Personal Narrative Defined:
The personal narrative is a compositional piece of writing, usually employing the first person, which entails a factual event, incident, experience, or person integral to the author’s life.
“The experiences we have are the basis of our dispositions, our world views, our characters, our ways of thinking, and our ability to undertake and integrate new experiences,” according to George Hillocks, Jr. in his book, “Narrative Writing: Learning a New Model for Teaching” (Heinemann, 2007, p. 1). “They are, in every meaningful way, who we are. When the experience is gone, our memories of it remain and become part of us. The way we integrate them into the stories of our lives determines our identities, how we see ourselves.”
They can serve several additional purposes for the writer, including enabling him to reflect on his experience; re-examine something that occurred in his childhood when he lacked the tools, understanding, maturity, development, intelligence, and even emotional capability; process and resolve misunderstood, emotionally charged incidents; integrate them, and understand how he was shaped by them.
What he chooses to write may be either consciously or only subconsciously known. If it falls into the latter category, it may become the first step to the revelation of its significance.
There is no such thing as an unimportant topic. If, for whatever reason, the writer chooses it, then it can be considered important to him.
For the reader, it vicariously enables him to purse the same path, experience the event as it then unfolded, share any feelings or sensations, assess potential growth or development, and be rewarded with the insight or wisdom the experience provided.
Like other writing forms, it can employ expository, narrative, and/or narrative summary types, and, depending upon length, can incorporate characters other than himself, settings, dialogue, inter-personal interactions, interior monologue, scenes, climaxes, and resolutions. It places the reader in the writer’s world for the duration of the story.
While it may not be definitively possible to determine the origin of ideas for the personal narrative or any other genre for that matter, they can certainly emanate internally, from a thought generated by the mind or inspiration of the soul, or externally from a countless number of stimuli. In either case, they give the author an opportunity to express, reflect, preserve, understand, work out, or complete something that formed a part of his life.
Ideas can spring from having the writer ask himself what changed him, what caused him to view the world differently, what effect did an influential person have on him, what realization did he have, what was one of his failures or successes, what occurred in his childhood that he has not yet processed, what evoked sadness, happiness, humor, surprise, fright, shame, or pride, what defied his logic or understanding, what reflected his essence or values, what proved contrary to them, and what helped him discover or understand something about himself.
There are several writing guidelines to keep in mind regarding the personal narrative. The author should, first and foremost, strive to tell a clear, well-developed story with the appropriate details that contribute to it. Well-organized and linked by logical transitions, it should feature an optimum mixture of vocabulary and varied sentence structure. Finally, grammatical, spelling, and punctuation errors, even before the editing stage, should be insignificant enough so that they do not interfere with first draft understanding.
Compositionally, its actions should be specifically and appropriately narrated with character gestures, expressions, postures, and movements. If scenes are employed, they should contain visual details so that the reader is able to picture them in his mind, and realism should be increased with the use of dialogue, character interaction, interior monologue, and actions. It can be particularly enhanced with the use of several senses. The author should, if at all possible, express any recalled feelings, emotions, and sensations he experienced as he reconnects with his past incidents and include any realizations or insights they evoked.
Pacing implies the speed and intervals with which the events are recounted and it can be both accelerated to accommodate time, illustrate mood changes, and omit unnecessary details, and reduced to elaborate upon or highlight those events that are crucial to the moment and integral to the climax, if any. The latter can create tension, suspense, or surprise.
If more than one scene is included, then the author must determine the interrelation and importance between them.
Integral to effective personal narrative writing is the use of concrete detail so that the author can create a sense of reality and immediacy, and arose an empathetic response in his readers.
“Perhaps the most important quality of effective stories is concrete detail,” according to Hillocks, Jr. (ibid, p.43). “Specific details allow readers to see scenes in their own minds as they read. But effective specific detail may be the most difficult quality to achieve. Writers have to remember or imagine what it is they want to portray, search their memories for words to do it, arrange the words in effective syntax, (and) evaluate the effort by comparing it with the version in their mind… ”
The types and number of details are equally important. By selecting and incorporating those events that illustrate the story and complete its narrative purpose, and eliminating those that offer little effect, the text will be concisely and cohesively illustrative.
If the writer, for example, wishes to discuss what occurred at his afternoon board meeting, he does not need to mention what time he woke up that day, what he had for breakfast, and which activities characterized his morning.
Other important elements to be considered are readership, length, and style.
In the first case, the author needs to ask himself what his intended audience is and how relevant his composition will be to them. His friends and relatives, for example, may enjoy reminiscing about incidents they shared with him, but how important will they be in the greater arena where readers have never met him?
The impact his incident had on him and, to a degree, the interval during which it occurred, will, in the second case, determine his narrative’s length. If, for instance, he wishes to write about his last drive to the beach, he may be able to cover it in only a page. If, on the other hand, he wishes to explore the impact his parent’s divorce had on him when he was nine, it would most likely require several pages to explore, if not a longer memoir.
Style, the third aspect, may hinge upon writing proficiency and experience, but entails considerations of language, forcefulness, syntax, and control over stylistic devises, including the use of humor, suspense, and foreshadowing, among other author voice determinants.
There are several types of writing and the personal narrative, like many genres, may employ all or any combination of them.
Expository writing, the first of these, is primarily fact-oriented. It presents information, explains, analyzes, and discusses ideas. Think of an essay. It tells, illustrates, explains, and reviews what occurs. In this type of writing, the author speaks. He seeks to “expose” through it and it is usually associated with reports, dissertations, newspaper and magazine articles, encyclopedia entries, and history books, but it is used to tell, inform, and explain in all literary forms, including memoirs, biographies, creative nonfiction pieces, flash fiction, short fiction, and novels.
“Narrative, which is simply the act and art of storytelling, (is the second of them and) makes use of several modes of discourse: scene, summary, and exposition among them,” according to Bill Roorbach in “Writing Life Stories: How to Make Memories into Memoirs, Ideas into Essays, and Life into Literature” (Writer’s Digest Books, 2008, p. 45).
“Every narrative makes use of these, with different writers giving different emphasis to each. A scene takes place in a specific time and place, records events, actions, talk, stuff happening.” It shows, through scenes, dialogue, features, feelings, facial expressions, interior monologue, actions, and character interactions, what occurs, as if the reader had a front-row seat in a play on stage. In narrative writing, the characters speak.
Narrative summary, which combines elements of both of these, provides a collapsed-event, condensed-form illustration of a particular story and offers a brief mention of people and places, minimizing interaction, as illustrated through dialogue. It generalizes time, but still moves the plot along.