Let’s face it. To the world at large, you are underestimated. Too often your opinions, observations and experiences are overlooked as cliche, hackneyed or just plain silly. With a little focus, however, your voice can break free to the surface and become a significant player in your circle of influences. This begins with strengthening your voice through personal narrative, one of the simplest and most rewarding of school essay assignments.
The personal essay is often the first assigned school paper where you can focus solely on yourself and your opinions. This doesn’t mean the essay will be heavily weighted on the grading scale, but it does offer a slight reprieve from the research and citation requirements that most of your other assignments will have. As long as you focus on the identifying elements of the assignment as well as the basics of structure, grammar and punctuation you can rest assured you’ll ace the grade. Keep your head about you, write well and stay with me.
Personal Narrative Identifying Elements
The primary identifying elements of a personal narrative essay are that they are written in the first person voice. This voice is recognized in writing by the use of pronouns such as “I,” “Me,” “My,” “Mine” and personally inclusive pronouns such as “We,” “Our” and “Us.”
Narrative writing stems from the perspective of the author, and as such, the author’s observations are critical to the success of the essay. You are speaking, you are sharing the story and you are teaching the lesson. However, you don’t need to remind the reader with each sentence that you are the one talking. Instead, pace your insertion of perspective (I thought, We ran, My observations) to once every paragraph or two. This creates a smooth narrative that invites a reader to follow along rather than dragging them forcibly. Use your pronouns just as you would during conversation. If you feel narcissistic in your language, dial it back a notch. For example, a bad paragraph might look like this:
“I was there, you know. It was me who saw what happened and I was just going out of my head trying to decided what I should do. Did I care what would happen to me afterwards? You bet I did.”
A better personal narrative paragraph might look like this:
“There was pandemonium. Scared and in shock, I briefly felt there was nothing I could do. The consequences be damned, though. Something had to be done. No matter the consequences or possible retribution, the results would define the future. It was this acceptance that brought action and led to the outcome as it stands.”
Simply, Have a Point
Lastly, personal narratives worth reading have a point. It may be a moral, a look inside your mind or some lesson that needs to be imparted. So yes, as with any other solid essay, there must be a reason for it to exist. For a personal narrative, the point is often sharing with the reader what you as the author learned from the shared experience.
As you progress with the narrative style, the essay’s purpose could shift into a persuasive tone. For example you could write an essay about the summer you worked on a chicken farm and the lesson is that people should never eat commercially raised poultry.
Many of my students get hung up on this point. They often feel the point must be a deeply held belief or vastly important lesson. In the end, I can’t tell them what their essay’s truth is about, but I do have a solution to help them move on with their writing. Quite simply, the solution is to move forward and write the story. Once a rough draft is completed, a purpose will emerge through reflection and a careful read through. Then it is only a matter of editing and refining the essay to best highlight that discovery.
Personal Narrative Essay Structure
A narrative essay form follows the same rules as any other structured writing. You will begin by determining your thesis statement, supporting topics and your conclusion. Use an outline, and follow it. However, for your narration to work, your voice needs to be casual. A personal narrative is no place for flat statements such as ‘This essay will discuss…” or “I will be examining…” Instead, you will develop a thesis by introducing your topic with a more personal approach. For example:
“1971 was a year of upheaval and conflict, both internationally and on the home front. It was during this time of strife that my parents decided it would be a swell idea to conceive a child. Though the world was becoming a horrid place to develop emotionally, I was born into it nonetheless. From the first breath, it has all been down hill.”
This opening paragraph introduces a few elements. First, it sets a timeline for the narration. Second, it established an atmosphere. In this case, the atmosphere is one of sarcasm and possible dislike for the author’s situation. Thirdly, it suggests the essay will be about the author’s formative years growing up with his parents’ choices. The voice attracts a reader without saying bluntly, ‘I’m going to write about my crappy childhood.’
Using Quotes in Personal narrative
Personal narrative essays are strengthened with direct quotes, paraphrasing and summation. Though not required for the form, it may be required on the assignment. Be sure you understand what your teacher requires before writing. If possible, ask for a rubric to clearly define the assignment.
Using the variations of quotations in your narration will help round out the story and make it more real. Instead of a writer telling what is happening, the insertion of quotes and summaries helps to show what is happening by demonstrating tone, direction and purpose. Instead of saying, ‘My father was mad,‘ you could incorporate a paraphrased quote from him that demonstrates his anger. For example:
My father rose from his recliner and stepped forward, fists balled and slightly raised. “You saying I’m funny,” he asked. “Funny like a clown or funny like Barbara Streisand? I’ll show you who’s funny you little twerp.”
No one expects a writer to remember word for word what was said a long time ago, but even so, try your best to get the correct wordage out that demonstrates the essence of the quote. Be as truthful and honest as you can be.
Deciding What to Write About
The wonderful thing about narrative form is that you are the expert of your opinion and perspective. This means you can write about anything you wish to share with your audience. Subjects run the gamut from your first crush to the time in your life you cyber-stalked you favorite celebrity. For the first few essays, however, I suggest you stick to lighter subjects. Leave the darkest confessions for your later works.
Throughout my teaching career, I have had students write about everything from their pride in returning to school after an absence and the joy of having a child, to dealing with personal rejection and their fears of failure. Each were beautiful in their own right because they were from the heart and told it like it was. They key a successful personal narrative essay is your willingness to explore the content and to write from the heart.
Personal Narrative Checklist
- Choose a topic/thesis that interests you
- Write in the first person
- Use your own voice to get a point across
- Quote, paraphrase and summarize to fit the narrative
- Be honest, even if it makes you look silly
- Structure the essay as you would any other
- Use an outline
- Brainstorm for supporting topics/events
- Write with a detailed eye
- Use a proofreader for feedback
- Know the clear purpose of your essay
Going Off the personal narrative Reservation
Your first few narrative writing attempts will be demonstrative of the basics, but once you have those mastered, you can really stretch your creativity. ‘Personal’ can have a whole new meaning when you stretch your voice by creating other characters and personalities to explore. Using a fictitious narrative voice, you can explore opinions and perspectives that you personally do not have. For example, a male teenage author writing in the voice of a female doctor. Perhaps you would like to explore the opinions of an unemployed astronaut or a polar region explorer.
These voices will need to be researched, of course, to bring in a voice of authenticity, but there’s nothing stopping a writer from creating a non-fiction narrative essay from a fictional opinion. Just to be on the safe side, this avenue of creative writing for a school assignment should be cleared by your teacher first. You may also wish to notify your audience as well with a short preamble.
Writing a personal narrative can perhaps be the most fun you will ever have with a school assignment essay. If you have questions or want to share your experiences, please leave them in the comments below.