How To Write a Narrative Essay in 5 Steps (With Definition)

Updated July 31, 2023

As a student in high school or college, you may write essays to articulate your thoughts about a specific subject. One type is a narrative essay, where you convey your personal experiences and personality traits in a standard format on a document. Understanding how to respond to a topic and deliver a narrative about yourself can enable you to meet the readers' expectations and engage them with your storytelling. In this article, we define a narrative essay, describe occasions when you may write one and list the steps that can help you format and write your own.

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What is a narrative essay?

A narrative essay is a five-paragraph document that tells a story about your own life. You're the narrator who recalls a past experience or discusses your plans for the future. The story may also describe a hypothetical scenario. The purpose of a narrative essay is to offer insight into who you are and what values and characteristics you embody. It can also demonstrate your writing skills, which may include formatting, sentence structure and word variety, and it can emphasize your ability to engage readers while providing personal details.

In academic settings, you may write and submit a narrative essay. Here are examples of occasions when it may be appropriate to discuss your life experiences in writing:

  • Fulfilling a class assignment: In composition courses, such as English, the instructor may deliver a narrative essay assignment to a specific prompt. Students may receive a letter grade for their work and feedback on how they can improve their written communication skills.

  • Winning an award: Faculty members may require nominees to turn in a narrative essay that explains why they're eligible to receive an award, which contributes to the school's decision. For example, for a Student of the Year award, administrators may nominate high school seniors with the highest GPA and select one who writes the most impactful narrative essay about what education means to them.

  • Applying for college: Besides standardized test scores and school transcripts, colleges and universities may ask prospective students to author a narrative essay during the application process. For instance, the prompt may request five paragraphs that explain why the student is pursuing a bachelor's or advanced degree and which industries they plan to enter once they graduate.

Read more: How To Write a "Why This College" Essay in 6 Steps

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How to write a narrative essay

Follow these steps to develop ideas for a narrative and translate them into your essay:

1. Choose a topic

The first step is to decide what you want your narrative essay to discuss. Choose a topic that can deliver a story that reflects positively on you as a student or candidate. For example, if a scholarship committee allows you to pick your own topic, then you can choose an area that can highlight your academic achievements or commitment to community service. Think about what areas may interest your readers, which can help you develop an engaging story. Consider narrowing your topic to meet the length specifications of the assignment.

An instructor may also assign a topic to you, so brainstorm about which of your life experiences is most applicable to the prompt. For instance, if the directions instruct you to write about a time when you learned something new, then you can recall a moment that was most impactful for you that has enough details to consume five paragraphs.

2. Create an outline

The second step is to create an outline that determines how you tell your story. After you've discovered your topic, designate a paragraph to discuss key points. The outline can make it easier for you to elaborate on your layout and finish the narrative essay, especially since it contains multiple paragraphs. For example, if you're recalling a time when you overcame a challenge, your outline may direct you to provide background information in the second paragraph, describe your perseverance in the third and fourth paragraphs and discuss the significance of what you learned in the conclusion.

Read more: What Is an Essay Structure (With Types and Tips)

3. Write in first-person

Since a narrative essay is about you, it can be essential for you to write your words from your perspective. Use the first-person point of view, which includes pronouns such as "I," "me" and "we." Visualize how you tell the story if you're having an in-person conversation with someone about your topic. The reader can feel connected to your experiences, which can strengthen the impact of your story and make it more impressive. Consider including your inner thoughts and feelings to add greater detail and enable the reader to feel like they're experiencing the story with you.

Related: How To Start an Essay and Engage a Reader

4. Use creative language

The style of your storytelling can make the writing of your narrative essay more interesting. Avoid using the same words multiple times. Instead, use a thesaurus to find synonyms that can capture the readers' attention and better illustrate your points. For example, instead of saying that something was confusing, you can use "perplexing" or "bewildering." Simple words can enhance the readability of your writing. Find a balance that communicates your points clearly with enough creativity that enables readers to visualize your words.

Related: Types of Figurative Language (With Examples)

5. Proofread your writing

The final step is to make sure your narrative essay is free from errors. Consider taking a break and returning to the paper at a later time, which can help you be more alert and catch mistakes you may have overlooked otherwise. On your computer, you can use proofreading tools to identify and resolve spelling and grammatical issues. They may also notify you to change words to make your essay concise and easy to read. Check that your paragraphs have a maximum of five sentences and contemplate sending the draft of your essay to a mentor for a second opinion.

Frequently asked questions

What topics can you write about in a narrative essay?

There are many topics you can choose to discuss in your narrative essay. Use brainstorming techniques to identify some potential topics and select the one that interests you the most. Some topics you may consider while brainstorming include:

  • A memorable vacation or trip you've taken

  • Your happiest day

  • An event that taught you a lesson

  • A goal you've achieved

  • The day you met someone who changed your life

  • A loss you've experienced

  • A unique experience that's happened to you

How do you start a narrative essay?

Start your narrative essay with a strong opening statement to attract the reader's attention. Then, provide an overview of the narrative in a few sentences. End the first paragraph with a thesis statement to explain the main point of your essay.

How long is a narrative essay?

A narrative essay is usually at least five paragraphs. You can write one paragraph for the introduction, three body paragraphs and one for the conclusion. If you're submitting your essay for a school assignment, award or application, review the length requirements to ensure you follow them.

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