What Is a Personal Narrative Essay?

G. Wiesen

A personal narrative essay is a type of essay in which a person writes about his or her own experiences, typically as a narrative story. While someone can write about his or her opinions or personality in such an essay, the “narrative” aspect of the essay typically comes from a story. This type of essay is usually nonfiction and often related to actual events that happened to the writer or someone close to the writer. A personal narrative essay is often utilized in applications for colleges or to join prestigious groups, as such essays gauge the abilities of a writer and allow someone to reveal interesting personal information.

Brainstorming with pen and paper may be helpful for writers preparing to create a personal narrative essay.
Brainstorming with pen and paper may be helpful for writers preparing to create a personal narrative essay.

There is no single topic that must be used in writing a personal narrative essay, as most writers choose a topic that has particular meaning for them. Someone might write about the death of a loved one, for example, to use the essay as a cathartic experience or to help others find someone else who understands what they are experiencing. A personal narrative essay could just as easily be about something humorous that happened to the writer. Such a wide range of potential topics can lead to such essays being quite interesting, though they can also be difficult for some writers to start.

A personal narrative essay can help someone express feelings of frustration.
A personal narrative essay can help someone express feelings of frustration.

For people who have difficulty getting started with a piece of writing without a clear sense of direction, a personal narrative essay can be somewhat daunting. It is often best for someone to begin brainstorming about potential subjects. This can be done by a person thinking about things that have happened to him or her that elicited strong emotions such as fear, sadness, happiness, or anger. It is often easiest for someone to write about something he or she has a vested interest in, and emotional connections to a subject can make that subject more meaningful for a writer.

The way in which a personal narrative essay is written, however, often separates such works from other essays. A personal narrative essay should typically have a somewhat looser style than informative or argumentative essays, since the narrative aspects of such essays should resemble prose works of fiction or nonfiction. Writers can use dialogue in such essays, separating them from essays written in a more formal tone, and the writer might choose to narrate the essay or allow the narrative to unfold through a third-person perspective. Ultimately, a personal narrative essay should feel like a structured narrative, with a beginning, middle, and end that tells a definite story or relays a certain experience.

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Discussion Comments


@pleonasm - That is getting a little bit too complex for some kinds of personal narrative story. I mean, if all you want to do is write a short essay detailing the time you caught a big fish, then that's not necessarily going to require deep contemplation of ethics and values.

What you need to do is use story to introduce why an event is going to be interesting, describe the event, and then describe the aftermath. That's the most basic formula.


@pastanaga - This kind of essay really requires you to think hard about what kind of story you are telling and what you're hoping the reader will get out of it. Any story that leads to a climax needs this kind of consideration, because you need to use foreshadowing and other techniques to structure the shape properly.

If the point of your personal narrative is to demonstrate the values inherent in your upbringing, you might want to use an incident where they clashed with other values as your climax.

But in order for that to be effective you need to start out with examples of how those values developed or describe what they are like in isolation.


The important thing to remember in this kind of essay is that a narrative requires a certain format to stay interesting. You can't just record an incident without fleshing it out so that there is a beginning, a middle and a satisfying ending.

Even if the essay isn't intended to be creative non-fiction, it still needs away to keep the reader interested, and basic, bare, retelling of the facts won't do that.

I'm definitely not saying to lie or exaggerate or anything like that, particularly if this essay is for university, but you do have room to include things that might not otherwise be obvious. For example, if you're including the fact that you're afraid of bees, then you might want to speculate on why, or compare your fear to something else to put it into context.

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