Reading great personal narrative examples is the best way to learn how to ace your own.
But you’ll want to read them with an ear to the ground, like Sherlock, looking for clues.
It could be the intriguing setup of the opening scene that draws you in.
Maybe it’s the vivid imagery. Or the powerful words that make you feel for the characters. Or the fast pace of the action that skips you along so you don’t even realize you’re still reading until it’s over.
Here we’ll unwrap some personal narrative essay examples and see what exactly makes them so great.
7 Personal Narrative Examples that Knock It Out of the Park
A personal narrative is a story told by someone about something that happened to them.
Why do we want to read it? According to story coach Lisa Cron, our brains are literally wired for stories. We’re built to respond to someone else’s story, but only if it’s told well.
To help you master writing your own, I’ve collected and dissected 7 great personal narrative examples — including one from the famous New York Times Modern Love column and a classic story from David Foster Wallace.
That said, let’s dive into the examples.
1. The Aquarium by Alexsander Hemon
Hemon’s story, set at the hospital bedside of his infant child, resonates with any parent.
He writes in a strong voice, refusing to shield us from his pain and fear. If you also write to bare your soul, your readers will respect your honesty and feel along with you.
He draws us in with graphic details of the child’s story so, like him, we feel compelled to stay the course,
“… couldn’t take my eyes off the cruelly fluctuating numbers on the monitors as though the sheer act of staring could influence the outcome.”
He shows how to write great sentences, mixing long ones, full of detail, with shorter ones, getting right to the point. The contrast creates an easy-to-read and dramatic flow.
“All I cared about was the firm reality of her breaths on my chest, the concreteness of her slipping into slumber as I sang my three lullabies. I did not want to extend myself in any direction but hers.”
To break the unrelenting pace of the action, Hemon reflects, again engaging our emotions with details and powerful words:
“Still, as we mature into our mortality, we begin to gingerly dip our horror-tingling toes into the void … that God or some other soothing opiate will remain available as we venture into the darkness of non-being.”
And finally, Hemon’s metaphor of an aquarium — an unnatural human home — makes us feel how isolating illness can be. Readers remember the vivid pictures you paint with your words. Whenever you can, leave them with something memorable and unique.
2. Goodbye, Mr. Fantasy Man by Lavinia Spalding
Spalding also catches our interest by starting her story with an intriguing word — ”kismet.”
“The night I agreed to try online dating, I told my roommate Meghan I hoped I wouldn’t meet anyone because that wasn’t the kind of story I wanted to tell.
“I know myself,” I said. “Anything short of kismet won’t work.””
To create conflict (always engaging in a story), she shows us how her trials sputter before taking off. She contrasts her parents’ romantic escapades with her own disappointing dating starts. These sub-stories interest us and ensure we ride the rollercoaster of hope and dismay with her as she relates her own story.
Then she reels us in to the promise of her budding friendship, only to frustrate us when she can’t quite let the romantic in her die:
“I was in love and happy, but doubts simmered. I still occasionally fantasized about a man who would sip coffee with me and read novels in bed on our frequent trips to India.”
I found the tender honesty of the last paragraphs hit a home run as to what love looks like. And because the picture is real, readers will see something of themselves here, and likely look upon their own fate (kismet) with fresh eyes.
3. The Nick Cave Song that Changed My Life by Emily Blake
Emily Blake’s essay did something unique to me. Her words took me to a concert where I felt music swirl around my own body.
Notice here how her mastery of language and metaphor drops you, body, and soul into the song.
“…and Warren Ellis’s guitar winds its way up your spine, wrapping itself around your shoulders like an embrace, or maybe a shroud… At the end of the verse, the strings drop into your stomach, and Cave abandons the narrative entirely, gliding into a litany that reads as a prayer…and then the song bolts out from under him like a half-broken colt and explodes.”
Blake’s vivid description of her experience with the music with rich sensory words that wake up your own touch, speech, and hearing:
“… a fist closing around my heart and wrenching me to my feet. I became aware that I was . . . growling? Vocalizing some animal sound deep in my throat, savage with surprise and wild joy.”
This is “show don’t tell” writing at its best. In telling your story, see how rather than just describing what happened, you can recreate the direct experience for us. As Blake does in her final epiphany, managing to leave us with this vivid picture of Nick Cave — who became “a glowing wire, a mainline to meaning and feeling and art”.
4. Ticket to the Fair by David Foster Wallace
Wallace’s long narrative essay is deservedly a classic. Like decades of readers before me, I am transported to the colorful carnies, sickening smells, and ear-splitting sounds of an Illinois state fair by his mastery of sensory words.
Watch how he describes the heavy heat of a summer’s day:
“The air is like wet wool… forehead-tighteningly hot. Noon will be a kiln….Big hairy mosquitoes work the crowd.”
And see how the alliteration of s’s here moves your ear through the sentence:
“There’s a distended A-sharp scream from the whirling car, as if Native Companion is being slow-roasted. I summon saliva to step in and really say something stern.”
Wallace’s humor nails a few scenes — the terrifying baton twirling, the clogging championships, and how he evades the evangelist — to create laugh-out-loud moments. Try this yourself with exaggerated words and images and you’ll hook your readers.
And while Wallace’s point of view is an observer, his keen eye is also kind, which is also endearing to any reader. As an Easterner now, he reflects that his people leave town to get away from it all. But, in the Midwest, you go to the fair because
“Here you’re pretty much away all the time. The land is big, here-board-game flat, horizons in every direction. … The real spectacle that draws us here is us.”
This is an essay to savor and uncover gems in every crafted sentence.
5. The Death of the Moth by Virginia Woolf
Wool’s personal essay covers a tiny moth’s last hours, but simultaneously tackles the enormity of life and death. We meet the moth right away and he “seemed to be content with life.” When you give human feelings to a character in your story, even a tiny insect, you pique the reader’s empathy.
And then, Woolf uses an effective story technique — contrast. She sets up a scene pulsing with vigor, the sky covered by a vast net of soaring rooks. Then we’re back in the fenced world of the tiny fluttering moth. Having described life at its most robust, Woolf lends the moth this same vitality:
“What he could do he did. Watching him, it seemed as if a fiber, very thin but pure, of the enormous energy of the world had been thrust into his frail and diminutive body. As often as he crossed the pane, I could fancy that a thread of vital light became visible. He was little or nothing but life.”
Watch how, in describing the struggle of the moth, Woolf also swings our emotions using power words and images that take us from pity to pathos, to triumph, and finally to awe.
“It was superb this last protest, and so frantic that he succeeded at last in righting himself. One’s sympathies, of course, were all on the side of life.”
So you see how even if your own story is short, the subject is mundane, and not much happens, like Woolf you can still convey deep meaning and create a satisfying narrative.
6. On Dying, Mothers, and Fighting for Your Ideas by Jon Morrow
This essay puts a fire under me, raising the standard I hold myself to. Because Morrow’s story smashes expectations and compels you to examine your life.
He sets a chilling opening scene with a doctor saying, “It’s bad news.” But his theme is not crisis or illness. It’s courage. When you can surprise your reader as Morrow does here, do.
Morrow uses potent, emotionally-driven words, more suited to a war zone, to give himself no way out, no excuses:
“The shame of dishonoring their sacrifice by giving up would poison my soul.”
And he enlists humor to shock us out of pity. No reader will forget,
“… the vaguely constipated look on the face of a venture capitalist when I asked for $500,000 of startup capital for my first software company?”
But watch how Morrow quickly moves on from his personal story to put you, the reader, on the hook. He sets a high bar. And challenges fellow writers who dream of becoming unforgettable to muster the courage to master writing. Because, simply, it’s their “job”.
His own wordcraft illustrates his point. See the symmetry in this memorable sentence:
“It’s about breathing life into something and then working to make sure that life becomes something beautiful.”
Morrow’s story starts ominous and ends with a charge for creative combustion, following the classic personal narrative arc of transformation. If you can resolve your story with the strength of Morrow’s “Burn it up, baby”, you’re on your way to greatness.
7. The Kitten by Anne Lamott
Lammott starts with a wedding and a kitten. As in many personal narratives, she mines her day-to-day experience. This one, from her recent collection, dishes up a bounty of universal themes amid the small stuff of daily life.
Lamott’s writing is funny, quirky, real, and engages us becausef it’s full of surprise. Like when conjures a metaphor of getting to know the “uncooked-egg parts” of her spouse, then dives into this meditation on intimacy:
“When I am seeing him, I intuit something deep inside him, wounded and perfect. Seeing is a form of pure being, unlike watching or looking at. Seeing is why we’re here.”
She also constantly zooms in on detail and then out to a bigger theme.
“…a light rain falling from the skies, or a waterfall, deep calling to deep, or in a pinch, a cool drink from the faucet…Light, water, kindness, and not giving up. These are huge; all there is.”
There are always concrete details, things we can see and touch, sprinkled through her abstract musings on life. When you write like this, you anchor your readers to a real place, things they know, while you take them on a ride over new horizons.
Lamott is a risk-taking master storyteller and you’ll learn how to savor and write about what seem like commonplace experiences through reading her.
I won’t spoil the ending. But you can be sure there’s a satisfying resolution. Be sure to spend time here so your stories have one too.
Pick a Favorite Personal Narrative Example and Write Your Own
What’s beyond reading great personal narrative examples? Yes, venturing out on your own.
You see now how to engage your readers’ senses, choose words that move them, and create images they can’t forget.
You know how to create pace and intrigue to captivate your readers so they want to know what happens.
Most of all, you’ll connect to readers’ own experience so they feel invested in your true story and can’t put it down.
I’m eager to see what you can do!