Writing the narrative essay

Writing the narrative essay - student project

For this project, you will write a narrative essay. 

Writing a narrative essay, sometimes referred to as a personal essay, gives you the opportunity to share a personal experience with your readers. Although similar, you should not treat a narrative essay as you would treat a story you tell your friends over coffee. 

 As discussed in the course, although the focus of the essay is the story you tell, you aren't 'just' telling a story, but you are telling a story to make a point. For instance, one popular topic is 'the day that changed my life.' In an essay of this type, you would tell what happened on that day, and then in your conclusion, you would step out of the story, and explain how your life changed or what you learned from the experience. 

 This is to say, you should be clear about what the purpose of the essay is, so you need to have intent and a reason for telling a particular story. Did the time in your life change you in some way? Did you learn valuable lessons from a person you met in line at the grocery store? Once you know the purpose, you can move forward in the writing process.


Whatever your purpose for writing the essay, you will let the reader know in your opening paragraph as you introduce the story. Stating the main idea, also known as a thesis, lets the reader know what to expect as they read. Your thesis may look like this: “The day I met Daniel, my outlook on life changed.” Another example might look like this: “Choosing to have a child opened my eyes to other goals.” As you write your essay, keep your thesis in mind, and this will help keep you on track as you write.

 Story Elements

A narrative essay will have the same elements as a short story or novel. You will have a plot, the series of events that form the story and a climax, a moment near the end of the story where the conflict in your story feels the most tense. Narrative essays should also have characters and a resolution to the conflicts. As well, you may also incorporate dialogue into your essay.

 Creative Language

You can use creative language in your narrative essay. For example, you may want to use metaphors and similes to show some of the concepts you bring up in your essay or to say something in a new and interesting way. Instead of saying “Time passed slowly.” You might say, “The day passed in drips of water” or some other interesting manner. Using interesting language may help your reader connect to your story and have a lasting impact.

Typical structure of 5-paragraph narrative essay:

1st paragraph: 'set the stage' -- where were you? what was it like? "who" were you? what were you doing?

2nd, 3rd, and 4th paragraphs: tell the story. What happened? Tell the 'story' in a logical fashion. Place the reader in the middle of the experience. (this middle section can be as long as you want -- you aren't limited to just 3 paragraphs)

5th paragraph -- the conclusion: this is the culmination of your essay -- the Grand Finale! In this paragraph, you sum up your point -- what you learned, how your life changed, etc.

Following are some prompts for possible narrative essays:

#1 Favorite School Memory
Write a story about your favorite school memory. Who was there? Where was it? How did it happen? How does it end? Focus on one single event. For example, if you played the violin in school you could tell a story about playing the violin in a concert. Or if you played on a soccer team, you could tell the story of your tryout.


# 2 Worst School Memory
This is the opposite of #1. Select a memory that is focused on a terrible situation. What triggered that situation and what happened? What was the result? For example, this could be a situation where you were bullied. Describe what happened, and how it ended for you. Did anyone defend you, or help you? Or did the bullying continue?


#3 Frightening Story
Write a story about a scary or frightening moment in your life. What happened? How was it scary? Are you still frightened? Fear is a strong emotion and it motivates people to keep reading and find out what followed. Some examples of frightening moments are being trapped in a cave, lost in the woods or inside an old house with strange noises, or a traumatic event. A frightening experience could also be any personal event where you didn’t feel safe and were afraid something terrible was going to happen.


# 4 “Just Between Friends”
Write a story about something that happened between you and a friend. Is it something important you experienced together? Did your friend do something to help you? Did that person hurt you? Or did you do something to help your friend? Did you hurt a friend? Some ideas for this topic are an activity or event you both participated in, something you both started, a great act of kindness, a sacrifice one of you made to help the other. It could also be something where you betrayed your friend, or your friend betrayed you.

#5 Family Story
This is similar to the topic of friendship except in this case it’s something that happened within your family. What occurred, who was there, and what did you do? Is there an important funny, sad, or happy event in your family? Did you do something important or special with your family? Some examples of this topic are the birth of someone in your family, the death of a loved one, or something fun you did with your parents, siblings or grandparents, etc.


#6 Journey
Personal Narrative Prompt--The Journey

Write a story of the best, strangest, or worst thing that happened to you on a vacation or trip to another place. Focus on one event or experience. One mistake writers make with this essay idea is they describe an entire travel experience, and that isn’t interesting to your readers. Some ideas for this writing prompt are getting lost in a city, being pickpocketed on a trip, or visiting a historical site.


#7 First Love
First loves are powerful and vivid stories. Consider a story about how you met that person or a significant memory between you. This could be something wonderful, funny, or even terrible, If the relationship is over how did it end? Were you heartbroken? These stories, or a story about any important relationship, leave an imprint on us.


#8 Success Story
Write a story about something you accomplished. Describe what you did to achieve success, and how you reached your goal. Were there obstacles you had to overcome? This is a tricky essay topic because sometimes people focus on the feelings of success or the final achievement rather than the story of how they succeeded. Some ideas for this topic are to write about winning an event, earning an honor, confronting a personal challenge, or getting over a phobia.


#9 Personal Failure
Write about how you failed to do or failed to achieve something. Describe what you tried to do, how you failed, and what you gained/learned from it. Everyone fails at something. Your readers understand the feeling of failure. Some people connect with these personal narratives more than stories of success because they empathize with you. People learn a lot through failure, so when you write this type of story, hint or convey what you learned from failing.


#10 Accident
Write a story about an accident you caused or an accident that happened to you. This could be negative as in a car accident or maybe it’s an accident of good fortune. Describe how the accident occurred, who was involved, and how it ended. Was it a bicycle accident? How did it happen? Did someone get hurt?


#11 Unresolved Experience
Personal Narrative Prompt--The Unresolved Experience

Describe something that happened to you, but where there’s no resolution. What was the experience and how did it occur? What don’t you understand or know about the experience? Then, instead of having a resolution to the story, convey how you feel about not knowing what happened.


#12 An International or National Event or Incident
Write a personal story describing how you acted, witnessed, or responded to a significant national or international event or incident. Did you play in the Olympics, or join a protest? Did you survive a natural disaster? What was your role in this circumstance? What did you do? For example, if you were in a hurricane describe what happened, who you were with, and how you survived.

#13 Change the World Experience
One of the best experiences I had in my life was creating and organizing a family literacy program for public schools. There are several stories within that experience I could write. If you were a volunteer for an organization or participated in a service project, think about what happened. Was there a moment that changed everything? What occurred? Did any of those stories change you, your community, or another person? These stories can be very moving because they have impacted you, what you believe, and how you see or view others.

#14 Fateful Decision
A decision that changed my life was deciding to marry my current (and only) wife more than 35 years ago. It wasn't an easy decision -- not because of her, but because of me as I was in a difficult situation then, but it was a decision that altered the course of my life (for the better). Tell the story of how you came to make a decision that change your "fate"!

Michael McIntyre
Prof Mac and all things writing