Understanding the differences between reflective and narrative essays can help you engage deeply with the learning that these forms can encourage. The DePaul University Center for Writing-based Learning defines reflective essays as those that seek to critically examine and analyze personal experiences. By contrast, according to the Purdue Online Writing Lab, narrative essays typically contain personal storytelling with the purpose of sharing an experience or point of view. Though both modes of writing might rely on storytelling, reflective and narrative essays often differ in their purpose, structure, content and tone.
The purpose of a reflective essay is to explicitly analyze experiences or opinions. Storytelling can introduce experiences, but the focus of a reflective essay will shift quickly to the cause or effect of those experiences. For example, your reflective essay might tell the story of how you felt at the doctor’s office but quickly describe why you felt that way and how that feeling affected your behavior. Narrative essays, by contrast, usually seek to recount experiences or lay out personal opinions in a clear, logical and impactful way without explicit close analysis. For example, a narrative essay would simply recount the trip to the doctor’s office and the way you felt throughout your visit.
According to the DePaul University Center for Writing-based Literacy, the standard essay format is often appropriate in reflective essays. Introductions typically show an event or series of events, eventually narrowing in on the main aspects of your critical analysis. Body paragraphs break down different points of analysis, often by introducing new content and examining it within the context of your essay. Narrative essays typically contain more flexible structures but still include strong introductory and concluding paragraphs. Body paragraphs in narrative essays can vary considerably and should flow more like a novel than a research essay. If your narrative essay is telling a story, it should contain story elements such as plot, characters and settings, according to the Purdue Online Writing Lab.
Reflective essays contain content that lends itself to critical analysis. Tell a story only if it has meaning to you or led to some meaningful change. For example, a story about your first job interview allows you to analyze how and why you acted in a particular way. Narrative essays contain elements that help tell a story or establish a perspective. For example, you might write about the furniture in a room to help set a scene, even if that furniture is not of critical importance to the overall narrative.
In a reflective essay, the author’s tone is typically objective and critical, though some leeway is necessary to help with storytelling elements: “Seeing the big, red 'A' on the essay resolved my anxiety by guaranteeing a high grade in the class.” In narrative essays, the author’s tone can range from a third-person objective report to a first-person perspective: “The teacher placed the test face-down on the desk. I broke out in a clammy sweat.”