Writing Well

Life Line: Personal Narratives

Word Watch

Autobiographies and biographies are types of personal narratives.

The great American showman and circus impresario Phineas T. Barnum was near death in 1891 when an editor of a New York newspaper contacted his agent to see if Barnum would enjoy having his obituary published while he could still read it. Never one to refuse a little free publicity, Barnum told his agent he thought it was a fine idea. The next day, P.T. Barnum read a four-column story about his own life and death—and loved it.

Okay, so maybe you haven't scaled K2, plundered the Andréa Doria, or started your own circus. “My life is about as exciting as watching paint dry,” you think. Wrong. Your life is actually tremendously exciting. That's because even mundane events are fascinating in the hands of a good writer. And that's you, buddy.

When you write a personal narrative, you relate a meaningful incident from the first-person point of view. The story might describe a conflict that you untangled, a discovery that you made, or an experience that moved you in some way, for instance.

A personal narrative has the same elements as a short story—plot, speaker, characters, setting, theme, and point of view. But when you write a personal narrative, you're not creating these elements from your imagination. Rather, they come from your own experience. Consider interviewing family, friends, and neighbors about the incident you wish to describe. Considering their recollections can help shed light on your memories and enable you to view the incident from several different vantage points.

Author! Author!

James Boswell's The Life of Samuel Johnson, L.L.D., published in 1791, is the greatest biography in English and a treasure chest of in-your-face erudition. It's like a talk show with a great guest and a host smart enough to keep quiet and listen. You should be so lucky.

Many people use the following process as they write their personal narratives:

Here's a personal narrative about a key incident in the writer's life. Notice the sparkling detail, engaging dialogue, and clear theme.

Writer's Block

Be on your guard against clichés, shopworn phrases like “good as gold” and “so quiet you could hear a pin drop” that have lost their power through overuse. Replace these hackneyed expressions with fresh comparisons.

I Will Survive

book cover

Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Writing Well © 2000 by Laurie Rozakis, Ph.D.. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book direct from the publisher, visit the Penguin USA website or call 1-800-253-6476. You can also purchase this book at Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.

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