Essays

by eNotes

Start Free Trial

Writing a Personal Narrative

You can write an excellent personal narrative if you follow these four steps:

  1. Choose the subject of your personal narrative.
  2. Plan the content of the narrative.  
  3. Draft the introduction, main body, and conclusion.
  4. Edit and revise your narrative in order to write a final draft. 

How to Write a Personal Narrative

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

What is a personal narrative?

A personal narrative is an essay that tells the story of an important experience in your life. This type of essay is written in first-person since you recount the story for your readers. Since a personal narrative concerns an experience that occurred in the past, it is written from a retrospective or “looking back” point of view. Usually, when we are in the middle of an incident or event as it unfolds, we are too close to it, and perhaps too emotionally involved, to recognize or understand its significance. Looking back, we can view it from a more mature perspective. Writing a personal narrative leads to a deeper understanding of an important experience in your life. 

How is a personal narrative structured?

Like many essays, a personal narrative is structured with an introduction, a main body, and a conclusion: 

  • The first paragraph of the narrative, the introduction establishes your voice in the narrative, lets readers know the subject of your story, and engages their interest in it. 
  • Following the introduction, the main body of the essay consists of a series of paragraphs that recount the story of your personal experience.  
  • Finally, the conclusion is the final paragraph of the essay in which you examine the meaning of the experience and interpret its significance in your life. 

What kinds of writing are employed in a personal narrative?

In addition to narrative writing in telling the story of your experience, other kinds of writing are used in a good personal narrative:

  • Exposition or informative writing clarifies references in your essay that readers would not understand without some explanation. 
  • Descriptive writing draws readers into your narrative. Through vivid imagery (writing that appeals to the senses) readers can experience for themselves the setting and the action, as if they were there.   

How to Write a Personal Narrative in 4 steps:

1. Choose the subject of your personal narrative.

Choosing a good subject is essential to the success of the essay. The subject should be limited in focus. A common mistake is choosing a subject that is too general or too broad; for instance, going to summer camp or taking a trip would not be a good subject for a personal narrative as it no doubt involved numerous experiences or specific incidents. 

In searching for a subject, consider these questions, and take notes as you answer them:

a) Looking back on what has happened in your life, what are some specific experiences you remember that were really funny, really serious, and/or really important? 

b) What are three incidents from your past that you remember very clearly? (An incident is something specific that happened in a relatively short period of time; it happened, and then it was over.)

c) Why is each incident memorable? Why do you suppose you still remember each one so clearly?

d) Of the three incidents you remember, which one do you think you will write about? Why? 

2. Plan the content of the narrative.

After choosing a subject for your personal narrative, do some prewriting to jog your memory and recall specific details of the incident. In response to these questions, write down what you remember; also write down any words or phrases that come to mind in thinking about the experience.

a) What was your situation at the time of the incident? How old were you? What was going on in your life? How would you describe yourself at that time?

b) What was the timeframe of the incident? What was the beginning? How did it end?

c) When and where did the incident occur? What was the specific setting? As you remember the experience, what do you recall seeing and hearing? Do you recall smelling, tasting, or touching anything?

d) What happened? What did you think or how did you feel while it was happening? 

e) What do you understand now about the experience that you didn’t realize when it happened?

3. Draft the introduction, main body, and conclusion.

In drafting each part of your personal narrative, refer to the notes you took in planning the content. Your notes will be helpful in developing the various paragraphs as you write them. Also, the introduction, main body, and conclusion are written in first-person, since you are the speaker.

Writing the introduction

The introduction is the first paragraph of your narrative; its purpose is threefold: to establish your voice as you begin speaking to readers, to let them know the focus of your narrative, and to engage their interest in the story you are about to tell. Write the introduction in present tense, as you are speaking to readers as your present self.

  • Describe yourself or your current life in some way. Give readers an idea regarding who is speaking to them. Here are some examples:
    • “My family is large—and loud! With two parents, a grandmother, and five siblings under one roof, a quiet life is not something I’m familiar with.”
    • “Being a newly-minted freshman at a large university a thousand miles from home, life is a daily challenge.” 
    • “As a reporter for my high school newspaper, I often find myself in unusual and unexpected situations.” 

Identify the subject of your narrative. What incident in your life will you be sharing with readers? Don’t include details of the incident; simply let readers know the focus of your narrative. Remember to focus on a specific incident that occurred in a relatively short period of time. Here are some examples of specific incidents:

    • Saying goodbye to a loved one
    • A supernatural experience
    • Failing a driver’s test
    • Saving someone’s life
    • A disastrous (or hilarious) first date

End the introduction with a “narrative hook,” a sentence that engages readers’ interest so that they will continue reading your story. A good narrative hook suggests the importance of the narrative or creates suspense for readers. These sample narrative hooks would be effective in engaging readers’ interest:

    • “When I kissed my grandmother goodbye, I didn’t realize it would be for the last time.”
    • “Our Fourth of July celebrations are always boisterous, but setting fire to the lawn furniture is usually not on the agenda.”
    • “The twenty minutes I spent _____ proved to be the most frightening (or satisfying) of my life.”

Writing the main body

Since you are recounting an experience from your past, write the main body of your narrative in past tense. Also, structuring the main body paragraphs in chronological order—the order in which events occurred—is an effective way to stay focused on the incident you are relating to. The main body should have three to five paragraphs. 

I. Specific details are essential in developing the main body of your narrative.

As you write the main body paragraphs, include specific details that establish these elements in the narrative:

  • the setting and circumstances of the incident
  • the presence of anyone else involved in the incident
  • what happened
  • what you were thinking or how you were feeling as the incident unfolded

II. Descriptive details allow readers to share your experience.

Refer to your notes regarding what you saw, heard, or otherwise physically experienced during the incident. 

  • Describe the images or physical sensations that come to mind when you remember where you were, who was with you (if anyone), and what happened. 
  • Write descriptions that include figurative language, such as similes, metaphors, personification, hyperbole, and onomatopoeia.  

III. Transitions lead readers smoothly through the main body of the narrative.

Transitions are words or phrases that indicate the relationship between paragraphs and between sections within a paragraph; they essentially bridge the gap between them.

  • Since the main body of your narrative consists of several paragraphs, provide transitions as one paragraph leads into the next. 
  • Provide transitions within paragraphs if the focus of the paragraph changes. 
  • These are some effective transition words and phrases: after, as, as soon as, before, during, first, finally, later, meanwhile, next, now, soon, as soon as, then, upon, when, and while. 

Another effective way to transition from one paragraph to the next is to lift key words or phrases from the last sentence of one paragraph and work them into the first sentence of the next paragraph. Here are some examples with the transitions bolded:

After racing to the top of the fire tower, I saw the forest stretching to the horizon in all directions.

In the fading light of sunset, the forest was shrouded in shadows, and the horizon appeared hazy in the distance.  

Izzy was a great little dog, except when she was bossy and annoying.

Being bossy and annoying were traits I usually overlooked in Izzy, but sometimes I simply could not ignore them.

Stepping into my mother’s kitchen, I knew at once that she was baking bread.

The kitchen was warm and steamy, and the unmistakable smell of bread baking in the oven enveloped me.  

Writing the conclusion

The conclusion is the final paragraph in your narrative. It is written in present tense; you are no longer looking back at the past but speaking to readers from your perspective as the person you are now. Your voice in the conclusion is the same voice readers heard in the introduction.

In writing your personal narrative, you essentially relived an important experience from your past. The conclusion is your opportunity to interpret what it has meant in your life. Consider these questions as you draft the concluding paragraph:

  • How has the experience influenced your thinking or behavior?
  • What truths have you learned from it—about life, about others, about yourself?
  • What do you now understand that you didn’t understand or realize in the past?

The tone and content of the concluding paragraph should suggest to readers that they have reached the end of your narrative.

4. Edit and revise your narrative in order to write a final draft.

The first step in editing and revising your narrative is to evaluate its structure and content. Use these questions as a guide:

  • Does your narrative have an introduction (one paragraph), main body (three to five paragraphs), and a conclusion (one paragraph)?
  • Is the introduction written in present tense? Does it end with a narrative hook?
  • Is the main body written in past tense? Is it structured in chronological order?
  • Have you provided transitions between main body paragraphs and within paragraphs?
  • In the conclusion, have you interpreted the significance of your personal experience?
  • Have you used exposition (informative writing) and descriptive writing in the narrative? Did you use figurative language in passages of description?

After evaluating the structure and content of your narrative, edit and revise the paragraphs to bring them into alignment with the guiding questions. Finish the final draft by writing a title for your narrative that engages readers’ interests; sometimes a phrase or choice of words in the narrative will suggest a good title.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Previous

How to Write an In-Class Essay

Next

How to Write a Review of a Critical Biography