How to Write a Narrative Essay

Narrative Essay
Writing Guide

For most people, the thought of writing a narrative essay is one of the scariest things they might ever have to do. They sit there, staring at the blank page and struggle come up with a single word.

Their thoughts escape them and instead of actually sitting down in front of the computer and getting started, they procrastinate and find a myriad of other things that they would rather do than face the keyboard.

But writing an essay doesn’t have to be like that. Armed with the proper skills, you’ll be able to tell your story in a compelling way that will hit its mark every time. Your essays will stand out from the rest as unique and thoughtful.

Here’s the thing; essays are not like speaking. We’ve had lots of practice in expressing ourselves with words. Chances are, you started practicing speaking before you could walk, but not so with writing. Narrative writing is a whole new skill, one that takes lots of practice to get right. But there’s no need to panic, freak out, or avoid it. By learning just a few basics, you will see major improvements in writing almost immediately.

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What Is a Narrative Essay?

Let’s start at the beginning. Aside from putting words on a page, it helps to understand exactly what a narrative essay is. This will help you to focus on the message you want to get across in your paper. In short, your assignment is to tell a true story about something that has happened to you. Your goal is to make the story sound like a book of fiction. So, think of your favorite author and how he or she pulled you into the story and captured your attention.

That might sound like a major challenge but it doesn’t have to be. By following just a few basic guidelines, you can write a quality essay with little or no worry. With enough practice, you’ll be writing like you were sending a message to an old friend.

Step 1 - Define Your Qualities

Every person is unique so before you put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, you need to identify some characteristics that make you different. Give this some thought first. Don’t just write down that I am funny or I am a hard working. That really doesn’t tell much about the person you are inside. Think deeply about this and come up with some interesting words that would best describe you. You might even try to ask some of your friends to describe you in one word. You’d be surprised at what you’ll learn. When you’ve listed five, you’re ready to move on to the next step.


  • creative
  • diligent
  • serious
  • adventurous
  • studious

Once you have chosen your five, think back through your life and find an experience that showcased that skill. Jot down just a few notes. Did you show that quality? Did you learn it? Or was it tested that day? Do this with all five of your qualities and then choose the one you think sells it the best. Guess what? You now have your essay topic.

Here’s an example


"I remember the time my next door neighbor’s house caught on fire. It was fully engulfed in flames before anyone even realized it. Without thinking, I ran outside with the hose and …"

At this point, it doesn’t have to be perfect, you just want to get your thoughts down on paper. You can clean it up later. Your story doesn’t have to make big grandiose claims, the more humble it is, the more appealing it will be to the reader.

Step 2 - Add Some Heat

Ever wonder how professional readers grab your attention? This is because one of the first things they do is introduce a problem, then you are pulled into the story because you want to see how they solve it. You need to do the same thing with your essay.

Your introduction should begin with a short synopsis of your story, introducing the problem. Then you will continue with the body of your essay detailing exactly how you dealt with the situation and concluding with what you learned through the whole experience.


Problem: experiencing a new culture

You grew up and spent your entire life living within the confines of your community. Then you got a chance to travel to China to study for a summer. It was difficult because no one there could relate to you and your experiences. They spoke differently, the food was different, even their tastes in clothes were different. There, you were the odd one out.

Lesson Learned: You learned that it is you that should have to adapt and not the other way around. Eventually, when you realized that all cultures are different and each of them had their own good qualities and bad, you were able to see things differently. In the end, you made new friends that will remain with you for the rest of your life.

Narrative essay writing

Step 3 - Introduce the Unexpected

Your story will paint a pretty clear picture of you. The reader will automatically begin to formulate an idea in his or her mind based on the quality you introduced and how you handled the problem. Now, is the time to keep them interested by introducing something they aren’t expecting. Perhaps you can introduce a hobby or personal interest that seems contrary to the quality you’re writing about.

Maybe you are a consummate pianist but your secret passion is the study of the sciences. Perhaps you’re extremely shy but you desperately want to be a movie star. Adding the twist at precisely the right moment could be the one thing that keeps the reader turning the page so that he can find out exactly how you are going to balance the two.

Step 4 - Be Descriptive

As you tell your story, it is important to paint a picture. You don’t want to see you were nervous as you stepped off the plane but you want to say something like, your palms were sweating as you tried to maneuver the cart bearing all your luggage through the standing room only crowd. Your story should not just answer the 5 Ws (who, what, when, where, and why) but it should also make the reader feel something. Bring in the 5 senses with it so the reader can smell what you smelled, taste what you tasted, see what you saw and so on.

Step 5 - Conclude

As you wrap up your story, make sure that you bring the reader to the present day and time. You need to finish not in the past but with how that experience brought you to where you are today. You want the reader to know how that experience has brought you to the point where you are now and how you plan to use it to enhance your life moving forward.

Learning to write a narrative essay doesn’t have to be complicated. Just remember to keep it simple. The use of big, words gives the appearance of bragging or boasting about your accomplishments. Just write in every day speech as if you were telling the story to an old friend and your writing will feel and sound as natural as your experience had been.

Finally, when you finish, make sure you go back and fine-tune it so that you have corrected all of your grammar, spelling, and punctuation mistakes. You may struggle with it the first few times around but soon, you’ll get the hang of it and you’ll be able to write some very impressive narrative essays that you will be very proud of.

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