How to write a Compelling Personal Narrative Essay

Last Updated: 27 September 2021

Personal Narrative Essay Guide

Have you been assigned to write a personal narrative assignment but do not know how to proceed? Do you suck in writing essays and fear that you will fail in your personal narrative essay? Worry no more; we have compiled a helpful guide never seen before on the internet. We understand your pain point and have tried to cover literary every little detail you need to know as you set out on a journey to write.

The good thing is that our refined essay writers, who themselves are masters of crafting personal narratives have developed this guide. We sought their input as well as did research on the best practices when writing this type of assignment. As a custom paper writing service, we are so impressed by this guide that we use it in internal training for our new writers.  We, therefore, believe that it is a valuable resource when writing your personal narrative essay.

This step-by-step guide to writing a personal narrative essay covers all the critical elements, with practical samples and elaborations as necessary. We are doing this so that you do not dread writing one or cringe when assigned personal narrative essays, as most students do.

What is a personal narrative essay?

A personal narrative is a story about you. Narrative, from the Latin narrare, means to narrate a tale or a story. The narrative you will write will be a "personal" narrative.  Thus, the story will be written by you, about you, and in many ways, for you. What makes a personal narrative so interesting is that it's a story with a point or purpose.   In other words, a personal narrative is detailed, descriptive, dialogue-driven, and determined to make a point. 

A personal narrative can be a story that conveys your fears, ambitions, passion, sensitivity, humor, excitements, or what makes you sad, angry, or weak, written in prose form. It lets your audience connect with you. Like other stories, personal narratives have the beginning, middle/climax, the end, and characters.

Personal narratives are written by those in academic as well as other professions. In the realm of academia, a personal narrative essay tells a story that is personal, experiential, and personal. As an author, you aim to creatively express your thoughts, ideas, feelings, and opinions. Personal narrative essays are usually from 500 words onwards.

In the general life arena, personal narratives are a form of journalism or non-fiction works that are part of narrative journalism. You will find pioneer publications like New York Times, Guardian, and Time magazine having personal narrative sections.

Overall, a persona narrative covers any reflective and contemplative subject with a unique perspective and a strong voice. You are allowed to write it in using personal pronouns such as "I" or "we." The story is usually about a memorable moment that is worth recounting.

What is the purpose of a personal narrative essay?

When a teacher, lecturer, or professor assigns you a personal narrative, there are many things they are testing.

Like any form of academic writing, there needs to be a reason for writing the narrative and why the reader should read it.

The purpose of the personal narrative is to share a meaningful experience, and the lesson learned from the experience.

Specifically, the purpose of this essay is to share a story about a time you experienced gratitude.

From the perspective of a professor or lecturer, it is assigned to test your narrative writing skills. It is also meant to assess whether you have a good grasp of following instructions, using proper English, and expressing yourself.

So, a personal narrative is not a chance for the professor to fail you. Instead, it is to help you better yourself through honing your writing, creativity, and critical thinking skills, which are equally needed to survive in real-world settings.

Who is the audience of a Personal Narrative?

In many ways, we write a personal narrative for ourselves to reflect upon an experience, to grow from an event.

However, we want you to imagine that your audience is not only you but someone else. Therefore, the writer needs to know who their audience is and how their needs will affect how the narrative is composed and presented.

For example, in addition to writing this story as an opportunity for personal reflection, you may also choose a family member or friend group as your real or imagined audience.

 Selecting a real or imagined audience will help you develop your essay with the right tone. For example, the tone for a personal narrative can be formal or informal; it really depends on your chosen audience.

Steps to take when writing your Personal Narrative

If you are assigned to write a personal narrative essay, or you are doing it for a contest, here are some eight must-follow steps to succeed:

1. Choose a befitting topic

After reading the personal narrative essay prompt, you need to spend your time choosing a good topic to write a story about. We have outlined how to choose a topic in this guide.

A good topic makes an essay look good and simplifies the entire writing process. In addition, the topic helps you define the theme that you want to share with your audience. In most cases, the topic for a personal narrative refers to the experiences you have as the writer, so you do not have to use external sources when brainstorming.

Because your personal narrative is a reflection of personal experiences, thoughts, and ideas, ensure that you choose an exciting topic. In addition, the topic should match the intended audience because the audience eventually defines the scope of your essay.

2. Brainstorm and develop ideas for your essay

With the topic, you can create mind maps or create notes brainstorming on how to present your ideas. Next, determine what befits the beginning, middle, and end of your story. Now that you have all the best ideas, you now need to turn them into a plan.

3. Write your essay outline/structure

The outline of your personal narrative is your blueprint or essay plan. It is an essential component in your preparation and writing phases. An outline helps in organizing the composition, which maintains flow, coherence, and clarity. You can visualize your audience and logically write a paper that meets their expectations with a good outline.

4. Begin your essay with a good hook

Now that we have the outline write your essay with a good hook statement. A sound hook is a game changer in every aspect. For example, a good hook sentence for a personal narrative essay will signal your reader that they need to keep all their attention to the paper because there is better to come. You can use famous quotes, statistics, current issues or affairs, concepts, anecdotes, verses, or interesting facts. And once you have one, you have the currency to grab your readers' attention to read your essay entirely.

5. Write the essay in the first person, with spice, and descriptively

Develop your ideas in the first person or "I," but avoid overdoing it. A personal narrative allows you the freedom of using the first person since it is personal. Therefore, you should use "I" without switching the perspective to favor someone else when outlining the significance of ongoing events.

Also, when writing, describe the places and characters. Giving a vivid description adorns your story as it makes the plot clear. This is specifically big for the people affected by the outcome or those who matter in your story. When mentioning places, ensure you use spatial relations to create the picture in the reader's mind. Having such information helps shape the perspectives of your readers. It also helps change the attitude of characters and helps them understand your central idea.

When writing, spice up the essay by turning things around to make your readers entertained even more. To do this, you can introduce a dramatic or antagonistic character that interferes with the status quo–your purposes. Having such an unpredictable twist can help break the monotony of your audience.

6. Edit your essay

With your first draft ready, you need to revise it thoroughly to make it presentable, flowing, and worth grading. To edit well, follow these suggestions (our top-rated essay writers do this, and their essays always turn out perfect):

A well-edited personal narrative essay is a direct ticket to the best grade.

7. Proofread your essay

Editing is not proofreading and vice versa. Editing focuses on the content, structure, and style, while proofreading is all about grammar, syntax, and spelling errors. When proofreading:

Having someone re-read your essay helps you correct otherwise unnoticeable mistakes. If the personal narrative is for a common APP application or college application, use a credible editing company like Gradecrest.

8. Submit for marking/publishing

Finally, with everything sitting in its rightful place, it is time to polish up the essay and ensure that the title page is well written. Input your name, professor's name, date of submission, class name, and code as per the recommended style. Once you have everything labeled as it should, including the filename, you can hit the submit button in your email or on canvas and wait for the best grades.

Tips for writing a resounding Personal Narrative Essay

Personal Narrative essay tips

Features of an excellent personal narrative essay

features of a personal narrative essay

When writing your personal narrative essay, ensure that these six personal narrative features are all addressed. The features include:

1. Proper Essay Organization

The Personal Narrative is organized with a clear beginning, middle, and end like any other story. It should read like a story– with an exposition, a rise action, a climax, falling action, and a resolution or denouement.  While the Personal Narrative is certainly less formal than other academic essays, the point or moral of the story (i.e., the thesis) should be very clear to the reader.

2. Description of characters

It is vital to develop the characters in the story so that the reader understands the people in the story–even if the one person in the story is YOU. Mainly, doing this helps your reader learn about the characters both by what they say and by what they do.

3. Use Transitions

An excellent personal narrative utilizes paragraph breaks and transitional words and phrases that help the audience (or reader) flow in and around the story.

4. Dialogue

You are allowed to include either external or internal dialogue when writing a personal narrative to connect your characters and help propel the story forward. Dialog is instrumental in showing rather than telling the story to the reader.

5. Sensory Details

As you write the essay, develop some sense of imagery within your story. You can achieve this by using sensory-driven details. You must create a vivid story by helping your reader/the audience perceive, see, hear, taste, touch, and feel as the characters in your story do. The sensory details invite the readers into your world, so much so that they resonate and own the story. In addition, it helps the audience experience the story you are sharing with them in the most intended way.

6. Thesis Statement

Like all essays you will ever write, a personal narrative has a thesis, the central idea or message that drives the story. Thus, it is a thesis-driven storytelling approach where you share with others, a story about you.

A thesis helps to show the significance of themes, events, lessons, or morals from the events. When the purpose of your story is structured as a thesis statement, you convince your readers off the bat. 

When writing other academic essays, the thesis appears in the last sentences of the first paragraph. However, when writing your personal narrative, you have the freedom and flexibility to determine where your story's main point appears.

This means that as long as your point of the story is clear, the location of the thesis can vary depending on how to develop the story. If anything, be sure to underline the thesis statement before submitting your personal narrative for grading.

Format of a Personal Narrative Essay

When you are typing your personal narrative essay, you need to do it in:

In terms of flow, a personal narrative is written in prose form. It is a piece of writing assignment that uses the story format. This is to say that it has a beginning, middle, and end.

When writing it, ensure that you have a clear introduction paragraph with a hook, background story, and thesis. Next, the body of the story develops as body paragraphs. Last, your personal narrative has to have a concluding paragraph.

Although personal narratives are less formal compared to traditional academic writing, your story must have a thesis statement to allow your readers to understand the focal point in your story.

Outline of a Personal Narrative

When doing any piece of writing, having an outline makes work easier. It enables you to determine the flow of ideas and plan the organization of your content.

A personal narrative essay follows the five-paragraph essay structure. That means that it has: the introduction paragraph, three body paragraphs, and a concluding paragraph.

Introduction

In a personal narrative essay, the introduction is as essential a paragraph as with conventional essays. It is the first impression on your reader, which can be used to judge if the essay is worth their time. It further defines the quality and scope of your essay. Therefore, it has to beckon your readers by grabbing their attention-stealing them off their feet.

Begin the introduction with a hook that catches the attention of the reader and sets the scene.

After your hook, present some background of the story or the setup of your story. Finally, round up the essay by stating the thesis: What did you learn, or how did the event become significant in your life?

Body Paragraphs

Your essay can have three significant moments from the beginning, middle, and end of the event. As you write the body paragraphs, show and don't tell. Use spatial relationships, sensory details, and transition words to mark the passage of time.

Each body paragraph should have an outstanding topic sentence followed by a detailed explanation and a concluding sentence.

Ensure that every paragraph focuses on a specific encounter chronologically. Also, place your characters in an excellent position to tell your story for a better flow.

Conclusion

In the conclusion of your personal narrative conclusion, provide the climax of the story. Wrap up the entire story and do not introduce new ideas or points either.

In your conclusion, analyze and reflect on the story's action, including letting the reader know what the event taught you or how it is important/significant to you.

Your conclusion should be satisfying enough so that your readers find your personal narrative unforgettable, relatable, and exciting. Ensure that you reiterate the climax of your story to make it more interesting.

Write the lessons learned or takeaways from your story without forcing them on your readers. Instead, show and don't tell. For example, instead of telling your readers what you learned, narrate to them how different you are now or how the encounter contributed to who you are today. Doing this helps build the moral of your story without forcing issues.

Anatomy/Structure of a Personal Narrative Essay

INTRODUCTION PARAGRAPH

Hook……………………………………………………….

Setting the scene……………………………………….

Thesis…………………………………………………………

BODY PARAGRAPHS

Body Paragraph #1

Topic sentence………………………….

Detail 1…………………………………

Detail 2……………………………….

Detail 3……………………………….

Closing sentence…………………….

Body Paragraph #2

Topic sentence………………………….

Detail 1…………………………………

Detail 2……………………………….

Detail 3……………………………….

Closing sentence…………………….

Body Paragraph #3

Topic sentence………………………….

Detail 1…………………………………

Detail 2……………………………….

Detail 3……………………………….

Closing sentence…………………….

CLOSING PARAGRAPH aka. CONCLUSION.

State your thesis differently

Close with an interesting parting shot.

How to choose a personal narrative topic

To choose a great personal narrative topic, you need to brainstorm and then evaluate the personal narrative topic you've chosen.

Brainstorming means walking through your life, encounters, and experiences and choosing one that you want to share with your readers. Here are some questions to help you:

When brainstorming, you can list such topics; you are sure to come up with vivid and outstanding topics. You can equally select personal narrative topics from the personal narrative essay prompts from class. Furthermore, if our list of 50 plus personal narrative topics does not resonate with a personal narrative you want to write, you can use an essay writer who will brainstorm and develop a great topic.

When brainstorming, use divergent and convergent thinking. Divergent thinking helps generate as many ideas as possible, whereas convergent thinking helps you narrow down to the best ideas.

Having chosen a topic, evaluate if it is the best you can tell your story through. If a story is boring to you, it will most likely be boring to your audience. This is enough a signal to change the personal narrative topic.

With the topic, write an outline with your beginning, middle, and end of the story. We are saying that you need to critically and deeply analyze the personal narrative ideas developed when brainstorming to help you write a great essay.

Some valuable tips for choosing the topics

51 Personal Narrative Topics to consider in your assignment

  1. My favorite pet
  2. A teacher I will never forget
  3. A memorable high school encounter
  4. My first job
  5. A memorable childhood experience
  6. A memorable music concert I attended
  7. How I developed the love for football
  8. When I found my passion for gymnastics
  9. A story of how I lost a close friend
  10. A memorable sporting events
  11. A birthday surprise party I will never forget
  12. Why I visit the park often
  13. Personal advice to my generation
  14. What I regret the most
  15. When I learned to control my anger
  16. My favorite movie
  17. My favorite subject
  18. My dream job
  19. An encounter with my model celebrity
  20. The most important principle in my life
  21. How I balance between family and professional life
  22. The first time I drunk
  23. The most challenging decision I ever made
  24. My most memorable loss
  25. Celebrities that inspire my life
  26. My favorite congressperson
  27. My favorite president
  28. The day I first voted
  29. An encounter with a stalker
  30. My pains as a child who was neglected
  31. My experience as an orphan
  32. My experiences as an adopted child
  33. An embarrassing moment in my life
  34. An inspirational class I took online
  35. When I got lost when camping
  36. How I fell in love with riding bikes
  37. The most memorable volunteering activity
  38. An unforgettable encounter with thieves
  39. The day I brushed shoulders with death
  40. The day I had a date with death
  41. The day I woke up in a hospital
  42. My immigration story
  43. When I discovered a nasty family secret
  44. A day I felt alone and scared
  45. First time I cooked a meal for my parents
  46. When I bought my first shares
  47. First time I learned how to play the piano
  48. An encounter that changed my life perspective
  49. A story about a personal failure that inspired your resilience
  50. A first love that never was
  51. The stepmother from hell
  52. The day death robbed my family
  53. The day I learned the hard truths about my birth

5 Examples of Personal Narrative Essay Prompts

We have compiled some of the personal narrative essays prompts we came across as we researched, interacted with the content, and from works that our writers have completed. Here some examples:

1. Experiencing Gratitude

For this assignment, you will write a personal narrative–a story–illustrating an event, moment (or series of moments), or experience exemplifying gratitude. Share a story about a moment, experience, or event where you experienced gratitude either during the experience itself or after the experience took place.  

2. A 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.

3. Unresolved personal 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.

4. Family Story

Write a personal narrative about 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, grandparents, etc.

5. The Memorable 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. When assigned such, you can focus on a robbery encounter when in a new town, an encounter with pickpocketers, getting lost in a place, experiencing a new culture in a place, getting to demystify your personal beliefs while on a journey, meeting new people while on transit, being left by a plane, or being stuck on the roads in a forest, etc.

6. 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. For example, 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.

7. Meaningful Life Experience

Write a powerful short story about a meaningful life experience. This was a prompt used in the September 2020 New York Times Personal narrative essay contest. Look at how glittery, composed, organized, and well-thought-out the winning personal narrative essays were and hone your skills. The best ones, including the honorary mentions, were sieved from over 8000 entries sourced globally.

8. 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. For example, was it a bicycle accident? How did it happen? Did someone get hurt?

Personal Statement Examples

Below is an image of a color-coded personal narrative example that explains the different parts covered in an essay.

Sample of the best-written personal narrative essay

 You can also access more personal narrative essay examples through these websites:

  1. Thought Catalog – a publication that targets Generation Z through publishing personal narrative essays based on family, romance, friendship, and self-improvement, among others.
  2. The writing Life – a publication run by selfpublishing.com, which presents samples of personal narratives.
  3. Annual New York Times contest – Check out the yearly contest with different prompts targeting teenagers across the globe.
  4. The Narrative Magazine – an online publication that publishes non-fiction narratives.
  5. Narratively – publishes long-form writing that celebrates humanity through storytelling. In addition, it has personal narrative essays written to inspire, reflect, and provoke, mainly focusing on marginalized and overlooked subjects.
  6. Long Reads – includes best personal narratives and narrative essays from the entire web, including award-winning articles.

Speaking of books, you can also rummage through websites such as GoodReads to access some read-worthy personal narrative books to inspire you. Here are a few picks:

  1. Educated by Tara Westover
  2. Owl Moon by Jane Yolen
  3. Fireflies by Julie Brinckloe
  4. Night by Elie Weisel
  5. The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
  6. The year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
  7. My Rotten Readhead Older Brother by Patricia Polacco
  8. Marshfield Dreams: When I was a Kid by Ralph Fletcher
  9. Kitchen Dance by Maurie J. Manning
  10. The Relatives Came by Cynthia Rylant

Many worthy personal narrative books can inspire you to write an unforgettable story that you want your audience to enjoy, appreciate, and forever think about.

Step-By-Step Checklist: Ready, Set, Write!

Here is an excellent step-by-step checklist that can help you craft a terrific personal narrative essay.

  1. Begin by brainstorming experiences in your life that you think may be a good fit to showcase a story where you experienced gratitude.
  2. Once you settle on an experience upon which to write, begin to imagine the experience as a story. Use the storytelling graphic organizer to brainstorm the sequence of events.
  3. Next, imagine the characters who will appear in your story. Of course, you will be in this, but who else plays a role? Imagine you are a character in the story, as well as those who share in the experience. By imagining you and others as characters, you will characterize those involved and build conversations between the characters appropriately. Internal or external conversations or dialogue between characters allow the reader to see the story unfold. We call this showing vs. telling.
  4. Start Writing! As you begin to draft your first draft, focus on using vivid details and sense imagery. If the story becomes too detailed or too long, you can always edit what is necessary. As well, share details that are specific and relevant to this experience.
  5. Organize your story by using a clear and logical order, with a strong introduction and conclusion.
  6. Incorporate dialogue to show a character's personality and propel the story forward.
  7. Show that the experience had a definite impact on you–in other words, it has a point or thesis.
  8. Select various words and sentence structures to create tone and voice–focusing on your audience will help you focus on the tone you use.
  9. When you're done writing the draft–read it to yourself and ensure that the story illustrates a strong point, vivid characters, and a clear beginning, middle, and end structure.
  10. Correct errors in spelling, usage, mechanics, grammar, and sentence formation. As well, be sure your story has an original title and that you properly label your draft using MLA formatting.

Parting Shot

You can attest that writing a personal narrative essay is not as complicated as you thought before. It is a writing assignment you are most likely to encounter in college, high school, or university. You are involving your person in the body of this paper, which makes it a bit confusing. But our guide has clarified everything you need to know. You can now turn your thought, ideas, imaginations, and experiences into a brilliant piece.

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