Narrative Essay Definition and How to Make a Good One

Narrative Essay Definition and How to Make a Good One

What is a Narrative Essay?

A narrative essay is written when a writer turns the facts of their life into a compelling story. Personal narrative essays delve into the writer’s own life events, and by crafting a nonfiction piece that reads as storytelling, the essayist can uncover deeper truths about the world..

So, what exactly is a narrative essay? This article will help you distinguish between fact and fiction when writing for college applications or literary journals. We’ll go over how to write a narrative essay step by step, including examples of narrative essay topics and outlines. We’ll also look at some examples of successful narrative essays.

Learn how to tell your story in your own unique way. Let’s get started in this exciting genre!

What exactly is a Narrative Essay?

A subgenre of creative nonfiction is the narrative essay. This genre, also known as a personal essay, requires writers to share honest accounts about their lived experiences and, as a result, arrive at specific life realizations.

Personal narrative essays can be thought of as nonfiction short stories. While the essay and short story use distinct writing styles, the end result is a compelling story an idea, subject, or moral that the reader can interpret for themselves.

If you’ve never written a narrative essay, you may equate the term “essay” high school English class. Remember those tiresome 5-paragraph essays we had to write about a book we barely read on a topic that didn’t interest us?

Don’t worry. We’re not talking about that kind of essay. The term essay is derived from the French essayer, which means “to attempt.” That is exactly what writing a narrative essay is an attempt to organize the real world into language—a voyage of constructing meaning out of life’s mess.

A narrative essay is one in which you narrate a story from your point of view or personal experience, using detailed and sensory elements to elicit reader participation and comprehension.

Why is it called a narrative?

Because you use a technique known as “narrative” to tell your story and explain its events. The narrative definition is as follows:

  • The narrative is a picture of your story, not the story itself. Assume you reorder the events in your story: you’ll have the same story but a different narrative.
  • The narrative transforms a tale into information and determines how readers perceive it. In other words, the narrative is the foundation of your story.

So, your narrative essay is a type of paper in which you tell a story using a specific format and all storytelling features.

We know what you’re thinking: Stay calm! Everything is much simpler than it appears.

The Goal of Narrative Essays

Narrative essays are about telling your readers tales. It is their primary goal. You, the writer, describe your own experience but also make it clear to readers why you do so and why your tale is vital to share.
A narrative essay just guides the reader and allows them to form their own conclusions. You don’t criticize anything, try to persuade them with reasoning, or prove anything to them. That is what distinguishes a narrative essay from other types of academic papers.

Why should you write personal narrative essays?

As a result, you learn to express your thoughts, opinions, and beliefs to the rest of the world. You learn to communicate and share your thoughts in a consistent and engaging manner so that people are drawn in and inspired by your tale.

It’s all about the story:

Because the human brain remembers 70% of knowledge through tales and 95% through emotions, telling a story is the only method to get others to listen to you.

Narrative essays, for example, help you learn how to tell stories so that others would listen to you.
Your narrative, if written correctly, is the ideal approach to convey your thoughts and show others the world through your eyes. It’s the most effective method to get children to listen, widen their horizons, and be more creative with their own experiences and lives.

Narrative Essay Characteristics


A narrative essay is not the same as a short story. It’s not made up. It’s still an academic article, nonfiction writing on an actual experience.

When you compose a fictitious story, you are no longer writing a narrative essay.
As a result, the narrative essay has the following characteristics:

  • Informal, written in the first person. (You are a storyteller in this situation.)
  • With the intention of informing rather than arguing or teaching.
  • Provides detailed and chronological descriptions of a person, a setting, or an event.
  • Nonfictional; describes an actual experience.
  • Has the elements of a story yet is structured like an essay.

A Narrative Essay’s Structure

A narrative essay, like any other college work, has a structure. However, because it is informal writing about your personal experience in real life, it will have a format and characteristics unique to tales (storytelling).
Here they are:

Elements 1

To become a story, every narrative needs to include five elements: plot, setting, character, conflict, and theme. At first glance, it appears complicated, but what if you examine it closer?

Plot: the sequence of events in your essay (story). For example, you could write about how you learned to swim and how what you did influence your attitude and swimming abilities.

Setting: when and where events occur; in other words, location and time. For example, in the winter of 2013, you learned to swim at your local school’s pool.

Character: A protagonist drives the plot of your story. There may also be supporting characters. Thus, you are the main character in your swimming essay, and the supporting characters are your pals, May and Jerry, who went to the pool with you.

In traditional storytelling, a character is a hero who must embark on a trip and face all opponents and challenges to return home with a reward or wisdom.

The hero’s journey in literature was created by mythologist Joseph Campbell. If you want to learn how to write compelling stories, read his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

Alternatively, read The Writer’s Journey, a book by Disney screenwriter Christopher Vogler that reveals the storytelling secrets behind all movie blockbusters. It’s a practical guide to The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

Conflict: a problem the character must solve, a tense situation that he must overcome. The conflict in our example was the challenge for you to swim with your legs and arms.

A conflict in literature is defined as a hero’s struggle with an opposing force. Other characters (adversaries), outside forces (society, nature, technology, fate), and the hero himself are among these factors (his internal conflict).

Use any of the three conflict types in your narrative essay.

Theme: the moral of the story. What have you discovered? What do you want the readers to take away from this? Back to the swimming essay example: you’ve learned to swim; you want to urge readers to try new things, be bold, and not be scared of problems.

Make careful to follow the narrative arc format when combining all five aspects into a powerful narrative essay. Your plot should go through five stages before it becomes a story.

2 – Structure

In a nutshell, a narrative arc is the order of events in your story.
It’s the chronological structure of your narrative and comprises five parts: Exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. Gustav Freytag, a German novelist, studied common patterns in story plots in 1863 and described a narrative arc as a pyramid:

Here’s a quick rundown of narrative arc components, using Cinderella as an example.
o Exposition: this is the beginning of your story, containing background information about the primary characters and setting. Cinderella has a horrible life with a wicked stepmother and sisters.

The rising action is the appearance of conflict, a trigger that produces suspense and helps readers comprehend what your tale is about. Cinderella is invited to the ball and must make her own gown.
Climax: the main event in your story, the pinnacle of suspense, when the protagonist confronts the truth, must make a decision, and so on. Cinderella attends a ball and meets a prince.

Falling action: the result of that decision, the point at which the issue is resolved. Cinderella: it’s time to go back to your horrible life, but with a new experience.
The resolution is the end of your story, with a moral or point of view that you wished to communicate.

Cinderella: the prince finds her, and they live happily ever .
If you want your story essay to stand out, include all five components. Alternatively, employ at least three fundamental ones: Exposition (in the introduction), climax (in the essay body), and resolution (in your essay conclusion).

3 – Organization

The rules of academic writing must be followed when structuring a narrative essay. Use a conventional 5-paragraph essay format for this:

Make an introduction (the Exposition of your narrative essay). Remember to include a hook, a thesis statement, and a description of your issue.

Create three body paragraphs for your essay (the rising action, climax, and falling action). Tell about the place, the characters, the events, the conflict, and the aftermath.

Finally, compose a conclusion (the resolution). Explain your story’s moral, why it’s important, and what the audience might want to do reading it.

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Example of a Narrative Essay

The piece “Flow” by Mary Oliver, which you can read for free on Google Books, is a great example of a narrative essay.

The essay focuses on the reality that, as Mary Oliver puts it, “we live in paradise.” Oliver’s exploration of our role in the world’s limitless beauty is both a homage to nature and a call to love it fiercely.

Oliver weaves her thoughts about the world throughout the essay, from nature’s noble beauty to the question, “What is the life I should live?” However, these are not the essay’s main points despite their profundity. Instead, she comes to these conclusions through anecdotes and observations:

whale migration, chains of fish at high tide, the imaginative rescue of a spiny fish from the waterless shore, and so on.

What is most insightful and perhaps most amusing about this essay is that it concludes with Oliver’s concerns about how to live life. And yet, the stories she relates show us exactly how to live life: with consideration for the earth, admiration, and affection for all of life and its marvelous, strange, seemingly random beauty.

Such is the narrative essay’s potency. We can draw important conclusions from random facts in our life.
What do the majority of essays have in common? Before we get into more narrative essay examples, let’s go over the fundamentals of the essay.

Definition of Narrative Essay: 5 Essentials

Experimentation is encouraged in the personal narrative essay. We’ll get into those options later, but regardless of form, most essays contain these five fundamentals.

• Thesis

• Personal experience

• Meaning from disorder

• Literary devices used

• Insight

Let’s dig further into these principles.

1. Main Topic

A main topic is required for all narrative essays. This isn’t the formulaic story topic you had to write in school: you don’t need to plan out your case with laborious care. Just inform the reader what you’re writing about.

Take, for example, Mary Oliver’s essay. “How can we not recognize that we already live in paradise?” she asks.

It’s a straightforward but controversial remark. By framing her argument as a question, she invites us to ponder why we might not believe our planet to be paradise. She then digs into her own interpretation of paradise, sharing relevant stories and views regarding how the world should be treated.

Now, use caution when making abstract claims like these. Mary Oliver is a master of words. Therefore she can construct a beautiful essay by developing a thesis statement from an abstract idea. Concrete theses are also welcome: the fundamental argument of your work should drive the reader forward without confusing or leading them astray.

2. Personal Knowledge

Surprisingly, the personal narrative essay is about personal experience. But how do authors transform their personal experiences into meaningful stories?

There are a few approaches available to authors. One of the most prevalent of these techniques is braiding. Instead of focusing on a single continuous story, the writer can “braid” multiple stories, weaving in and out of diverse storylines and discovering common threads between them. Often, the subject of the essay will necessitate more than one anecdote as evidence, and braiding assists the author in upholding their thesis while showing rather than telling.

Another crucial factor to consider is how you tell your narrative. Essayists should employ the same approaches as fiction writers. Consider your essay’s setting, word choice, point of view, and dramatic structure carefully. After all, the narrative essay is a narrative, so tell your story the way it deserves to be told.

3. Deriving Meaning from Chaos

I believe we can all agree that life is chaotic. While we may track our life occurrences through cause and effect, A leads to B leads to C. The truth is that so much of our lives are formed by circumstances outside our control.

The narrative essay allows you to recapture some of that power. We can discover deeper truths about ourselves by condensing the facts of our existence into meaningful narratives.

We can discover deeper truths about ourselves by condensing the facts of our existence into meaningful narratives.

Consider Sandra Cisneros’ article “Only Daughter.” It’s a quick read, but it covers a lot of ground: a lonely childhood, numerous moves, university education, and the ups and downs of a successful literary career.

There’s a lot of life to digest in these three paragraphs, especially when combined with Cisneros’ reflections on culture and gender roles. Cisneros, on the other hand, does it expertly. Cisneros finds significance in the numerous dissimilar incidents she recalls by structuring them around her thesis statement of being an only girl.

4. perception

You will ultimately come upon moments of enlightenment when writing a narrative essay. Insight refers to those “aha!” moments at work that lead to deeper realizations about your life, the lives of others, and the world at large.

Now, enlightenment does not have to be a significant, culture-changing discovery. Many insights can be uncovered in tiny exchanges and quiet periods.

As an example, Sandra Cisneros’s insights in the preceding essay originate from relating her childhood to her difficulty as an only daughter. While her childhood was frequently lonely and depressing, she now believes that she is fortunate to have had such an upbringing because it helped foster her spirit as a writer and helped her pursue a profession in writing. These moments of thankfulness serve as a source of insight, allowing her to appreciate what had previously appeared to be a hardship.

We see what this thankfulness is growing towards at the end of the essay when Cisneros tells how she felt when her father read one of her stories: love and acceptance for the life she chose.

5. Literary Techniques

The personal narrative essay, like all kinds of creative writing, employs literary strategies. These methods do not have to be complicated: your article does not need a massively extended metaphor or an extensive collection of juxtapositions to be compelling.

However, the use of a symbol or metaphor will undoubtedly help your story. In her essay “Flow,” Mary Oliver utilizes literary tropes to describe the ocean’s beauty, referring to it as a “cauldron of changing greens and blues” and “the immense palace of the earth.” These descriptions emphasize the earth’s deep beauty.

Sandra Cisneros uses several symbols to express her father’s masculinity and perception of gender norms in her essay “Only Daughter.” At one point, she lists the few books he reads: sports magazines, slasher magazines, and picture paperbacks, many of which portray scenes of violence against women. These symbols express her father’s gendered thinking and her own literary impulses.

Additional Narrative Essay Examples

Let us now look at some additional narrative essay samples. We’ll analyze each essay using the five fundamentals outlined above.
Example Narrative Essay: David Sedaris’ “Letting Go”
Read “Letting Go” in The New Yorker here.
Sedaris’ essay focuses on the culture of cigarette smoking—how it began, the world it created, and the challenges associated with quitting. Examine how this narrative essay example employs the five essay writing fundamentals.

Main Topic: There is no overtly stated thesis, which is frequent in works intended to be amusing or entertaining. This sentence, on the other hand, is a credible thesis statement: “It wasn’t the smoke that troubled me, but the scent of it.” I didn’t mind it in later years, but it was terrible at the time: the aroma of neglect.”

Personal Experience: Sedaris alternates between numerous anecdotes about smoking, ranging from his family’s addiction to his own. We learn of his travels in search of cheaper cigarettes, his family’s struggle to quit, and the last cigarette he smoked in the Charles de Gaulle airport.

Meaning from Chaos: Sedaris connects several incongruous occurrences. We hear about his childhood and smoking years, but they are interspersed with stories about his family and friends. The story that emerges is one about the temptation of smoking.

Insight: Two parts of this piece are very moving. One, when Sedaris discusses his mother’s discovery that smoking isn’t sophisticated and she quickly leaves her habit. Two, when Sedaris is given a diseased lung from a chain smoker, he is merely startled at how heavy the organ is, rather than worrying about his own lungs.

Literary Devices: Throughout the essay, Sedaris uses the cigarette to represent neglect: disregard of one’s body, neglect of one’s space, and negligence of one’s self-presentation.

Example Narrative Essay: “My Mother’s Tongue” by Zavvi Kang Engles
The Rumpus has published “My Mother’s Tongue.”

The essay by Engles investigates the dysphoria of growing up between two very different cultures and languages. Engles explores the absurdity of growing up as a child of Korean immigrants by emphasizing the strong relationship between Korean language and culture. Examine how this narrative essay example employs the five essay writing fundamentals.

• Topic: Engles’ essay frequently returns to her relationship with the Korean language, particularly in relation to other Korean speakers. “I shined with [my mother’s] affection, basked in the warm security of what I thought was a language between us,” she writes of their relationship. Perhaps this is why individuals approached us for photos, hoping to capture a private world between two people.” This “hidden world” is central to her article, which examines not just how Korean-Americans interact with one another, but also how Engles’ language is inextricably linked to her identity and birthplace.

• Personal Experience: Engles writes of her childhood attachment to both English and Korean, her adolescence fallout with the Korean language, her experiences as “not American enough” in the US and “not Korean enough” in Korea, and her sorrow in a Korean hospital.

• Meaning from Chaos: In addition to the events listed above, Engles incorporates studies on language and identity (also known as code-switching). The article chronicles the author’s two contrasting cultures through language and identity, stressing the mismatch between Western independence and an Eastern sense of connection.

• Insight: Throughout this essay, there are numerous examples of insight as the author discusses how out of place she feels, split between two countries. Engles’ experience at a Korean hospital is particularly moving, as she writes, “I didn’t know how to mourn in this country.”

• Literary Devices: The essay regularly contrasts Korean with American languages and cultures. Furthermore, the English language comes to represent Western individualism, whereas the Korean language comes to represent Eastern collectivism.

Deborah Copaken’s Narrative Essay Example: Three Rules for Middle-Age Happiness
The Atlantic has published “3 Rules for Middle-Age Happiness.”
Copaken’s essay delves into her friendship with Nora Ephron, the screenwriter of When Harry Met Sally. Examine how this narrative essay example employs the five essay writing fundamentals.
• Main Topic Theory: The subtitle of this essay contains the thesis statement: “Gather friends and feed them, laugh in the face of disaster, and take out all the things—people, jobs, body parts—that no longer serve you.”

• Personal Experience: Copaken’s article is woven with two distinct threads. One thread runs across her personal life, which includes a failing marriage, medical challenges, and her attempts to raise a happy family. Copaken’s personal friendship with Ephron, whose guidance corresponds with many of the essay’s ideas, is the other.

• Meaning from Chaos: The events in this essay are organized chronologically. The major idea of organization, however, may be found in the title: many of the essayist’s issues can be viewed as middle-aged crises (family troubles, divorce, death of loved ones), yet the remedies to those crises are simpler than one might think.

Insight: Copaken addresses her relationship with Ephron as well as her personal relationship with her children in this essay. She connects these experiences towards the end, writing, “The transmission of troubles is a one-way street, from child to mother.” A decent mother does not put her children through her pain. She waits until it becomes so heavy that it either breaks her or kills her.”

Literary Devices: The author’s relationship with women is explored through literary devices in this essay. She is concerned that having a hysterectomy will make her feel “less of a lady.” It’s also worth noting that when the author had her hysterectomy, her daughter got her first period. Copaken utilizes this to represent the transfer of womanhood from mother to daughter, which leads her to the aforesaid realization.

5 Steps to Writing a Narrative Essay

Writing a narrative essay is as simple as these five stages, regardless of length or subject matter.

1. Creating Narrative Essay Topics

If you don’t know what to write about, brainstorm some narrative essay topics. One method is to hunt for writing prompts online: Every week, Reedsy publishes new ideas to their website, and we offer writing prompts to our Facebook group every Wednesday.

Taking a step back, it can assist in recalling formative experiences in your life. Answering one of these questions may spark a brilliant idea:

When was the last time something changed my perspective, personal philosophy, or political beliefs?
• Who has given me fantastic advice or assisted me in living a better life?
• From what difficulty did I conquer and grow stronger?
• What is something highly important to me that I want other people to cherish as well?
• What life event do I still not fully comprehend?
• What is something I am always striving for?
• What is something I used to take for granted but now appreciate?

Finally, you might be interested in our post How to Generate Story Ideas. The material is geared for fiction writers, however essayists might also profit from these suggestions.

2. Making an Outline for a Narrative Essay

Once you’ve come up with a concept, you should flesh it out in a narrative essay outline.
Your outline can be as simple or as complex as you wish, depending on the length of your essay. A basic outline might include the following:

• Introduction—usually a pertinent anecdote that piques the reader’s interest.
• Thesis: What is my main point in this essay? What am I attempting to convey to the reader?
o Argument 1: What can I use to support my thesis?
Event 1: What tale will I tell to support my point of view?
Analysis 1: How does this occurrence support my thesis?
Argument 2 Event 2 Analysis 2 Argument 3 Event 3 Analysis 3
• Conclusion: How can I connect these events? What do they imply about my thesis? And, if any, advice can I give to the reader?

Insight is one thing that this blueprint lacks. That’s because insight is sometimes unplanned: you discover it as you write it, and the best insight comes to the writer spontaneously. However, if you already know the idea you want to provide, it will fit best within your essay’s analysis and/or conclusion.
Insight is sometimes unplanned: you discover it as you write it, and the best insight comes to the writer spontaneously.

Another item that is lacking is research. If you intend to intertwine your essay with research (as many essayists should! ), try making that research its own bullet point under each category.

Check out our post How to Write a Story Outline, for an alternative, more fiction-focused approach to outlining.

3. Begin with a Story

Let us now address the most difficult question: how to begin a narrative essay.

The majority of narrative essays start with a relevant story. You aim to pique the reader’s interest right immediately by offering something surprising or intriguing. And, because the essay is about you and your life experiences, it is natural to begin with a pertinent tale.

Consider a narrative that is important to your thesis and experiment with different methods to communicate it. You can begin with a surprising line of speech, an uncommon situation, or a stunning setting. You can also start your essay with information or advice, but make sure to rapidly tie it in with an anecdote or your reader will be confused.

Look at any of the narrative essay examples in this post for examples of this.

In theory, your thesis statement can appear anywhere in the essay. You may have observed in the preceding examples that the thesis statement isn’t necessarily apparent or immediate: it may appear near the middle of the essay, and it may be more indicated than expressed directly.

You can play about with the location of your thesis, but if you put it later in the essay, make sure everything before it is interesting to the reader. If the reader believes the essay is aimless or dull, they will have no motivation to reach your thesis or understand the argument you’re making.

4. Getting to the Heart of the Matter

Continue writing about your experiences, arguments, and research while an introduction and thesis are being written. Follow the structure you’ve sketched out in your outline, but feel free to diverge if something more natural occurs to you.

Along the way, you’ll explain why your experiences are important to the reader. This is where you can begin to generate insight. Insight can take numerous forms, but the goal is always to arrive at a core truth.

Insight can come in the following forms:
• Awakenings as a result of linking the various events in your life.
• Guidance based on your own mistakes and experiences.
• Moments when your ideas or personal philosophy shift.
• Broader perspectives on life, love, a greater power, the universe, and so forth.

5. Constant Editing

With a first draft of your narrative essay completed, you can polish it during the editing phase.
Remember that a first draft does not have to be great; it simply has to exist.
Remember that a first draft does not have to be great; it simply has to exist. Here are some things to keep in mind during the editing process:

• Clarity: Do all of your arguments make sense? Do my thoughts make sense? Are my stories clear and easy to understand?

• Structure: Does the thought flow make sense? Is everything consistent with my thesis? Do my arguments benefit from the manner in which they are presented in this essay?

• Flow: Do the words flow as I read them? Is my sentence structure balanced between long and short sentences? Is there anything I’ve left out?

• Literary Methods: Do I employ literary devices such as similes, metaphors, symbols, or juxtaposition? Do these devices aid in the illustration of my ideas?

• Mechanics: Is every word correctly spelled? Is my punctuation correct? Does this essay follow the formatting guidelines if I publish it somewhere?
Your essay may require numerous modifications before it is complete. Above all, ensure that your narrative essay is easy to read, that every word counts, and that you gain a better understanding of your own life.
Above all, ensure that your narrative essay is easy to read, that every word counts, and that you gain a better understanding of your own life.

Narrative Essayists’ Next Steps

What happens when you finish your essay? You might choose to submit your work to several literary periodicals. Here are 24 literary publications to which you can submit your work—we hope you find a good home for it!

Writing a narrative essay is difficult, but the practice will be incredibly rewarding. You’ll learn about your lived experiences, reach deeper conclusions about your personal philosophy, and possibly even question your approach to life. So get some paper, pick a topic, and start writing—the world is waiting to hear your story!

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