If Only Narrative Essay

At one time or another, most of us look back at our lives and ask ourselves whether we would have made the same choices at particular points in our lives. And whether we have “brought to the table” contributions that have enriched the lives of our friends and community.

At the same time, we have to acknowledge what is done is done. Our personal history is not amenable to a second chance but exists in time as a fixed given. Second chances are in the present - about any choices we face that might be informed by what we learned in the past.

Yet, feelings linger around the question of “if only I had known.” For me, the greatest choices I made that formed me into who I am now are marriage, being a parent, the work I have done, and opportunities to travel extensively.

I might speculate about who I might be today if I had not married the same man – or married anyone at all. What if I had not had children – or had more than two children? What if I have traveled less - or gone to more risky places for the challenge? Would I have chosen the same work?

If only I had known how marriage to my childhood sweetheart would form who I am today! This man, whom I don’t even recognize in photos from the early years of our marriage, has challenged and supported me, loved me, and driven me to tears. I could always out-think and out-smart other men I met in college. But not this man! He is someone I can not push around, which is a good thing. We are evenly matched as two strong people.

Who might I be today if I had never married? In my growing up years, we called them spinsters – behind their backs, of course. Marriage was a requirement to attain identity as an adult. High school girls used to doodle in class, practicing signing their names as Mrs. Joe Smith - or whoever their current boyfriend was. No women’s first names in the world in which I grew up.

The only women who were pitied more than spinsters were married women who were unable to have children. We whispered to each other behind their backs, as though one is not fully a woman until after childbirth. A man was essential until the elder years when being a widow gave one a particular status in the community. Secretly the source of a bit of envy from younger women, if their marriages produced more pain than pleasure.

If I had not married, would I have managed to not become a dried-out, rigid spinster? What would it have been like to be so in charge of my own life? When the feminist movement opened the doors for woman when I was thirty, could I have made this shift in identity from being an unmarried woman to being a single person?

If only I had known what having children would mean! I look at the lives of childless women who are my peers. They have had opportunities in their lives that were impossible in mine. As several single women have put it, it meant putting something down and going off to work - and the object remained in exactly the same place until their return.

Amazing! I’d leave for work with a dinner plan in mind and return home to discover my teen-age children had “hoovered” the refrigerator of essential items for dinner. And it is not just a child’s years from birth until twenty-one and then one is free of child-rearing responsibilities. Parenting is a permanent condition and you worry about them even after they are successfully on their own.

At the same time, I am glad I was a member of a generation in which one did not choose to have children. One just did – it was expected, not a choice. With such innocence I awaited the birth of my first child, this little helpless babe who would need me to learn how to become an adult. Instead, I long ago let go of the belief that it was my job to form and shape my children – it is the reverse that happens. These two daughters of mine forever altered me and who I believed I was.

Do I regret not traveling to more places on “my someday list?” Sometimes, yes. If only I’d have gone further and cruised the waters of Antarctica as I rounded the tip of South America or gone on to Svalbard when I was at the very top of Norway. If only I had made it to , rather than to an emergency room in . If only I’d figured out how to financially take my whole family around the world with me. Even though they might not have wanted to join me, because of their own busy lives. But having regrets about unfulfilled travel dreams is as ridiculous as asking which child would I want if I could only have one.

Yet, every trip has meant not going somewhere else. Just as all the traveling I have done has meant not having financial resources for other things. It’s those choices I have faced in my life. A person can never have it all.

Work choices in my life have been more complicated - even if my choices often seemed random or dependent on “being in the right place” (or the wrong place) at the right time. When I look back – or to the future – it has been a combination of synchronicity and pure chance.

None of my work choices ever have been answers to the question of “what do I want to do when I grow up.” Most of what I have done are things I never would have imagined I would or could do. Not even any intentional goals co-mingled with unpredictable factors. The only certainty is that whatever work I have done in my lifetime has had a profound influence on who I am becoming. And with each choice I have made, at the time I made that choice, I have felt called to the work that appeared before me.

Perhaps it is best none of us knows the future consequences of our choices. Life’s gift is the unexpected that shapes us through unplanned experiences and encounters. Being willing to flow into what shows up has taught me taught humility - and awe. I have been “forced” into places I never would have considered. And I have contributed to the world around me in ways beyond my limited imagination.

If only I had known who I would become, would I have enjoyed the journey more and worried less? If only I had known it was going to rain, I’d have taken an umbrella . . . or I could have chosen to stay home.

In a narrative essay you tell a story, often about a personal experience, but you also make a point. So, the purpose is not only to tell an entertaining tale but also show the reason for the story and the importance of the experience.    

Narrative Essays: To Tell a Story

There are four types of essays:

  • Exposition - gives factual information about various topics to the reader. 
  • Description - describes in colorful detail the characteristics and traits of a person, place, or thing. 
  • Argument - convinces the reader by demonstrating the truth or falsity of a topic. 
  • Narrative - tells a vivid story, usually from one person’s viewpoint.

A narrative essay uses all the story elements - a beginning, middle and ending, plot, characters, setting and climax - all coming together to complete the story.

Essential Elements of Narrative Essays

The focus of a narrative essay is the plot, which is told using enough details to build to a climax. Here's how:

  • It is usually told chronologically.
  • It has a purpose, which is usually stated in the opening sentence.
  • It may use dialogue.
  • It is written with sensory details and bright descriptions to involve the reader. All these details relate in some way to the main point the writer is making.

All of these elements need to seamlessly combine. A few examples of narrative essays follow. Narrative essays can be quite long, so here only the beginnings of essays are included:

Learning Can Be Scary

This excerpt about learning new things and new situations is an example of a personal narrative essay that describes learning to swim.

“Learning something new can be a scary experience. One of the hardest things I've ever had to do was learn how to swim. I was always afraid of the water, but I decided that swimming was an important skill that I should learn. I also thought it would be good exercise and help me to become physically stronger. What I didn't realize was that learning to swim would also make me a more confident person.
New situations always make me a bit nervous, and my first swimming lesson was no exception. After I changed into my bathing suit in the locker room, I stood timidly by the side of the pool waiting for the teacher and other students to show up. After a couple of minutes the teacher came over. She smiled and introduced herself, and two more students joined us. Although they were both older than me, they didn't seem to be embarrassed about not knowing how to swim. I began to feel more at ease.”

The Manager. The Leader.

The following excerpt is a narrative essay about a manager who was a great leader. Notice the intriguing first sentence that captures your attention right away.

“Jerry was the kind of guy you love to hate. He was always in a good mood and always had something positive to say. When someone would ask him how he was doing, he would reply, 'If I were any better, I would be twins!' He was a unique manager because he had several waiters who had followed him around from restaurant to restaurant. The reason the waiters followed Jerry was because of his attitude. He was a natural motivator. If an employee was having a bad day, Jerry was there telling the employee how to look on the positive side of the situation.”

The Climb

This excerpt from The Climb also captures your attention right away by creating a sense of mystery. The reader announces that he or she has "this fear" and you want to read on to see what that fear is.

“I have this fear. It causes my legs to shake. I break out in a cold sweat. I start jabbering to anyone who is nearby. As thoughts of certain death run through my mind, the world appears a precious, treasured place. I imagine my own funeral, then shrink back at the implications of where my thoughts are taking me. My stomach feels strange. My palms are clammy. I am terrified of heights. Of course, it’s not really a fear of being in a high place. Rather, it is the view of a long way to fall, of rocks far below me and no firm wall between me and the edge. My sense of security is screamingly absent. There are no guardrails, flimsy though I picture them, or other safety devices. I can rely only on my own surefootedness—or lack thereof.”


The following narrative essay involves a parent reflecting on taking his kids to Disneyland for the first time.

“It was a hot, sunny day, when I finally took my kids to the Disneyland. My son Matthew and my daughter Audra endlessly asked me to show them the dreamland of many children, with Mickey Mouse and Snow White walking by and arousing a huge portion of emotions. Somehow these fairy-tale creatures can make children happy without such 'small' presents as $100 Lego or a Barbie house with six rooms and garden furniture. Therefore, I thought that Disneyland was a good invention for loving parents.”

The Sacred Grove of Oshogbo by Jeffrey Tayler

The following essay contains descriptive language that helps to paint a vivid picture for the reader of an interesting encounter.

“As I passed through the gates I heard a squeaky voice. A diminutive middle-aged man came out from behind the trees — the caretaker. He worked a toothbrush-sized stick around in his mouth, digging into the crevices between algae'd stubs of teeth. He was barefoot; he wore a blue batik shirt known as a buba, baggy purple trousers, and an embroidered skullcap. I asked him if he would show me around the shrine. Motioning me to follow, he spat out the results of his stick work and set off down the trail.”

Playground Memory

This excerpt from “Playground Memory” has very good sensory details.

“Looking back on a childhood filled with events and memories, I find it rather difficult to pick on that leaves me with the fabled “warm and fuzzy feelings.” As the daughter of an Air Force Major, I had the pleasure of traveling across America in many moving trips. I have visited the monstrous trees of the Sequoia National Forest, stood on the edge of the Grande Canyon and have jumped on the beds at Caesar’s Palace in Lake Tahoe. However, I have discovered that when reflecting on my childhood, it is not the trips that come to mind, instead there are details from everyday doings; a deck of cards, a silver bank or an ice cream flavor. One memory that comes to mind belongs to a day of no particular importance. It was late in the fall in Merced, California on the playground of my old elementary school; an overcast day with the wind blowing strong. I stood on the blacktop, pulling my hoodie over my ears. The wind was causing miniature tornados; we called them “dirt devils”, to swarm around me.”

Christmas Cookies

This excerpt from “Christmas Cookies” makes good use of descriptive language.

“Although I have grown up to be entirely inept at the art of cooking, as to make even the most wretched chef ridicule my sad baking attempts, my childhood would have indicated otherwise; I was always on the countertop next to my mother’s cooking bowl, adding and mixing ingredients that would doubtlessly create a delicious food. When I was younger, cooking came intrinsically with the holiday season, which made that time of year the prime occasion for me to unite with ounces and ounces of satin dark chocolate, various other messy and gooey ingredients, numerous cooking utensils, and the assistance of my mother to cook what would soon be an edible masterpiece. The most memorable of the holiday works of art were our Chocolate Crinkle Cookies, which my mother and I first made when I was about six and are now made annually.”  

Tips on Writing a Narrative Essay

When writing a narrative essay, remember that you are sharing sensory and emotional details with the reader.

  • Your words need to be vivid and colorful to help the reader feel the same feelings that you felt.
  • Elements of the story need to support the point you are making and you need to remember to make reference to that point in the first sentence.
  • You should make use of conflict and sequence like in any story.
  • You may use flashbacks and flash forwards to help the story build to a climax.
  • It is usually written in the first person, but third person may also be used.

Remember, a well-written narrative essay tells a story and also makes a point.

Do you have a good example to share? Add your example here.

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Narrative Essay Examples

By YourDictionary

In a narrative essay you tell a story, often about a personal experience, but you also make a point. So, the purpose is not only to tell an entertaining tale but also show the reason for the story and the importance of the experience.    


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