A dynamic story that can be read in one sitting, an evolving central character and vivid use of detail are all conventions that personal narratives and short stories have in common. However, they are two different genres that take different approaches to revealing truths about our lives. Short stories and personal narratives can be contrasted through the ways they develop character and plot to reveal an essential theme.
Reality Vs. Fiction
The biggest difference between a short story and a personal narrative is their degrees of truthfulness. In a short story, the plot and characters are invented by the author. Although they may be inspired by a real life experience, the details are usually significantly altered. A personal narrative is an account of the author's actual experience. Even if the author must abbreviate the events in order to make the content manageable, he still endeavors to paint a truthful, accurate picture of what happened.
Point of View
In short stories, the author has numerous choices about what perspective to use. He can use first person, writing from the view of "I" and having a character tell the story. He may adopt the more distant third person voice, writing "he," "she" and "they" to describe events that happen to characters in the story. Personal narratives, however, are typically limited only to first person. Through this type of narration, the author can more clearly inform readers about the significance of his own experience.
According to the Purdue Online Writing Lab, fiction writers have "countless possibilities of action" open to them. For each short story, they choose one direction for the plot. Personal narrative writers have only structural option available to them, relating the actual events of their firsthand experiences. It is up to them to use the elements of creative writing, such as description, figurative language and dialogue, to most effectively tell their true stories.
Short stories and personal narratives also differ in their ultimate meanings. A short story's goal is to weave character, setting and plot together to reveal something about humanity that will not always come forth in nonfiction. For example, Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" layers a vibrant foreign setting, morally ambiguous characters and an emotional conclusion to demonstrate how easily man's inner evil can be revealed. In personal narratives, the theme is usually a specific lesson the author learned and the narrative genre is used to pass this lesson on to readers.