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How to Write a Narrative Essay: The Only Guide You Need

In this article, you’ll learn how to write a narrative essay.

In fact:

The meaningful strategies, unique templates, and specific tips from this ultimate guide help college students write high-quality narratives. After reading it, you’ll have all the instruments you need to craft engaging stories in your academic papers.

So, let’s get to work.

Narrative: The Basics

What is a narrative essay?

  • A narrative essay is a short academic paper telling a non-fiction story based on a student’s experience. Compared to other essays, this one is less formal. However, it still requires a storytelling format with all the characteristics and elements of narrative writing.

The above narrative essay definition comes from our professional essay writer with ten years of experience in storytelling. He’s also shared details about a narrative’s elements, which you’ll see below.

“I’ve been in the field of essay writing for a decade, and I do know how challenging it can be for students to structure a personal story, especially with specific formatting rules assigned. So, I’ve gathered all the basics of narrative writing and explained them in simple words and with examples. If you’re still confused or in doubt, don’t hesitate to ask us for additional help.”


First, it’s critical to understand the difference between a story and a narrative. That’s when you might hit a snag:

A narrative isn’t a story itself, but how you present that story to readers. In plain English, it’s a particular format you use to build your text.

Story Components

Let’s say you describe events in chronological order; that’s one narrative. Then, you decide to shuffle the events to make your story non-chronological. That will be another narrative BUT the same story, even if it’s being told backwards.

That’s why we call our described essay “narrative”; it requires a particular way of telling a story. A student includes the storytelling elements in their essay but also follows the structure of an academic paper.

Remember that when choosing a topic and format for your assigned paper in school.

Narrative essay characteristics:

  • Non-fictional
  • Written in the 1st person (using “I” or “we”)
  • Informal tone
  • Presents events in chronological order
  • Informs, without arguing or teaching anything
  • Includes storytelling elements but follows the structure of a standard essay


For your essay to become a narrative, it needs five elements:

  1. Characters: A protagonist (you) and supporting characters (friends, teachers, etc.) to drive your story
  2. Setting: A location and time (when and where the story takes place)
  3. Plot: A chain of events happening in the story
  4. Conflict: A problem the protagonist (i.e., you) resolves
  5. Theme: A moral of your story

In classical storytelling, the path a protagonist travels is known as the “hero’s journey”:

The Hero's Journey by Joseph Campbell

A hero gets a call to adventure, sets off on a journey, meets obstacles, deals with conflicts, and returns home with a reward (a learned lesson).

The creator of this concept was the mythologist Joseph Campbell. He described the hero’s journey in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Another work to check out if you want to learn storytelling tricks is Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey. Vogler is a Disney screenwriter, so get ready to uncover the secrets behind the creation of your favorite movie and cartoon characters!

movie and cartoon characters

When writing a narrative essay, you’ll combine all of the above elements into a compelling writing piece. The structure all authors know as a “narrative arc” will help here.

Types: Personal Narrative Essay and Co.

When in college, you’ll deal with two types of narratives:

  1. Personal narratives. Focus on your personality, experiences, emotions, and reflections.
  2. Descriptive narratives. Focus on other characters and places, i.e., the story itself — you should avoid emotions or reflections here.
Personal narrative essay
  1. Literacy
  2. Viewpoint
  • Narrate (tell about your experience)
  • Write in the 1st person
Descriptive narrative essay
  1. Historical (memoir)
  2. Fictional
  • Describe (a person, a place)
  • Write in the 1st or 3rd person

Personal narratives come in two forms: literacy and viewpoint.

  • Literacy narratives are about experiences (meeting a person, reading a book, etc.) and how they influenced your life. You can also try this when writing a college application essay.
  • Viewpoint narratives are about a character’s (your) inner world and reflections.

Descriptive narratives take two forms, too: historical and fictional.

  • As a student, you may need to write historicals about a specific period in your life, aka memoirs.
  • Fiction narratives are made-up stories in books or movies (sci-fi, thrillers, romance, etc.). They aren’t about narrative essays you write in class.

We know what you are thinking:

“Sounds great, but how do I combine all this in an A-worthy college paper?”

How to Write a Narrative Essay: 5 Steps

  1. Choose a topic
  2. Craft a structure
  3. Create an outline
  4. Write a draft
  5. Proofread and edit

And now (finally!), to the most intriguing part:

How to Write a Narrative Essay

Below is your practical guide on how to write a narrative essay step by step.

1. Choose a topic

Sure, a teacher can prescribe a particular prompt for your paper. However, students often choose a narrative essay topic themselves. For your future story to succeed, ensure that your topic meets the following criteria:

  1. It’s meaningful to you.
  2. It resonates with your personality.
  3. It’s thought-provoking and disturbing for society.
  4. It relates to a specific moment or experience in your life.
  5. It’s potentially interesting for your target audience. (Think of something that’s relevant to the course material you’ve been taught and that will be informative to those reading your paper.)

Below is the list of niches you could consider:

Narrative Essay Topics Niches to Choose From

Organize a brainstorming session to think about what to tell in your narrative (1). Try a freewriting technique to boost inspiration: Write down all the ideas that come to your mind and then choose one to share with the world. Answer the question: “What message would I like to communicate in my essay?”

Remember that your narrative essay is not only about entertaining the readers with your story. It’s also about conveying a moral (a lesson) to them.

Tip: Choose topics that sound echoic to your interests. Your ability to turn a topic into an informative and emotional story depends on how much it resonates with you.

Do you need to see several narrative essay topics to understand the principle of choosing one for your paper?

We’ve got some narrative essay ideas. They can also serve as topics for a personal narrative essay:

Narrative Essay Topic Ideas

2. Craft a structure

Remember how we discussed the storytelling elements your essay should have to become a narrative? (See above.) Now, it’s time to combine them into a compelling writing piece.

Given that you’ll need to present story events in chronological order, a classic narrative arc can help here:

A Narrative Arc

image source: Oregon State University

  1. Exposition: The introduction of your essay, aka your story’s setting
  2. Rising action (journey and discovery): The first body paragraph, aka the trigger leading to conflict
  3. Climax (crisis and confrontation): The second body paragraph describing the main event of your story, aka the conflict (you face the truth, you have to make a choice, etc.)
  4. Falling action: The third paragraph, aka the conflict resolution (the result of the main event from the previous section)
  5. Resolution: The conclusion, aka the theme or moral of your story

In plain English, a narrative arc is the sequence of the events in your story. Organize them beforehand to save time and ensure that you get all the required elements in your essay when writing a draft.

Below is a narrative essay structure you can use when planning your papers. As you can see, it includes all the storytelling elements yet follows the strict rules of academic writing.

Narrative Essay Structure

3. Create an outline

The structure looks spooky, huh?

Well, such is a narrative essay format. That’s why it would help if you crafted an outline before writing to make sure that every paragraph is in its proper place.

A narrative essay outline is a plan for your paper. There, you note down what you’ll include in each paragraph. Thus, you’ll get all the details and ensure that your story looks cohesive and compelling.

What to include in an outline? Keep reading to get a template and see an example.

4. Write a draft

Now, it’s time to write your narrative essay. Follow the outline and start crafting each paragraph step by step. Stick to the narrative arc, but remember that you are writing an academic paper, not a fictional story.

Operate within the structure of a standard college essay. Organize your narrative like this:

  1. Introduction: A paragraph with a hook, a story’s background, and a thesis
  2. Body: Three or four paragraphs where you’ll describe the events, climax (conflict), and resolution
  3. Conclusion: A final paragraph with your thesis restatement, the moral of your story (reflection), and a call to action for the reader

5. Proofread and edit

Please don’t rush to submit your draft for the teacher’s review once it’s ready. First, reread it several times to ensure that:

  • It has a logical structure and all the necessary narrative elements.
  • You’ve formatted it according to the rules of academic writing.
  • It’s free of spelling, grammar, and punctuation mistakes.

Tip: Edit your essay the day after you’ve written it. It will help you see it with “fresh eyes” and notice tiny errors you’d miss if you read it when tired.

Narrative Essay Outline: Template and Example

Of all the strategies and tips on how to write a narrative essay, its outline’s creation remains the most essential to know:

Craft a detailed plan for your narrative before writing — and you’ll see if your story is cohesive, complete, and compelling. Outlining allows you to evaluate the clarity of your topic, statements, and storyline, re-organizing and reinforcing them with supporting details if necessary.

Below is a narrative essay outline template for you to consider. Once you make notes on each point, it will be easier (and faster!) for you to write your essay.

Narrative Essay Outline

Let’s clarify every point:

What’s in the introduction?

  • Hook. It’s an attention-grabber to encourage the audience to read your story. Think of a wowing fact, an intriguing question, or a thought-provoking statement.
  • Background. Here is a brief context (setting) for your story.
  • Thesis. It’s a claim with your story’s main point.

Now that you know how to write a narrative essay introduction, we move on.

What’s in the body?

  • Event(s). The initial situation. What happened?
  • Turning point. The moment you realized the situation was significant and noticed the shift in your perspective.
  • Climax. The peak of your story, i.e., the most transformative part of your described experience.
  • Resolution. Your response to the climax. How did you resolve the situation, and what was the immediate aftermath?

What’s in the conclusion?

  • Thesis restatement. Summarize the claim you made in the introduction. How does your story support it? What lessons did you learn?
  • Moral. Reflect on those lessons, offering the insights gained. Why should readers care?
  • Final words. It’s your message for the audience: a call to action, some food for thought, etc.

Here’s an example of a narrative outline to help you understand what to write there. (We bet you’ll guess the story we used for it!)

Topic: The moment that changed my life forever
Me, revealing strength and chasing a dream in the ocean.


An old Cuban fisherman going to the ocean and struggling with a marlin.

This fishing trip changed my view of life and left marks on my soul.

I get a giant marlin and try to hold onto the line, hoping for a good catch.

Turning point:
Realizing its size, I understand it will be a battle testing my strength and endurance.

Sharks suddenly appear to hunt for my marlin, so I have to fight against them to save my prey. I realize the truth about how cruel nature is, and it looks like a symbol of life’s challenges for me.

I return home with nothing but the bare bones of my marlin. Despite the fact that I’m exhausted and with no prey, I still see it as a victory of the human spirit.

Thesis restatement:
That battle with sea creatures taught me a lesson: The human spirit is resilient, and it reflects our ongoing struggle to find life’s meaning.

It’s always worth chasing a dream, even when things seem hopeless.

Final words:

Let it be your guiding light of resilience and encourage you to not be afraid of dealing with the “marlins” on your way.

How to Write a Personal Narrative Essay

Personal essays are about your experiences and emotions. You are the hero here, so structure and outline your story accordingly. Also, don’t hesitate to add other characters and dialogues to your essay. They’ll help readers understand your motivations and deeds better.

That’s how to write a personal narrative essay:

  • Write it in the 1st person.
  • Follow the format: Ensure that you include all the storytelling elements.
  • Don’t tell but show: Use descriptive language that helps readers “see” your story.
  • Ensure that your essay has a conflict.
  • Describe everything in chronological order.
  • Specify the moral: What do you want to say? What did you learn from the story that happened to you?
  • Write about real-life events and experiences. Narrative essays aren’t fictional stories.

How to Write a Good Narrative Essay

Now, this is important:

How to start a narrative essay?

Start it with a compelling essay hook to impress readers and grab their attention:

  • Ask a provocative question.
  • Write an intriguing yet relevant quote.
  • Think of some engaging statement to evoke curiosity.

Get inspired by the opening lines of your favorite books. Here are several examples:

5 Opening Lines from Popular Books Worth Reading

How to write a good narrative essay:

  • Say no to slang and formal language.
  • Choose descriptive and sensory words to evoke emotions.
  • Add details: Tell about what you saw and heard, how it smelled, what you felt, etc.
  • Use active voice to describe actions.
  • Add dialogues if appropriate.
  • Don’t write in the 2nd person (“you”).
  • Follow the narrative arc but put it in the standard essay structure.

Final Tips on How to Write a Narrative Essay

To those craving more strategies and insights on how to write a narrative essay, keep reading:

Below are some extra tips for you on how to write a narrative essay.

Five Extra Tips on How to Write a Narrative Essay

  1. Write about a specific moment or experience. Don’t describe every tiny movement of your character; focus on those moving the plot forward.
  2. Avoid redundant -ly adverbs like “very,” “really,” “truly,” etc. Think of solid verbs instead; use a thesaurus for more attractive words in your narrative.
  3. If you are stuck on choosing a topic, try books or check other writing prompts for inspiration.
  4. Try experimenting with perspectives. For example, you can describe the event from a supporting character’s view. (Write it in the 3rd person, if so.)
  5. When writing a personal narrative essay, it’s okay to make it less formal than a standard academic paper. You can skip formatting it in MLA, APA, or another citation style. Be creative.

Still Need Help With Your Essay?

Now that you know how to write a narrative essay, it’s time to practice:

  • Choose a meaningful topic that resonates with your personality.
  • Write an outline, placing all the narrative elements according to the rules of academic writing.
  • Tell your story, and remember to edit it for better clarity before sharing it with the audience.

Still looking for ‘write my essay‘ helpers in Google? Your search is over: Our experts are ready to assist with every pitfall you may have on your way to flawless essay writing. Just ask.

Photo by Timothy L Brock from Unsplash

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