The Usual Suspects: Questions to Unearth a Powerful Personal Narrative

Several of the questions from this list were pulled  from The School of Arts and Enterprise, re-posted here with edits. The majority of the questions come from my own experience and brainstorming. The hope is to make this a comprehensive and solidly available resource for those writing personal narratives.

How Can I Choose a Personal Narrative Topic?:
Questions to Help You Discover Your Story

  • What was my very first memory? What are other early memories? Why do these stand out?
  • What are the most important things that have happened to me in my life so far?
  • Who are the most important people in my life? What experiences with these people make them so important to me?
  • If I could go back in time to a single moment and make a different choice, what moment would I choose? Would I actually go through with that choice? Why or why not?
  • What stories show what my family and I are like? What stories show what my friends and I are like?
  • How did my best friends earn the status of “best”?
  • What’s the hardest decision I’ve had to make?
  • What major life milestones have I reached? What academic milestones? What “growing up” milestones?
  • What are some of my firsts? Who was the first person I kissed? Who was the first person I knew who died? What was the first time I saw the ocean? What was my first road trip like?
  • What was the worst day of my life? What was the best day?
  • What places are significant to me? What experiences make those places significant?
  • What are the different experiences I’ve had in a ________? Think of specific but relatively common locations that have been the setting from important scenes from your life. (e.g., kitchens, bedrooms, bathrooms, auditoriums, gymnasiums, attics, basements, etc.)
  • What was my favorite vacation? What was my least favorite?
  • What’s the sickest I’ve ever been?
  • What’s an incident that changed how I think, feel, believe, or behave about something? What convinced me?
  • If I had to choose, what would I say was the happiest moment of my life?
  • What was the moment I felt most loved? What was the moment I felt most alone? Most afraid? Most lost? Most angry? Most hurt? Most sad? Most hopeful?
  • What’s a time or place where I laughed a lot? What did that laughter mean?
  • What are the contests I’ve participated in? Did I win or lose? What did that loss or victory teach me?
  • What are important things in my life that I’ve lost?
  • What are the times I’ve faced the loss of something or someone I care deeply about? How did I handle it?
  • What is the thing I’ve done I’m most ashamed of?
  • What are the most important things I believe in? Where did those beliefs come from?
  • What is an important thing I used to believe in but no longer believe in? How was that belief lost? How do I feel about that today?
  • What’s a time in my life I’ve talked about but not written about?
  • What situations have been difficult to face? Did I stand my ground or run? Do I wish I’d made a different choice?
  • What is my favorite meal? What memories do I have associated with that meal?
  • What was a time I felt truly proud of myself? What was a time I felt someone else was truly proud of me? What was a time I felt truly proud of someone else?
  • What stories am I afraid to tell?

For more advice on choosing a topic for your personal narrative, check out my follow-up entry.