Narrative Essay: Examples, Topics, and Outline

narrative essay
  • Published Date: April 14, 2017

The narrative essay can be one of the most exciting writing assignments for a student to receive.  Less rigid than many other types of writing, the narrative essay invites you to be creative and to step outside of the formulaic box of expository writing.  In fact, you may draw on personal experiences or stories that you have heard about other people, which can make writing a narrative essay simultaneously more and less challenging than other types of writing assignments.  You will often be freed from the traditional structure of more rigid essay types; however, this freedom can make it difficult to ensure that your essay is cohesive and well-organized.  It can also make it very difficult for a student to decide upon a topic.  As a result, many writers who are initially very excited about attempting a narrative essay find themselves challenged by the assignment, unsure how to begin, and uncertain how closely they need to follow academic conventions in order to write a successful narrative essay.

If you are having difficulties deciding how to approach your narrative essay, our professional writers and writing tutors can help you.  We sat down together to write this article, with the goal of providing you with tips you can follow to write an A+ essay.

Narrative Essay Definition

The narrative essay is an essay that allows students to deviate from the more formal requirements of essay writing and use story-telling devices to write their essay.  In fact, narrative essays are frequently written in a story format, though they can also be written in a more informative manner.  If a narrative essay is written in a story format, then the writer should be sure to include all elements of a traditional story in their essay: introduction, plot, characters, setting, climax and a conclusion.  However, these elements do not have to be labeled or highlighted, but can just be included parts of the story.

Personal Essay vs. Narrative Essay

The narrative essay is similar to the personal essay, but the two terms are not interchangeable.  A personal essay is any short autobiographical piece of writing.  Personal essays are meant to call upon the writer’s own personal experiences, and they may be broadly-based or they might ask the writer to respond to a specific prompt.  Personal essays are usually written as a way for the writer to sell the reader on them as a candidate.  Students usually encounter them in the context of admission essays or scholarship essays, but people may encounter them in a work-setting.  In addition, students may encounter personal essays in their academic life, especially in late high school years as they prepare for the college admissions process.  Personal essays allow the writer a degree of freedom, but are still generally formatted like a traditional essay with an introduction, body, and conclusion.  Personal essays are written from the first-person perspective, and often take a narrative format.

Likewise, the narrative essay is written in narrative form and can be from a first-person perspective.  However, not all narrative essays are written in the first-person and they do not all relate personal experiences.  The narrative can describe events that happened to another person, not the narrator.  They may even involve fictitious accounts, which are strongly discouraged in personal narratives.

Understanding the Essay Prompt

Many educators use the terms narrative essay and personal essay interchangeably.  It is, therefore, critical to your assignment that you understand what type of narrative essay you are expected to create.  This starts with a full reading of your assignment.  You would be surprised how many students only read the heading of an assignment instead of reading all of the details.

Narrative essays fall into the creative non-fiction genre, which allows a non-linear approach to writing.  Narrative essays do not have to be in a standard five-paragraph format.  However, a narrative essay, by definition, tells some type of story.  Therefore, it should have all of the elements of a story: introduction, plot, setting, characters, climax, and conclusion.  In other words, your narrative essay should be able to answer the “W” questions: who, what, when, where, and why?  It should also describe how those things are accomplished.

Of course, telling a story does not mean abandoning structure, and some professors will expect you to conform to fairly rigid structural conventions.  Therefore, before beginning your essay, you should be able to answer the following questions:

How long should my essay be?

Am I limited to a range of topics?

Am I limited to writing in the first-person, or can I take a second-person or third-person approach?

Do the events have to be absolutely true, as in an autobiography, or may I embellish, like in a memoir?

What academic style should I choose to write my essay?

Can I use outside sources in the essay?

If you are unable to answer any of those questions, ask your professor for more clarification to be certain that you understand the essay’s technical requirements.

While narrative essays can range across a wide variety of topics, they almost universally describe some type of growth or change.  What drove that growth or change should be the meat of the essay.  If you read the essay and say, “so what?” then you have not done enough to tell your reader what type of changes the event caused.

In addition, while narrative essays do not have to be in a standard five-paragraph format, there is a reason that the five-paragraph format remains an academic staple for essay-writing assignments: it works.  While the five-paragraph format generally has five paragraphs, it is not the length of the essay that is critical, but the format, itself.  The format is introduction, body, and conclusion.  In a five paragraph essay, the body is three paragraphs, but this can easily be expanded or contracted for a shorter or longer essay format.  The important part of the format is that the introduction not only introduces the topics, but also contains a preview of the information that you will cover in your body paragraphs.  The conclusion then recaps the information in the introduction, reinforcing what you discussed in your body paragraphs, and reiterating the main points of your essay.

Types of Narrative Essays

While it would be easier for writers if there was no overlap between different types of essays, the reality is that narrative essays may have different goals, causing an overlap with other types of essays.  In fact, all of the various essay types, the narrative essay may be the most fluid, which allows the writer a degree of discretion that is not available in most other forms of academic writing, but which also means that the writers will be without the same level of guidance that comes with other formats.

Most narrative essays will be in the personal narrative format, which means that they will be written in the first-person about things you personally did or experienced. We discussed the personal essay in greater depth above.   However, not all personal essays are going to fall into the personal narrative format. If your essays have overarching goals, they may also align with some of the other essay types: persuasive essays; expository essays; and argumentative essays.

Persuasive essays and argumentative essays are both written with a specific goal in mind: to persuade the reader to agree with the writer’s opinion or perspective on a particular topic.  Using the narrative format in a persuasive essay may require using anecdotes or stories to support your opinion, rather than relying solely on facts or figures.  However, if you are asked to write a persuasive narrative essay, keep in mind that you may need to bolster your story with objective facts and figures.  For example, if you were going to write a persuasive essay about why we should not treat prostitutes like criminals because many of them are victims of human trafficking forced into the sex trade, including a narrative story of a real-life human trafficking victim would be important, but would be strengthened by including estimates about the percentage of sex workers who are also trafficking victims.

Expository essays require investigating and expounding upon an idea.  They do not naturally lend themselves to the narrative format, but there are instances when a narrative format can help in an expository context.  To determine whether or not your assignment is for an expository essay, ask yourself whether your job as a writer is to try to get the reader to agree with your opinion or conclusion or whether it is simply to help the reader gain a greater understanding of a specific topic.  If your job is to help the reader gain a greater understanding of a topic, then your essay is an expository one.  You can employ the narrative structure to make obscure facts more personal, which is an effective way of helping a reader gain a greater understanding.  However, because personal stories do tend to be both compelling and persuasive, they might tend to make your expository essay read more like a persuasive or argumentative essay.

Narrative Essay Topics

We could compile a list of potential topics for you, but The New York Times has already compiled the best list of narrative essay topics that we have ever seen.  Their list of 500 narrative prompts covers a wide variety of genres including: childhood, coming of age, family, community and home, personality, overcoming adversity, gender and sexuality, morality and religion, role models, technology, the internet, social media, music, pop culture, reading and books, language and speech, school and teachers, school and social environment, work and careers, dating, sports, travel, fashion, food, holidays, and personal beliefs.  They even had a printable .pdf file of all of the prompts.  Even better, when you go to the website and click on the prompt, you are directed to a relevant source for the prompt.  It is an awesome site for those needing a little help picking an idea for a narrative essay, though, as a very well-known and well-respected source, you must be very careful to properly reference any material you pick up at the site.

If you want a topic that The New York Times has not covered, then you need to think about events either in your own personal life or in the lives of the people you know that are unique.  Those events make for great narrative essay topics, and, even when they are unique, can usually be related to broader themes that recur in literature and personal writing.  People often think of narratives as dwelling on things that are negative, because negative topics are often the ones that stick with people, but any type of unique occurrence can make a great topic for a narrative.  Moreover, even if an experience is one that other people have had, every person experiences things in a slightly different manner.  That means that ten people could write narrative essays about the same event and have ten completely different essays.


Once you have decided on your topic, you probably want to narrow it.  For any type of personal essay, we are big fans of the bubble map technique for brainstorming.  This technique is super simple: you write one word in the center of a page and then branch other words off from it in a form of written word-association.  These words are not going to form topic sentences or even supporting sentences for your essay.  They will, however, help you flesh out your feelings about a particular topic.

If you are not a fan of the bubble map, you can use any of your favorite brainstorming techniques to come up with ideas.  There is no right or wrong way to brainstorm; whatever helps encourage you to think about responses to your essay prompt is an effective brainstorming tool.

Thesis Statements

Your thesis sentence is more than your topic; it contains the main idea of your essay and a roadmap of how you intend to support that idea.  Therefore, it not only informs the reader of what you intend to prove, but also foreshadows how you will support your assertions. If you want to understand how to put a thesis statement together, this online thesis sentence generator can help you understand the interplay of your topic with your supporting reasons.  In narrative writing, thesis sentences can also serve as a hook to get the reader more interested in the text of the story.

-I knew my death was inevitable, but I knew it was not going to happen at the hands of that man, that day.

-Watching the mangy, scabby dog as she skittered away from the people attempting to rescue her, I never would have imagined that she would up a gorgeous, happy dog who tries to befriend everyone.

-Many people wonder whether ghosts are real; I know they are because on April 14, 2004 I saw a ghost.

Narrative Essay Sources

In general, narrative essays are not going to contain many third-party sources.  However, you may find yourself in need of a third-party source in order to provide evidence of a fact or figure that you use in your essay.  When you do use sources, you want to make sure that they meet the general guidelines for academic sources.  Ideally, they should be current sources (no more than 3 years old, when possible), from reputable sources such as academic publications, newspapers, magazines, and .org or .com websites. In addition, you will want to determine whether the sources are reliable and whether they are biased or impartial.

Furthermore, if your narrative is describing an event in someone else’s life, you may need to determine whether or not you need to provide citations to sources.  How did you find out about that person’s life?  Did you have to interview that person or rely on any third-party sources for information?  If so, then you need to provide citations to those sources.  In contrast, if you learned about the narrative through your own personal experiences and observations, then you do not have to provide citations.

One of the most frequent questions we get from students is whether they can use Wikipedia.  Our answer is a qualified “yes.”  Wikipedia is a great source for information if you need to understand a topic; they provide wonderful overviews of information and, if an article is biased, the notes at the top will even indicate that it has been flagged for bias.  Wikipedia is a great way to thoroughly understand a topic and a wonderful starting point for your own independent research.  However, Wikipedia gained a negative reputation when it was initially released because the editors could be wrong or push an agenda with their input.  Those problems have largely been remedied, making it one of the most accurate sources of information out there, in many instances.  Despite these changes, many academic institutions remain reluctant to embrace this view of Wikipedia and prohibit its use in academic writing.  As a result, we caution students that, unless they are specifically told that they may use Wikipedia as a source, they should refrain from using it as a cited source in their writing, even if they use it in their initial research to gain a better understanding of a topic.   Like Wikipedia,  Encyclopedia Britannica is another great site for an overview of a topic.  Google Scholar is a search engine that restricts results to quality academic resources.

Citing Sources in Narrative Essay

If you do choose to use any references in your college essay, then you want to be sure and cite them in a commonly recognizable and acceptable academic style.  The three most frequently used academic writing styles for undergraduate level writing are Modern Language Association (MLA), American Psychological Association (APA), and Chicago Manual Style, which is often called Turabian because of Kate Turabian’s style guide.  Unless your instructions specify which format to use, choose the one you find easiest.

APA Style:

In-text Citation:

“Every 2 minutes an American is sexually assaulted.”

Source Format for References:

RAINN.  (2016). Victims of sexual violence: statistics. Retrieved September 30, 2016 from RAINN website:

MLA Style:

In-text Citation:

Estimates of the number of women raped each year vary from 300,000 to 1.3 million (Chemaly).

Source Format for Works Cited/Bibliography:

Chemaly, S.  “50 Actual Facts About Rape.”  The Huffington Post.  October 26, 2012.  Web, 30 September 2015.  <>.

Chicago Citation Style:

In-text Citation:

According to Soraya Chemaly, estimates for the number of women raped each year vary from 300,000 to 1.3 million.

Source format for References:

Chemaly, Soraya.  2012. “50 Actual Facts About Rape.”  The Huffington Post,  October 26.  Accessed September 30, 2015.

Narrative Essay Examples

Of all essay writing styles, narrative writing may be the best one to learn by reading examples of good, strong narrative essays.  This is because narrative essays, unlike other essay forms, do not have to follow a specific format and are far less formulaic than other essay types.  Sample essays can also introduce you to narrative essays that deviate from the personal narrative structure.  In addition to teaching you how to handle the less-structured narrative essay format, narrative essay samples can teach you how to approach a topic, how to format your essay, and how to properly credit outside sources in the body of your essay.

Narrative of Frederick Douglass Essay

Narrative in Bronx Tale Essay

Narrative Use in Twain Huck Finn Essay


As you can see, writing a narrative essay allows you greater freedoms than other essay types and formats.  This freedom can be liberating for some people, but overwhelming for others.  If you are one of the people who finds that freedom overwhelming, we have a student assistance program that may be of help.  With this program, we can create custom narrative essays that match your exact specifications.  From generating topic ideas to working with you one-on-one to create a custom narrative essay example for you to use as a template for your own writing, we can provide all of the help you need to write an A+ essay for your assignment.  If you are interest in learning more about this very popular student assistance program, click here

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Cite This Resource:

Latest APA Format (6th edition)

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Narrative Essay. (2017, April 14). Retrieved from

Latest MLA Format (8th edition)

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"Narrative Essay." Student Network Resources Inc, 14 April. 2017. Web. 5 July 2022.

Latest Chicago Format (16th edition)

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Student Network Resources Inc. "Narrative Essay." (accessed July 5, 2022).


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