Anatomy of the Personal Narrative Essay

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Besides writing flash fiction, and working on my novel, I’ve been exploring personal essays. For those of you interested in writing essays and don’t want the frustration of college days, here are a few pointers I’ve learned along the way.

Narrative means a written account of connected events; a story. Written in first person and most often in the past tense, a narrative essay tells the story of an experience and the significance of that event to the writer.

Structure:  A personal essay includes three essential parts: 1) the opening statement or introduction. 2) Body of the essay, and 3) Conclusion.

1. Introduction:  Basic components of the introduction include: Opening statement, scene, and theme.

Opening: The opening is the hook and can consist of a statement of facts, a pertinent quote, or a question. A strong, engaging opening will entice the reader and keep them interested in what you have to say.

Scene: In order for the reader to stay engaged, every essay should include the three W’s: Who, what and where. Set the stage: Who are the characters? What happened and where did the event take place? In addition, clarify whether the story happened to you, someone you know or is fiction.

Theme: Essays can begin with the event itself: The crowd, waiting to board the train, pushed me over the edge of the platform.

Lessons learned: I will never stand close to the platform’s edge again.

How the experience changed your life: When waiting to ride the metro, I stay well behind the safety line, and ta the rowdy crowds of anxious passengers. 

Or to share something more universal: The metro is stressful and dangerous if you aren’t aware of your surroundings.

2. Body:
The body of the essay is where your story begins. Place the readers in your experience by using details and vivid descriptions; show don’t tell. Use all five senses, not just your sight. What sounds were amplified? What did you feel?

 I heard the screeching sound of metal on metal, felt the vibrations and tasted bile as I stumbled toward the edge. 

In other types of essays, corroborating evidence is needed to support your position. But, in a narrative essay, your experience is the supporting evidence. Your story and the lessons learned may be unique, but the events in your essay should support the significance of that experience to you.

The most common narrative format is from beginning to end: first, next and last or, in chronological order with new paragraphs showing a change in action. Either way, transition words are necessary to make sure the reader understands how the event occurred.

Transition words help connect not only the sequence of events, but also the end of one paragraph to the start of the next. Examples include: before, after, when, finally, suddenly and therefore.

Suddenly, the crowd surged, knocking me off-balance and I fell forward toward the tracks as the train entered the tunnel.

3. Conclusion:
Your story ends here by evaluating the event, its significance, how the experience changed you, and the universal message or the moral of the story you want to share.

A stranger saved me when he grabbed the strap of my handbag and pulled me to safety. After my near miss, I approached riding the metro with greater respect and caution. I focused on being aware of my surroundings, staying well behind the safety line, and mindful of other passengers.

The metro, although convenient, is a stressful and crowded form of transportation. Showing respect for others and their personal space reduces anxiety, aggression, and accidents.

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Want more information on writing essays, check out: Best of Essay Writing.

Writer’s Digest: How to Write a Reader Friendly Essay by Rachel Scheller ay

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