stream them at home (in your opinion), so you share a detailed tale about all the wonders of a recent movie theater experience you had (that movie theater popcorn, oh my!).
The list could go on and on. Because every single human has thousands of life experiences, and different takeaways can be gleaned from each one. And if you think you don’t have anything useful to share with people, you’re wrong! You do. Don’t miss the personal narrative writing prompts below—they’ll help you get started on your own narrative essay journey.
If you already have a great idea for your narrative essay, you can probably skip ahead to steps three and four, as steps one and two are mostly to help you brainstorm. But hey—if you’re one of those people who likes to follow all the instructions, then by all means, read away! Here’s how to write a narrative essay, step by step.
1. Identify One Main Message You Want to Convey
Narrative essays are all about getting a very specific point across, whether you’re trying to share a lesson you’ve learned or make an argument for or against something.
Figure out: When readers are done with your narrative essay, what exactly do you want them to think? Do you want them to walk away with the ultimate secret to a lasting romantic partnership? Will you want them to know how to turn failure into a win? Do you want them to provide them with a tip for achieving their wildest dreams?
There are plenty of narrative essay topics, just make sure it’s something you truly care about. Because otherwise, you probably won’t be very clear or convincing.
2. Choose a Personal Story that Fits Your Theme
Remember: The real-life anecdote you choose doesn’t have to be super long. Though there are no hard and fast rules, the recommended word count for a narrative essay is around 1,000 words. If you try to weave too many plot points in, your message could get lost.
Instead, aim for a story that’s more narrow in scope. For example, instead of writing about your entire trip to France—the plane ride there, the plane ride back, and everything in between—write about a specific experience you had while there, like getting off at the wrong train stop or the delectable croissant you had in a hole-in-the-wall bakery you stumbled upon. (As long as that experience has a specific lesson or argument that goes along with it.)
3. Make a Narrative Essay Outline and Write the First Draft
Making an outline can be a huge help, especially when there’s a specific message you want to get across. Even a short and sweet framework can help you figure out which parts of the experience should be included in your narrative essay.
Once you’ve completed your personal narrative essay outline, start writing! Like many other essays, narrative essays are typically written in the first person, though there are third-person personal narrative essays, too. And when it comes to narrative essay structure? They typically include the following three parts:
- The introduction: This is where you want to grab the reader’s attention and provide them with a brief overview of what the overall theme will be. Here’s an example:
Whoosh! That was the sound as I kicked the ball with all my might and it flew up, up, and away, far over the net, nowhere near where I actually wanted it to go. And with it went our chance to tie the game, abruptly ending our path to the state championship. As I watched the ball soar into the field beyond, the finality of the moment hit me like a brick, and I couldn’t turn around and look my teammates in the face.
In these few sentences, the reader is introduced to a time the author experienced failure. They’ll want to move on to the rest of the page to find out how everyone—the teammates, coach, crowd—reacted, plus how the author overcame this major disappointment.
- The body: In these few paragraphs, you expand upon the story. Going along with the example above, perhaps you share the looks on your teammate’s faces, how members of the other team reacted when you missed, the first thing someone said to you after the game, and how you came to the realization that, even though it was an unfortunate moment, it wasn’t the end of the world. It really all depends on what your lesson is. Make sure your desired main point is central, and that each piece of your narrative essay puzzle contributes to it in some way.
- The conclusion: You’ve made your case, and now it’s time to wrap it up and tie a pretty bow around it. In this final paragraph, provide a brief summary of your purpose for telling the story. This is your last chance to really make your point crystal clear. For example:
There’s no doubt my teammates were just as disappointed as I was that we didn’t win that game. Their faces and their words expressed it. But what I learned that day is: Missing one goal, even if it was an important one, doesn’t define me—not as a soccer player, a teammate, or an overall human being. My team was bummed, but they still had my back. That’s more important to me than a championship trophy any day.
4. While Writing, Be Very Descriptive
The better you describe the scene, the more effective you’ll be at getting your point across. What color were the other team’s jerseys? What pattern was on the ball? Did you notice that your shoelace was loose as you wound up to kick? What was the crowd noise like? How did you feel when you realized you missed the net? What did your teammates and coach say (to each other and to you)? Resist the mundane and be creative with your descriptions.
For example, you didn’t just feel “sad” when you didn’t score the goal. You felt like you’d been kicked in the stomach, and the crowd’s disappointed silence was blaring in your ears. Your teammates weren’t just “bummed.” Some were looking up at the scoreboard, trying their hardest to keep tears from spilling out of their eyes. Another kicked over the water cooler, which was the first sound that penetrated the silence.
Be careful, though: Don’t add detail just for the sake of it. You want to immerse your readers in your experience and make them feel like they were there, too. You don’t want to smother them with fluff. Yes, you should be descriptive, but do it with intention.
5. Refine Your Narrative Essay Draft
Your first draft won’t be perfect. Not even the very best writers get it completely right the first time. After you take an initial stab at it, give it a read. (Pro tip: Reading your writing out loud can make the editing process a lot easier.)
Beyond looking for general spelling and grammar mistakes, ask yourself these questions:
- Does the flow make sense?
- Are there any extraneous details that can be removed?
- Do any aspects of the story need more description?
- Did I make my point obvious enough?
For the last question, send your narrative essay to a few other people to read and ask them to tell you what they believe the main takeaway is. If they aren’t sure, or if they give you the “wrong” answer, ask them what made them come to that conclusion. That will help you figure out which sections you need to tweak.
1. Achieving Success
There are many articles out there about how to be successful, but it’s the personal stories about achieving a goal—whether it’s a smaller one, like hitting the snooze button just once, or a larger one, like finally running a half marathon—that help people better define what success means to them and find the inspiration to achieve their own goals.
2. Finding Yourself
Self-discovery is an almost endless journey, as we grow and change almost every day, but narrative essays in which the writer shares a lesson they learned about who they are can help the readers get to know themselves better, too.
3. Navigating Tough Times
Though our experiences may vary greatly, it’s incredibly helpful for people to hear about the resilience and problem-solving skills others exhibited as they figured out how to keep moving forward through times that almost broke them.
4. Overcoming Failure
We all fail. Often. Yet, it’s not something we love to talk about. Narrative essays about experiencing and confronting failure can go a long way in helping people get more comfortable with failure, including what they can learn from it and how to resist letting it define them.
5. Relationship Lessons
All relationships are important—including those between lovers, friends, family members, co-workers, and more—and each kind can be equally difficult to sustain and navigate. Your relationship lessons could empower your readers to strengthen their connections for the long term.
- The achievement you’re most proud of and how you did it
- A time you reached a goal but it wasn’t as exciting as you thought it’d be
- Giving up on a goal after multiple attempts
- The best gift you’ve ever received
- The best gift you’ve ever given
- When you discovered a trait about yourself that you didn’t like
- The most important lesson you learned about yourself
- When someone who meant a lot to you passes away
- A time when you had trouble paying the bills
- Getting fired or laid off from a job
- A time you really embarrassed yourself
- When you realized your romantic partner didn’t really love you
- The best advice a friend has ever given you
- That time you realized your parents are human, too
- A terrifying experience, like surviving a car accident or a natural disaster
- When you had to learn how to team up with a co-worker you couldn’t stand
- That time someone—a lover or a friend—broke up with you
- Learning how to prioritize your own needs over someone else’s
- When you learned how to do something for the first time
- Discovering a family secret
There is no right or wrong topic to choose—just pick a personal experience that means something to you, one you believe holds an important takeaway for the reader. Now pick up your pen and paper (or, uh, place your hands upon your keyboard) and get writing. Good luck!
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