A narrative essay, or personal essay, is a true story about your experience. The best narratives lean heavily on the word story, meaning they use fictional tools to bring their stories to life. Unlike fiction, life goes on and on. Deciding where to put the frame around it is the first problem you’ll face. Beginning is relatively easy: begin close to the action, just as things begin to happen. But when to end it -- and how -- depends on what you want readers to feel as the essay wraps up.
What’s the Point?
In every story, the main character -- you, in this case -- faces a problem. By the ending, the problem is resolved, partially resolved, or not resolved at all. Whatever happens, the narrative should show that you learned, grew, felt differently, or changed some other way. This is the story's point. Without these elements, you don't have a story. The narrative's conclusion should show that change very soon after the climax, because readers’ interest begins to wane after that peak moment.
Show Don’t Tell
Much as you want to get your point across, avoid the temptation to tack a moral onto the end. Readers want authors to have confidence in them to understand the point without it being spelled out. They also want to feel what you felt, rather than be told what to feel. That means creating a scene. A scene, says Purdue Online Writing Lab’s Dana Bisignani, “takes place in real time, like a movie, usually contains dialogue between characters, and should be used for important interactions and events” At the very least, it’s someone in a specific place, doing something, even if it’s quietly meditating.
Keep It Real
Since memory isn’t 100 percent accurate, you're allowed to invent dialogue to portray the story's emotional truth. But don’t put words in anyone’s mouth that they aren't likely to have said. That means you probably shouldn’t create a conversation telling someone exactly how you’ve grown or what you’ve learned. Dream your way back to the event. When did you realize you’d changed or come to understand something? Where were you? What were you doing? Who were you with? What thoughts might you have had? Show those things in your conclusion -- and then stop and let the reader draw his conclusions.
Flashing forward to the present-day you is an alternative way to conclude. It stops the action and means that your reader may be thinking with you, rather than feeling, but it can work. Make sure you orient the reader with a phrase like, “as I think back on that time…” or “pondering that day now….” Then ponder. Tell us what you learned, how it changed your life, or why you forgave yourself for whatever you did. You might even say how the events will affect your future. But you needn't choose one approach or the other. If you decide to leap forward to speak with the wisdom of age, you can put that into a scene and have the best of both approaches.
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