Important questions before you begin your personal narrative essay
1. What event or circumstance in your life has led to some result, consequence, or lesson learned and what is the reason that you want to talk about this event?
2. Who are the agents of your story? Who are your main “characters”?
3. What point of view would you like to tell the story from?
4. What images come to mind of when you think about this event?
5. What can someone else learn from reading this story? Does it cause people to question assumptions they may already have about themselves or a subject?
Writing Our Introductory Paragraphs
Your first paragraph should announce the direction/tone of your essay and often determines whether or not a reader will choose to continue with reading the essay. Try to give the reader an idea of the subject matter–there is no single approach to doing this, however there are methods.
A few great ways to begin your personal narrative are:
-Using dialogue to put the reader directly into the action,
Ex) “I can’t put it out!” Concetta screamed, as I looked back into the kitchen to see the grill covered in flames so high that they were licking the exhaust vents. I immediately grabbed a container of salt and rushed back to throw it on the fire.
-Describing a significant image,
Ex) Her candy dish was made of hard, faceted crystal with roses cut into the front and back. The lid’s design was four clear stalks sporting raised thorns leading to the knob on top that looked like a Russian dome or the unopened bud of a flower. Old Mrs. Florence has been gone for many years, but the one relic of her’s I have left always sits on my desk filled with hundreds of the tiny Red Hots she loved so much.
-With a narrator,
Ex) All the country songs ever have to say about living in a small town is that everyone wants to get out. Well I never felt that way, in fact I liked my small school and small community with its small main drag—everything was always just where I left it and just how I expected it to be. Yet, right before I turned sixteen my parents sat me down to tell me that we would be leaving the rural, American life I had always known for a much, much different place: Montreal, Canada. I was not happy.
Traveling Through Your Story
As you move into the body paragraphs of your narrative there are certain elements of your story that you should keep in mind, primarily theme and focus. These parts of the narrative are essential because they are basically “the point” of the entire story.
Theme is the main point or implication of the story. The author usually says or implies a theme about the subject. The theme of an essay should be obvious to any careful reader without need of an outside explanation from the author. In a way, theme is the “subtle thesis” of our narratives that develops throughout the beginning, middle, and end of the story.
Theme is sometimes confused with focus.
The focus of an essay or story is the primary subject matter. The focus is typically directed toward a person, place, or event. You may want to begin writing your essay without knowledge of what your theme is, but your focus is typically something you consider from the start.
Some additional rhetorical tools that you can use throughout your narrative are:
Addressing the Reader: When you immediately involve the reader you are creating a connection and avenue of empathy right from the start. This rhetorical tool asks the reader to consider their own feelings, and thus encourages them to continue reading.
Ex)“You never know for sure how you will act in an emergency until you are caught in a burning building.”
Ambivalence: the melding of two apparently contradictory emotions. By doing this you create a kind of lament, but stay clear of sentimentality.
Ex) “My sister was one of the most bossy, obnoxious brats I have ever known. I miss her terribly.”
Dramatic question: The dramatic question is a central part of any story, but is not directly in the story—it is in the audience’s mind. It is what keeps them in their seats. The audience may not be consciously thinking the question aloud but it compels them nonetheless to stay and watch the rest of the story unfold. Giving the reader clues about a story without outright telling them everything creates a dramatic question. For example, in the quote below the reader is left wondering, “Who exactly is the narrator and how did s/he get that way?”
Ex) My old neighborhood may look like any city slum to outsiders, but every time I go back I feel a sense of renewal. It reminds me of who I am.
Many writers have trouble bringing an essay to its conclusion. Often conclusions are thought of in an academic fashion with a formula that is often a repetitive overview of everything the essay has already stated. Yet when drafting a personal narrative the concluding paragraph does not necessarily have to recap all that was discussed in the essay. In fact, many narrative conclusions do not offer readers the “key” or answer to the dilemmas that were discussed throughout the essay, and instead leave the reader with something to think about.
This can be done in a way very similar to the opening paragraph through image, dialogue, or narration. The difference being that in your conclusion these choices are reflective of your theme and hint at what “lesson” or conclusion you have reached about the subject. Most people find problems with forming a conclusion because they are unsure of what they have written. You should not have to be overly explanatory. Keep it simple and keep it relevant. Select a detail from the essay itself to focus on rather than attempting to abstractly summarize.
One tactic is to end with a moment of action that implies a mood or decision. This is great because it allows the reader to arrive at the theme through your experience and on your terms yet without direct narration which can feel stale and give the impression of a condescending attitude.