How to write a personal narrative

A Personal Narrative recounts an event or experience from the writer’s life in story form and often in intimate detail. This text type not only relates to the external events of life but often reveals the internal life of the writer too.

WHAT IS A PERSONAL NARRATIVE?

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A personal narrative can be understood as a piece of nonfiction storytelling based on the writer’s own thoughts, feelings, and experiences. Told in the first person, the writer draws on their life events to construct a story.

Combining elements of nonfiction recount writing with introspection and the frequent use of literary devices more commonly associated with fiction and poetry, a personal narrative can be best understood as a type of creative nonfiction.

PERSONAL NARRATIVE VERSUS A PERSONAL RECOUNT

Personal narratives are also frequently referred to as personal recounts. The distinction between the two can best be thought of as one of emphasis.

When we first instruct our students to write stories based on the events of their own lives, they will inevitably write simple recounts. These recounts will be based on the personal incidents of their lives, but they will most likely lack the depth that we can typically expect to find in a true personal narrative.

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While personal narratives will also recount events from the student writer’s life, much more emphasis will be placed on exploring the writer’s thoughts and feelings on these events. 

This type of writing is often a means for the writer to explore the meaning of the events in their life. It is, at its core, an introspective and creative endeavor that focuses as much on the interior life of the writer as it does on external events.

While the conclusion of more traditional types of recounts frequently provides some of the writer’s personal insights, in a personal narrative these are woven throughout the text as a whole.

PERSONAL NARRATIVE STRUCTURE

ORIENTATION Explain the who, what, when, and where of the experience in your introduction to your audience.

FOCUS Mainly focus on meaningful events.

CHRONOLOGY Events are described in the sequence in which they occurred.

ORGANIZATION Relevant information is organized into paragraphs

INSIGHT & MEANING Include personal comments, opinions or interpretations of the experience or event in your personal narrative.

PERSONAL NARRATIVE FEATURES

TENSE The first and third person are used most frequently and recall is always written in the past tense. Present tense can be used for analysis and opinion.

NOUNS Use proper nouns to refer to specific people, places times and events

VOICE Both active and passive voice are used in recounts. Use these to express your emotions and thinking clearly.

CONNECTIVES Use conjunctions and connectives to link events and indicate time sequence in your personal narrative.

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HOW LONG SHOULD A PERSONAL NARRATIVE BE?

The personal narrative is something of a modern text type and therefore has no traditionally defined optimum length.

We can find texts that run anywhere from a couple of hundred words to a multi-volume series in this genre. 

However, for our students, this text type can be thought of in terms of length as similar to an essay. Like an essay, the text needs to be long enough to comprehensively answer the question, prompt, or the event/experience the student is retelling.

David Sedaris, the American writer and one of the best-known writers of humorous personal narratives, has written many books that could accurately be classified in this genre.

While these full-length books are often built around a loose theme, each chapter could stand alone as a personal narrative essay in its own right, each built around a single identifiable experience or event. 

As with an essay, the length of a personal narrative can be based on a variety of factors, including:

  • Age and ability of the students
  • Specifics of the question or writing prompt
  • Any limitation imposed by a word count
  • The complexity of the event/experience being written about.

Regardless of length, given its structural similarity with the essay, personal narratives usually follow a basic three-part structure.

WHAT ARE THE THREE PARTS OF A PERSONAL NARRATIVE?

We mentioned previously that this text type is relatively modern, so there aren’t many fixed rules concerning structure. That said, we can usually identify three distinct parts of a personal narrative that correspond to the three parts outlined in the hamburger essay or 5-paragraph essay format. These are:

  • The introduction
  • The body paragraphs
  • The conclusion

If you want an in-depth guide to this format, check out our comprehensive article on the subject here. But, for now, let’s take a brief look at the purpose of each section as it relates to a personal narrative.

THE INTRODUCTION OF A PERSONAL NARRATIVE

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The introduction of a personal narrative performs several functions. 

1: It hooks the Reader

The first job of the introduction is to ‘hook’ the reader. If we can’t catch the reader’s interest initially, there will be no middle or end for the reader. A strong hook is needed at the very outset, and it can take several forms. 

Some effective hooks to open a personal narrative with include:

  • A bold claim
  • An interesting anecdote
  • A fascinating fact or revealing statistic
  • A compelling quotation

Whichever technique the student chooses to open their narrative with, they should ensure it is relevant to the subject matter explored, whether it focuses on external or internal events or experiences or a mixture of both. 

2: It orients the Reader

Like many other nonfiction and fiction text types, the opening paragraph (or paragraphs) will also orient the reader by answering some basic questions such as:

  • What is the text about?
  • Who is in this story?
  • Where is it set?
  • When do the events or experiences occur?

While it may also hint at why these events or experiences matter, a detailed answer to the why of a personal narrative may be saved for the text’s conclusion.

This section of the personal narrative can also be thought of as The Exposition.

3: It Sets the Tone

Not only does the introduction reveal what the text will be about, but it also reveals how the writer (and by extension, the reader) will treat the topic. This is the tone.

For example, where the language used is serious and formal, a more sombre tone has been established. In this instance, the reader will adopt a more serious approach to the work.

On the other hand, if the treatment of the event or experience is humorous, this will be apparent in the language choices the writer makes and the mood they establish. Going forward, the reader can reasonably expect to be amused by what’s to come in the text.

PERSONAL NARRATIVE PRACTICE EXERCISE:

  • Organise your students into small groups of four or five
  • Provide each group with a selection of personal recounts
  • Can the students identify how each sample text attempts to hook the reader in the opening paragraph?
  • How effectively does the introduction of each text orient the reader?
  • What is the tone of the text? How has this tone been created?

THE BODY PARAGRAPHS OF A PERSONAL NARRATIVE

The body paragraphs of a personal narrative comprise the bulk of the text. 

As with any type of recount, this section will generally focus on the chronological retelling of an event or experience. 

However, there is another significant difference between this type of recount and the other types.’ The root of this difference can be found in the word ‘narrative’.

While the body paragraphs of a personal narrative can make use of some of the defining characteristics of more traditional types of recount, if the introduction acts as the exposition of the setting and character of the story, the body paragraphs move the text along its story arc.

Though we will cover the main elements briefly, structuring a story is an art in itself and if you want to find out more about it, check out our detailed article on the subject here.

Also, if you want to learn more about the structure of general recounts, find out more here.

While we’ve seen that the introduction of a personal narrative corresponds to a story’s exposition, the following elements of a story arc can be found in the text’s body.

1: The Problem

The problem or conflict is an essential ingredient in any story worth the name. It creates the story’s focal point, ignites the reader’s interest, and drives the story forward. In a personal narrative, this problem can be internal or external, however, there is often an emphasis placed on how the issues affect the writer psychologically. 

2: The Rising Action 

As the narrative develops, the dramatic tension will tend to increase. The main problem will intensify, or the writer may introduce additional more minor problems to amp things up.

3: The Climax

This is where the story reaches its dramatic high point. In the case of a personal narrative where the conflict or problem is psychological, this drama and its climax may play out internally.

PERSONAL NARRATIVE PARAGRAPH PRACTICE EXERCISE:

  • In their groups, with their sample personal narrative texts to hand, ask students to identify how the writer deals with each element as listed above and discuss how effectively they have done so.

THE CONCLUSION OF A PERSONAL NARRATIVE

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This third and final section of the personal narrative performs a slightly different function to a regular essay’s conclusion. 

While the conclusions of most nonfiction text types focus on restating a central thesis and/or providing a summary of arguments, the conclusion in a personal narrative follows a story’s final section more closely. 

That is, it usually contains the story’s falling action and resolution.

Let’s take a quick look at each.

1: The Falling Action

The story arc dips in dramatic tension after the dramatic high point of the climax. As personal narratives often focus on ‘internal’ events, this ‘action’ can also occur internally.

2: Resolution

The resolution marks the end of the story, and in this text type, it usually involves some personal change in circumstances or transformation. It can also take the form of a lesson learned or new knowledge attained.

Personal Narrative Conclusion Practice Exercise:

Now students understand how to structure and write each stage of their personal narrative, encourage them to spend some time brainstorming events and experiences from their lives that could serve as the topic for their writing.

When they have chosen a suitable topic, instruct them to begin planning the writing of their text using the categories listed above. They might even wish to create a simple graphic organizer to help. 

For example:

Introduction

  • What is the opening hook?
  • What is the text about?
  • Who is in this story?
  • Where is it set?
  • When do the events or experiences occur?

Body Paragraphs

  • What is the central problem?
  • What happens in the rising action?
  • How does the climax play out?

Conclusion

  • What happens in the falling action?
  • What is the resolution of the story?

Once students have their personal narrative adequately planned, it’s time to get them writing in earnest to put all that theory into practice!

Teaching Resources

Use our resources and tools to improve your student’s writing skills through proven teaching strategies.

PERSONAL NARRATIVE WRITING TEMPLATE / GRAPHIC ORGANIZER

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PERSONAL NARRATIVE WRITING EXAMPLE

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NARRATIVE WRITING CHECKLIST BUNDLE

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PERSONAL NARRATIVE WRITING EXAMPLE

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The content for this page has been written by Shane Mac Donnchaidh.  A former principal of an international school and English university lecturer with 15 years of teaching and administration experience. Shane’s latest Book, The Complete Guide to Nonfiction Writing, can be found here.  Editing and support for this article have been provided by the literacyideas team.