I hated writing personal narrative essays in school.

I cringed when teachers assigned a personal narrative essay. I couldn’t think of an interesting story about myself.  And even if I choose an interesting personal narrative story, I struggled with how to write about it.

But when I was in college that changed because I realized writing a personal narrative isn’t like writing any other kind of essay.  No, it’s writing a story.

And I love stories. 

A personal narrative is a story about yourself.   It’s the same as any other story: it has a beginning, middle, and end.   The difference is that It’s a story from your life.

There are 3 key things you need to know about writing a personal narrative essay:

  1. How to choose a personal narrative story.
  2. How to develop your personal narrative.
  3. How to write your personal narrative.

Choosing a Personal Narrative Essay Topic

There are 2 steps to choosing a good personal narrative essay topic.  The first is brainstorming stories from your life, and the second is evaluating the stories you list.

Brainstorming Choose a place where you can focus. Then answer these questions:

  • What are some significant stories from your life?
  • When did you face a challenge or obstacle in your life?
  • What are funny things that happened to you or funny things you did?
  • What stories are your most important memories?
  • What are some sad events and what are some happy events from your life?

List as many ideas as you can for each of these questions.  Don’t stop and erase any of your ideas.  You want as many as choices as possible.

Another way to discover a personal narrative essay topic is to select a writing prompt for personal narrative essays.    See this list for more personal narrative writing prompts:

Evaluating a personal narrative topic

Now that you have several ideas, decide which stories are most interesting to you. If your story isn’t interesting to you, it will be hard writing a story that’s interesting to your readers.

Once you’ve narrowed down your list, follow these steps to analyze your stories:

  1. Check to see if there is a beginning, middle, and end to each story. Does the middle of your story have one important moment or event in the story?  This important moment is called the climax of a story.  Which narrative essay topics have a climax?
  2. Go over your list and look for stories you remember well. What stories can you describe in detail?
  3. Consider whether a story is one you want to share with other people. If it makes you uncomfortable to have other people know about this event then select another personal narrative essay topic.
  4. Analyze your personal narrative essay ideas again and choose a story you really want to write about and share with other people.

Developing a Personal Narrative Essay: Planning vs. Pantsing

There are 2 ways to develop your personal narrative:  1) plan your story or 2) write your story by the “seat of your pants.”

Planning is where you figure out the things you want to include in your essay, and where you will include these things before writing.

Pantsing or “writing by the seat of your pants” is when you take a personal narrative essay topic and start writing about it from beginning to the end.  You don’t think about the things you want to include ahead of time.

Both planning and pantsing work for developing a personal narrative essay.  It’s just a matter of which you like better.

Planning your Personal Narrative Essay

Planning a personal narrative essay is like planning any other kind of story.  You plan a beginning, a middle and an end.  But for a personal narrative essay, you also include what you learned or realized because of this story.

List the order in which things occurred.  You can do this in a simple list or you could create a story outline.

  1. First, how did the story start? Here you want to include the setting of where your story began. Describe the first thing that happened.
  2. Second, list the things that happened next. These things lead up to your climax.  The climax is the most important part of your story.
  3. Third, how does the story end? The ending of your story is the resolution.  A resolution in a personal narrative lets your reader know the result of everything that happened.
  4. Add any important realization or thing you learned from the experience.

Pantsing a Personal Narrative Essay

You’ll hear many writers talk about “pantsing” or writing by the “seat of their pants.”  They mean that they don’t plan what they will write before they start writing.   This method works well for some people writing personal narrative essays.   But, it’s not a method I recommend for writing any other kind of essay.

If you are pantsing a personal narrative essay, write down your topic.  Select a starting point for your story.  Then write your story from beginning to end.

When you finish writing, go back and see if you have all the pieces of your story from beginning to end.

  • Where did you begin your story? What is the setting for your story (time and place)?  What is the first thing that happened?
  • What events happen that lead up to the most important moment of your story?
  • What is the climax of your story?
  • How does your story end?
  • What did you learn or realize?

Go back and add any missing pieces to your narrative essay.

Writing a Personal Narrative Essay

A good personal narrative essay describes what happened and how you felt.   It has a lot of vivid description, emotion, and sometimes dialogue.

Vivid Description: As you write your story try to add the five senses to your story.

What did you see?  What did you hear? What did you taste? What did you smell? What did you touch?

Not every story has all five senses it.  That’s fine.  Focus on describing the setting, characters, and actions in your story.  Use the senses that are most relevant to your story.

Emotion: In a personal narrative essay, readers want to feel a connection to what you felt.  If you were nervous or scared in the story then describe that.  Describe how you felt at different times during your story.

Dialogue: Can you add dialogue between yourself and another person?

Some stories only have one person, so it may not be possible to add dialogue.  But character dialogue can add excitement.  If you add dialogue choose important things people said.   Be careful not to have too much dialogue in your personal narrative essay.  Your readers want to see other kinds of action too.


Writing a personal narrative essay is fun when you know how to select a good personal story, and how to write about it.   So, when you write your next personal narrative essay keep in mind these three things:

  1. Brainstorm a lot of personal stories, and analyze them, so you can pick the best personal narrative topic.
  2. Develop your personal story so that you have a beginning, middle, and end.
  3. Add description, emotion and if relevant add some dialogue.

Writing Challenge: Writing Personal Narrative Essays

Choose your next narrative essay topic.  Decide how you will develop it.   Would you plan or write by the “seat of your pants”?

Oh, and can you do me a favor?  If this article helped you, please share it online.


P.S.  I love pantsing personal narratives.