Most people think of essays as these high-minded, overly academic forms of writing where you have to know the names of philosophers and critical theorists. Some essays can really feel that way, but others are a lot more personal and story-driven than that, like the personal narrative essay. It’s even in the name: It’s personal, and it’s narrative.
Personal narrative essays are a really interesting mashup of different writing styles. Personal here means it’s something that you’ve personally experienced, while narrative means it’s a story. It’s creative nonfiction at its finest.
A personal narrative essay has a story-driven focus that is a lot closer to fiction and short stories, complete with characters and a plot. Unlike (most) fiction, a personal narrative essay involves real people and real experiences that actually happened (maybe with some slight embellishment and creativity).
Most people have probably already written a version of the personal narrative essay. If you’ve applied to college, your personal statement is basically a personal narrative essay.
Why would you write a personal narrative essay? Simply put, everyone has a story to tell about themselves. That story can:
- Provide insight into your thoughts and experiences to provide a better sketch of you as a person
- Use personal experience to examine larger universal truths
- Show off your writing abilities
It turns out that many people (instructors, college admissions officers, literary magazines, general readers) like reading those things.
Really, there are no limitations to what you can write about in a personal narrative essay. As long as it’s something that happened to you that you can speak to, it’s fair game. Unfortunately, having that many options can feel extremely (and understandably) daunting.
Some ideas to narrow things down while getting you thinking:
- Consider a moment of conflict. Was that conflict internal or external? How did you overcome and learn from that conflict?
- What was the proudest moment of your life? Why did you feel proud about that moment?
- Think about a meaningful relationship. This could be a friend, family member, mentor, or local barista you happen to be close with. What singular moment or experience perfectly defines that relationship?
- What are your hopes and dreams for the future (near or far, personal or communal)? What moment in your life drove or inspired those hopes and dreams?
- What is the most challenging thing that you have ever done? How was it challenging (mentally, physically, emotionally, or all of the above)?
- What is your supervillain origin story?
- Think of a friend or person you lost touch with. What happened? What was your relationship like? What would you say to them now, so many years later?
- Looking for other topics? Dive into even more personal essay topics you can write about.
Remember, these are just suggestions. Personal narratives are inherently personal, so you’re going to end up writing something that is your own, no matter what.
Part of what sets a personal narrative essay apart from other essay types is that it’s not really an essay, at least not in the academic, thesis-driven, intro-body-conclusion way that you’re used to. You’re telling a story, one that actually happened, and using your creative voice to extract meaning, emotion, and character out of it.
Unlike other essay forms, the personal narrative essay doesn’t really have a set format. You can definitely start with an intro, body, and conclusion, but don’t expect these to be the exact same as, say, a five-paragraph essay.
If it’s easier for you, think of the essay in terms of beginning, middle, and end (like a story), instead of intro, body, and conclusion.
- Beginning (Introduction): Hook the reader’s attention, state the potential theme or moral of your narrative, and generally give your story a starting point
- Middle (Body paragraphs): Flesh out the story and provide all the details, dialogue, and plot points that build out the story and characters
- End (Conclusion): A deeper reflection of the themes or morals, a call to action, and/or a larger suggestion of how the themes relate to other people and the world at large
Don’t get too hung up on paragraph length here either. Your “introduction” could be a single sentence. You might have a two-line body paragraph followed by a page-long body paragraph. As long as it’s in service to the story, it’s worth doing.
This is another area for flexibility with personal narratives. There really is no set length for a personal narrative essay aside from what your instructor or guidelines say. For example, if you’re writing a personal narrative for your college essay, you’ll probably stick to around 600 words.
Outside of academic writing, personal narratives come in all shapes and sizes. You’ll find micro essays that are 100 words or shorter. You’ll find longreads that are closer to short memoirs or novellas in length.
We couldn’t write a personal narrative essay for you even if we wanted to. That whole “personal” part means we don’t know your life, and we’re not really here to make things up about you. The potential for slander is too high. But we can give you some tips to get you started.
A lot of people who are new to personal narrative essays understandably have trouble wrapping their minds around the form. Part of that comes from “essays” getting so easily associated with school, research, and things that are generally impersonal.
Thankfully, the world of literature and digital media is rife with examples of personal essays. Read Joan Didion. Read Cheryl Strayed. Read sites like Longreads and Narratively. Like with all writing, the more you read, the more you’ll learn and see what other writers are doing.
It’s the type of thing that teachers, professors, and other writers have said the world over. "Show, don’t tell." Those words have been repeated so often that they practically don’t mean anything anymore, but they’re words to live by for anything that involves a narrative.
If you’re not sure what exactly that means, think of it in terms of abstract versus concrete. It can be easy to end up writing a list of ideas or concepts, but that’s generally not going to connect with the audience.
Abstract: I was so scared and anxious.
Concrete: I felt the cold sweat on my forehead, and my hands began to shake. The closet door was closed just a minute ago, I was sure of it, but now it hung slightly ajar, a pool of darkness just beyond. And it was slowly creaking open even more.
Getting a story with a confusing sequence of events can really take a reader out of the experience. If you’ve been in a situation where your friend is trying to tell you some gossip only to keep interrupting themselves with “Wait, I forgot this detail” or “Oh wait, that happened before this thing but after this thing,” you already know how frustrating that can be.
There are a lot of ways to avoid this, but one of the easiest is to start every sentence with and then statements in your first draft.
I ate a slice of pizza. And then I went home with my friends. And then along the way, we met a magic witch who gave us a mysterious key. And then we used the key to open a magic door.
When you delete those instances of and then, you’ll still get an understandable, straightforward plot. It might not be the most exciting narrative, but you can spice up the language and details in later drafts. For now, get the right sequence down. Flashbacks and flashforwards are totally valid literary techniques, but getting that initial sequence can help you determine when a flashback might be effective.
One of the best ways to keep action going (even if there isn’t any real action) is to write with verbs. Obviously, you’re always going to use verbs, so what do we mean? Try to funnel your writing through verbs beyond the "to be" variation.
- The ice cream was good.
- I bit into the ice cream cone and tasted the sweet vanilla mixing with the tart cherries.
This can help you build more specificity into your story, and it’s a good way to show the connections between things and the effect that objects or people have on other objects or people.
A thesaurus is one of the most important tools in any writer’s arsenal. It’s a great way to learn new words or remind yourself of words you’ve forgotten.
At the same time, a thesaurus can be a real crutch for some writers. You don’t always need that synonym. If you’re worried about using happy too many times, consider how you can express that through specificity (or with the verb situation above) as opposed to just slotting in joyful or ecstatic. If you're worried about repeating words, know that there are both creative and practical reasons to use repetition.
Close your eyes and walk through your story as if it were a movie. What do you see, smell, hear, taste, or touch? Are there places where you find your characters uncertain of their actions? Explore those places.
Are there spots in your “movie” where you find yourself bored? Consider why that might be. Though try to stay far enough away that you understand that you’re often your own worst critic. Something that you think of as boring or “bad” might be perfectly enthralling and great to any other reader.
When writing a personal narrative essay, most people get really hung up on the “why” of it. With other essays, the thesis acts as the main argument that your entire essay hinges on. Everything that you write in the essay needs to speak to that thesis.
A personal narrative essay isn’t thesis-driven at all. You can have a “thesis” that acts as some sort of moral of the story, but the idea of that moral can be as simple as “I exist, and that’s pretty cool” or as broad as “I learned that life is very complicated for me and everyone around me.” Some of the best essayists write essays that echo the difficulties and many facets of the human experience without any clear answers.
You have all the tools and tips to write an amazing personal narrative essay, but before we throw you into the deep end, it’s a good idea to look at an example in practice. This will give you a general idea of what a personal narrative could look like, but just remember that the possibilities are endless.
This is the beginning of your story, so do your best to make it something that people will want to keep reading. Don’t worry so much about explaining the why of your story here, but do give readers something to latch onto.
They tell me my name is French for “oarsman,” that I have been rowing my way uphill since I was born. They told me to stay in my lane, that I had no idea what I was doing with food. They didn’t believe me about my sense of taste or smell, that I knew that one day I would be a chef, until it happened.
Much like the fillings of a delicious sandwich, the body of your paragraph is the thing that’ll give your personal narrative essay all its meat and nuance. Use the form to your advantage, and don’t be afraid to get creative.
It was a crisp fall day. Leaves scattered across the road, cushioning the footsteps of people bringing fresh baguettes home for dinner or breakfast. It is hard not to fall in love with a city like this, the way every building, street, and light can hold the potential of romance.
I saw him from the street. A garbage boy, clumsy and awkward with untied shoes and bright red hair. He was a walking disaster, unobservant of the world or people around him, barely able to hold a knife or spice a dish. You either thought him a fool, or you pitied him for not being the things he should have been. And yet, by the end of the day, he would be my closest friend who would help me achieve my dreams.
The conclusion should act as an end to your story, but you can also use it to explore other potential questions that you might have. It can look toward your own future, consider the past, or otherwise look at how the personal is often more than just that.
My friend and I could not speak to each other, but we had our own way of communicating, connected only by the foods we made, the relationship we learned to build in the kitchen. Most people would credit my success to impressing a food critic, making a country dish of sliced courgettes and aubergines stewed to perfection, but that is only half truth. I had the help of my patient friends, inherent sense of smell, and plenty of mistakes along the way. They call me a rower, and so I continue to row.