How to Write a Narrative Essay

How to Write a Narrative Essay

Have you been asked to write a narrative essay but don’t know where to begin? This handy guide will explain what a narrative essay is, why you need to write one, and how to write one in five easy steps.

Although not as commonly assigned as other types of essays like expository essays, compare and contrast essays, or cause and effect essays, narrative essays are still important to learn. Remember when you were asked a long time ago to write about what you did last summer? That was probably your first narrative essay and you didn’t even know it at the time!

Therefore, writing a narrative essay is easier than you think. Many students find that writing a narrative essay is easier than other types of essay because they can relax and tell a story. However, other students find that they think more analytically and storytelling comes harder to them. Narrative essays are not necessarily about your own stories and experiences. Sometimes you may be asked to write a narrative essay about another person, as if you were writing a case study. This may be so in an anthropology, sociology, or psychology class. Whatever the case, this guide will help you master the art of the narrative essay.

What is a Narrative Essay / Definition?

A narrative essay is an essay that tells a story. When you watch a documentary on television, you refer to the narrator as the voice over who tells the overarching story. The narrator gives you the big picture, guiding you through the story and evoking in the audience an emotional response. When you write a narrative essay, put yourself into the mindset of a film or television narrator. You are going to tell a story in your own words, using your own special voice.

However, a narrative essay is not just a story. If it were, it wouldn’t be called an essay, would it? A narrative essay is different from other types of essays in ways we will soon see, but first let’s talk about why a narrative essay is different from a regular story. The main difference between a narrative essay and a story is that the narrative should be thesis-driven. What does that mean? A narrative essay is a story that is told “in such a way that he audience learns a lesson or gains insight.” Keeping this in mind, your narrative essay will revolve around a main idea or central purpose. With a narrative essay, you always need to ask yourself, “What’s the point? Why am I telling this story?”

What Makes Narrative Essays Different From Other Essays?

According to the Purdue Online Writing Lab, a narrative essay has three primary features: anecdotal, experiential, and personal. A narrative essay is anecdotal in that it contains anecdotes, or stories that have a beginning, middle, and an end like all the stories you have read since childhood. However, a narrative essay also tends to be experiential—meaning the information comes from your personal experience rather than from research. This is one of the main ways narrative essays differ from other types of expository essay writing. Another reason why a narrative essay is different is that it is personal. Unlike almost every other assignment you will be given in college, a narrative essay encourages you to use the first person and even some informal language. Sound like fun? Narrative essays can be among the most enjoyable essays you will write.

A narrative essay is similar to a descriptive essay in that both should involve vivid imagery. When you tell a story, you want to engage the reader’s five senses, and really make the person feel like they are right there with you. You want the reader to care. When you write a descriptive essay, all you are really doing is describing an object or event using strong language. Sure, your readers might feel something or learn something, but they have not learned much about you. A narrative essay is either going to be directly about you, or about another person.

Be Entertaining

A narrative essay will also stand out to you among all your other assignments because you can entertain your reader. Typical school writing assignments are more about informing our audience. A narrative essay blends the best of creative writing with the best of expository writing. You can even think of a narrative essay as a type of creative nonfiction. Getting good at narrative essays could also pay off for you in the future, because creative nonfiction has become the most popular genre in all of publishing. Even if you never go on to publish a masterpiece of creative nonfiction, a narrative essay is a very commonly requested item on job applications and college admissions applications.

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Different Types of Narrative Essays

Not to confuse you so early in the game, but there are different types of narrative essays. All share the same basic elements in common: they are thesis-driven, they are anecdotal, experiential, and personal. Here are a few different types of narrative essay.

  • The Personal Essay. This is one of the most common types of narrative essays. You are asked to relay a story from your past, or describe your strengths and weaknesses. In fact, this type of narrative essay is the one your are most likely to see on a college entrance examination of job application.
  • The Reflective Narrative. You might be asked to reflect on how your personal experience reflects the topics you are learning about in class, such as discrimination, or learning a second language. This would also constitute a narrative essay because it asks you to tell a story about a specific event or experience.
  • The Literacy Narrative. A literacy narrative asks you to write about writing! If you have been asked to write a literacy narrative, it probably means your instructor is interested in what books you might have read when you were a child, any struggles you had with language or self-expression, and who you admire in the world of writing or other types of media.

How to Write a Narrative Essay in Five Easy Steps

Time to get down to business. Narrative essays do take some time and a lot of planning. Therefore, it helps to break down the process of writing a narrative into steps. You will get a lot less overwhelmed if you take smaller steps towards reaching your goal of a good narrative essay. Also, you will notice that the steps for writing a narrative essay are different from the steps you take when writing an expository essay because of the different style and language you use.

1. Pre-planning and brainstorming

Often the most important phase of writing, pre-planning and brainstorming is often a step that many writers miss or forget. In your anxiety to just get started you might not realize that your writing will go a lot smoother and faster when you know what it is you are writing about. Funny how that works!

If you have been offered an essay prompt, or a specific topic or theme from your class, you already have a starting point. The visually inclined might want to use a word map or cloud, in which they write down the key word of the prompt in the center of a piece of paper and then jot down as many associated ideas, images, or thoughts as you can.

Another way of planning your narrative essay is to brainstorm out loud with your friends. You could also just write down a list of ideas, remembering never to censor yourself at this stage. Now is when you want the ideas to flow freely. Later you can edit yourself.

Because a narrative essay involves a story, you will be asked to think about the past. This could bring up some painful memories for some people. If so, consider whether those memories should be included in your narrative essay to add the honesty and depth of emotion that your reader expects, or whether you do not feel comfortable sharing. You should never share a story that you do not want to share.

After some time, you will settle on the story you want to write about. This story should have a strong protagonist (you). If you are writing a personal narrative, the essay should also have a main conflict, such as an antagonist or a challenge or obstacle that you needed to overcome. Finally, you will relay information about how you overcame that challenge.

If you are writing a literacy narrative, you will focus less on the conflict and more on the central motif: what motivates you to write, or what stories have you read that have motivated or influenced you?

If you are writing a reflective narrative, you will also remain focused on the main idea or topic of reflection when telling a story about how an incident in your life exemplifies that issue.

Before proceeding to the next stage, just ask yourself if the story fits the prompt, or has a strong enough plot and theme to become a full essay. If you are satisfied that your story idea is the right one, then it’s time to take a break and then move on to the next step: outlining.

2. Outlining

When you outline for other types of essay like an expository essay, you have a relatively rigid structure to follow. This is not necessarily the case with a narrative essay. A narrative essay might not have the typical introduction, body, and conclusion that you are used to in the five-paragraph essay format. Yet when you write a narrative essay, you will see that even your story outline ends up resembling the basic introduction-body-conclusion format.

To outline a narrative essay, remember that the way you tell your story might not be linear at all and yet you still need to have a main idea guiding your writing. Write your thesis down. Then outline the sequence of events that best explains your narrative.

In other words, first sketch the story. Your story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. It could be chronological. With a beginning, a middle, and an end, your outline does start to resemble more the outline of a five paragraph essay. A clear plot structure with beginning, middle, and end helps keep you focused when you write, even if you end up deviating from this rigid structure to tell a better story.

3. Rough Draft

Now it’s time to get your hands dirty. With a cup of coffee or tea in hand, just start at the start. Do not worry too much about grammar or even phrasing at this point. Just allow your brain to write your story in your own voice. Do not hold back, because the goal of the narrative essay is to get personal. If you think too much, you will miss the point of the narrative essay.

4. Filling in the Details

This is where the narrative essay gets fun. You wrote a rough draft with the beginning, middle, and end. Now you need to make the story come alive. When you were writing, did you suddenly remember little details? Often when writing a narrative essay, small details come to mind, such as the clothes you were wearing that day, or the sound of your father’s voice telling you to try harder. You can insert those details in the appropriate places now.

5. Polishing

Every good narrative essay has been polished to a sheen. Check the grammar and spelling. Ask a friend to read over the essay, because a fresh pair of eyes often catches mistakes that you miss.

Narrative Essay Format

A narrative essay does not have the same format as other types of essay. This does not mean a narrative essay lacks structure. Remember, a good narrative essay has a strong thesis statement. It can also have an introduction, a body, and a conclusion.

Some narrative essays will be formatted chronologically. Others will be formatted in a less linear way. Each narrative essay you write will be different.


Think about your favorite novel. It starts with an image, or a description of a person, right? The same is true for your narrative essay. With a narrative essay you are supposed to “Get right to the action!” All your essays ideally have strong opening sentences that grab the reader’s attention, but in the narrative essay, you begin with imagery that evokes the senses. You can use dialogue if you wish.

Here is the biggest secret to writing a good narrative essay (shhhhh....)

By the end of the introduction, your reader should know the protagonist of the story (you), and what challenges you will face and overcome.


The substantive portion of your narrative essay, the body remains fluid and literary without straying too far from the main idea or thesis. You want to tell a story, so you do not want to use topic sentences. In fact, you want to use dialogue and rich description, leading your reader to a better understanding of who you are.


“The End.” When you finish your narrative essay, your reader ideally feels a sense of closure. The conflicts have been resolved. You explained your purpose of telling an illustrative story, and you proved your thesis through personal anecdotal evidence.

At this point it will help to show you an example of a narrative essay outline, as well as a few ideas for topics.

Narrative Essay Outline

I. Introduction

Start with striking imagery or shocking dialogue. Alternatively, come right out and say why this story you are about to tell illustrates the core concepts of the course, or your journey as a writer.

II. Body

Tell the story. Some stories start at the beginning and move chronologically forward. Others start at the end, then tell the reader how you got there. Or you could start right in the middle, in media res.

III. Conclusion

And that’s the end of that story. When your essay draws to a close, the reader will feel a sense of satisfaction. You learned your lesson, or explained how what you went through made you a better leader. You fulfilled the purpose of writing your story.

Narrative Essay Outline Example

I. Introduction

The crowd below cheered me on. “Go on! Only a few more feet to go!” Yet just as I was about to congratulate myself, my left foot slipped. I grasped the side of the cliff was best I could, but I was dangerously close to falling a hundred feet down. I was surely going to die. That was when my grandmother’s words suddenly echoed in my head. “Breathe. No matter what, always remember to breathe.”

II. Body

Eventually I did reach the top of the cliff. When I did, I relished in the sounds of the crowd below clapping. Soaking in the warmth of the sun on my skin, I paused again to take a breath. I thanked my grandmother silently, closing my eyes. When I did, the sound of sweet birdsong accompanied the peaceful thoughts in my head. Now what? I made it to the top of the cliff, but had I really proven anything? This sudden wave of self-doubt gripped me, and that was when I realized I needed to go back to school.

III. Conclusion

By focusing my attention on my breath, I have been able to master my reactions in tense and troubling situations. Rock climbing has taught me a lot about timing, patience, and trust.

Narrative Essay Topics

  • The first time you were publically embarrassed or humiliated.
  • Describe how your role model influenced you or encouraged you to move past self-doubt and other hurdles.
  • A narrative essay on your personal musical journey, either as a player or as a listener.
  • Tell a story about your favorite food, where it came from and how it ended up on your plate.
  • Where did you travel to last?
  • Describe the last time you had a conflict with someone. How did you resolve the conflict, or fail to resolve it? What did you learn?
  • When have you demonstrated good leadership?
  • Is there a situation in which you failed to demonstrate good leadership? If so, retell the story as if you acted like your ideal self.
  • Describe how you overcame some limitation, frustration, or challenge.
  • Have you ever experienced discrimination or harassment? If so describe one specific situation and the impact that event had on your personality, identity, or outlook on life.
  • Have you ever been a bully? If so, describe now why you believe you acted in this way.
  • When in your life were you most afraid, and why?
  • Where and when did you first start contemplating death and the afterlife? Have your views changed since then?
  • Describe a time where you felt a sense of awe or wonder in nature.
  • What are you most passionate about and why?
  • Have you ever lost a loved one? If so, describe the impact that death had on yourself. If not, imagine what it would be like to lose someone close to you.
  • Explain a time you had to work harder than everyone else just to achieve the same goal. How did it make you feel, and what did you learn?
  • Which film or novel has influenced you the most, and why?
  • Explain the evolution of your personal worldview
  • Describe the first time you felt left out of a group or a social event. How does being an outsider impact your perception of yourself and your social world?
  • Tell the story of a failed relationship you had.
  • Talk about how you dealt with an ethical dilemma in your workplace.
  • Describe your dream vacation, as if you are already there.
  • Have you ever done something you were ashamed of?
  • What thing do you regret most?


Do you feel more confident now about how to write a narrative essay? Good. Most people do like talking about themselves, which is why a narrative essay is often one of the easiest assignments you will have. Yet writing a narrative essay well does take practice. The more you write narrative essays, the better you will get at telling a story.

Another good way to improve your narrative essay chops is by reading more. Reading your favorite authors can inspire you to tell stories like they do, using vivid language and imagery, as well as punchy dialogue. If you ever need help with your narrative essay, do not hesitate to call a writing tutor!

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