Organizing the Narrative Essay

Last week at Writing Center Underground, we discussed several different invention strategies to uncover an engaging narrative essay topic. Now that you have a great topic, how do you organize your story?

There are many ways to organize a narrative. No real rules or formulaic outlines exist, which appeals to many writers. This can also cause a lot of frustration for the writer who is used to rules and outlines. The flexibility of form of the narrative essay gives the writer the freedom to tell his or her story as creatively as he or she chooses. What we suggest here are only general guidelines. As you compose your essay, consider the story you want to tell and which form works best to communicate that event.

Ingredients

What goes into a narrative? Traditionally, if you are going to retell an event, you’ll need to include three elements: Scene, Summary, and Reflection.

Scene is action. People are talking (dialogue); you or other people are moving or reacting to something.

Summary is exposition. It is condensing time (making a long stretch of time shorter) or conflating time (making a short stretch of time longer for dramatic effect). Summary can be history and background, filling in the blanks for the reader.

Reflection is your – the narrator’s – thoughts. What did you think or feel as the action was happening? What do you think or feel now? How have you made sense of what happened? This is reflection.

These three elements do not necessarily have to be in equal increments. This is a writer’s creative choice on how much the writer feels is necessary to fully communicate his or her story.

The Intro

Literature is filled great “hooks” or opening lines: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Anna Karenina

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. . .” A Tale of Two Cities

Call me Ishmael.” Moby Dick

And this line, probably the most famous (and now most clichéd): “It was a dark and stormy night.”  Paul Clifford

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Composing an engaging hook, or opening line, is essential to immediately draw your readers into your story. Without a strong intro, a reader may disengage and not continue reading, so spend some time on your intro and hook your readers before moving on.

Organization

You’ve hooked your reader, so now where do you go? Chronological organization, or retelling your story in the order events happened in real life, is one way. However, beginning writers often get stuck spinning their wheels, or spending too much time setting up a story with inconsequential exposition, which runs the risk of losing your readers.

Beginning in the Middle

Consider taking your story out of chronological order, and begin in medias res, Latin for in the midst of things. In an in medias res narrative, the story opens in the middle of the actual chronology of events, usually with dramatic action rather than exposition setting up the narrative. The story begins in the middle, moves forward from there, with the past told in flashbacks. An in media res intro works well to hook the reader, as the dramatic action begins immediately.

Story Structure

Once you begin composing your narrative and you’ve decided on how you are going to organize your event, you’ll now need to put it all into paragraph structure. Narrative essays don’t have the type of topic sentences that an academic paper has or obvious signals on when to begin a new paragraph.

Obvious paragraph breaks will be when speakers change: new speaker = new paragraph. Other breaks may not be so obvious. Think in terms of the action, and structure the paragraphs around the action. Generally, narrative paragraphs change when something in the action changes:

Introduction of new people
Location or setting changes
Time passes or era changes
Action changes
Mode changes (action changes to reflection, reflection changes to exposition)

Climactic Moment

For a narrative event essay, you’ll probably be asked to consider the narrative arc, or the climatic sequence of events. When you decided on what event to retell, you most likely thought of the “climax,” the high point of excitement or the turning point of the event or experience. But to retell this event and to get to the climax, you’ll also include rising action (events before the climax) and falling action (events after the climax). Many writers find it easier to work backward, or write out the climax and work up to that point. It doesn’t really matter how you get there, just that you get there.

Narrative Arcs aren’t necessarily a perfect arc

Even in the shortest narrative event essays, you’ll need to include the basic elements of plot to complete your narrative arc:

  1. Exposition
  2. Rising Action
  3. Climax
  4. Falling Action
  5. Resolution

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(Denouement is a French term meaning resolution)

However, don’t assume that because the “climax” falls in the middle . . . that it falls in the middle.

The climax to a narrative can often be closest to the conclusion of the essay, followed by a brief resolution or denouement.


Conclusions

Many writers find the conclusion, or resolution, to be the most difficult part of the narrative to write well. Try to avoid the inclination to overwrite the conclusion. The central meaning, or universal theme, should be apparent in the narrative. If you have to tell the reader what it all means in the end, you might need to go back and expand the narrative so readers can derive meaning as they see the story unfold.

As you can see, writing a narrative essay is no easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy writing assignment. It takes a lot of thought and planning.

On the other hand, don’t over-analyze how you should organize your narrative so much that you get analysis paralysis. Sometimes, just sitting down and writing as if you were simply jotting down a diary entry of a memorable event will open the creative channels from which your story will effortlessly flow.

Not likely, but that’s what revision is for.  

 

Brainstorming for the Narrative Essay: Memory Mining

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Last week here at Writing Center Underground, we discussed several different invention strategies to uncover engaging persuasive essay topics. This week, we’ll focus our brainstorming on uncovering essay topics for the Narrative Essay.

Narrative essays tell a story. In English classes, most instructors ask students to tell a story about themselves, such as an event from the past or a story about their family. Narratives can be quite personal, and students have the opportunity to be creative, utilizing fictional techniques including dialogue, description, characterization and plot development.

Choosing a narrative topic that meets assignment guidelines as well as maintains readers’ interest is often daunting for beginning writers, but spending a little time utilizing several invention strategies will set you on your way to an engaging narrative topic and an entertaining essay.

Invention Strategies

Invention strategies will be different for a narrative essay than for a persuasive essay. Narratives will draw more on personal experience, so for narrative essays,  we’ll do what’s called memory mining. Memory mining is simply brainstorming to uncover memories of people, places, events, and experiences. To simplify, we’ll break our memories down into categories. Try to list at least 3 memories for each category.

Memories of people

Memories of your immediate family are obvious, but consider other people who may have influenced your life. Did you have a favorite teacher or coach? Did you have a first boss who was a mentor? Did you meet someone who left a profound effect on your life? List the person and a brief note on why they come to mind. Below are some examples that could become an intriguing story:

  1.     My high school history teacher taught me the importance of learning from our past
  2.     My grandmother’s love of baking
  3.     The homeless man I passed each day on the way to the bus stop

Memories of times and places

If I were to ask you to recall a place from your youth, I bet it would be easy. Places are full of memories of sights, sounds, smells – the making of a great narrative essay. Places can be inside home or outside in the city or country. A place could be a garden or a doctor’s office. Think of “time” in terms of era: junior high science lab; the summer you broke both your legs and spent the time in your bed; the maple tree where you kissed your first boyfriend over winter break.  Work past the obvious and list as many times and places as you can.

  1.     Early autumn in the Tennessee mountains
  2.     The first day of deer hunting season
  3.     Your Quinceañera


Memories of events

Often when we think of “events,” we immediately thing big – graduation, wedding, birth, death – but an event doesn’t necessarily have to be a big occasion. An event could be your last day of high school, saying goodbye to your favorite teacher. It could be a tornado drill at school when you got to snuggle close to the girl/boy of your dreams. It could be the first time you drove a car and went the wrong way down a one-way street (was I the only one who did that?). Think outside the box.

  1.     Getting a black belt in karate
  2.     The first – and last – time you sat on Santa’s lap
  3.     Parents’ silver wedding anniversary

Memories of happy experiences

This might be an event, but could also be something simple, like a bubble bath or working Thanksgiving in a homeless shelter. Think small and large when brainstorming  happy experiences.

  1.     Catching the winning touchdown pass
  2.     Opening the letter of acceptance from the journal where you submitted a poem
  3.     Senior prom

Memories of unhappy experiences

We’ve all had unhappy experiences, but trying to determine which ones might make a good essay can be challenging. Think in terms of how you will tell the story of your unhappy experience before you commit it to paper. A break-up or death may come to mind first, but take some time to consider if there is a story  in the experience that others can derive meaning from.

  1.     Being pulled over by the police
  2.     Wrecking my father’s beloved Camero
  3.     Being ejected from the final game and disappointing my teammates


Memories of accomplishments

Accomplishments can be big or small. The emotions we might feel after accomplishing something might range from elation to sadness.

  1.     Winning an award
  2.     Completing the marathon
  3.     Hitting weight loss goal

Supporting Ideas: Testing Your Topic

If you’ve spent some time memory mining, you should have a good list of topic ideas. Now you can begin to brainstorm supporting ideas. Pick one of your favorite topics you’ve uncovered, and list related memories as they come to mind.

For example, one student might choose her grandmother’s love a baking. Here is a list of memories surrounding that topic:

Grandma baked iced sugar cookies every Christmas
specialty was pecan pie
always wore her blue floral apron
flour in hair
let me lick bowl
types of cookies
favorite Betty Crocker cookbook
colored frosting and sprinkles
kitchen smelled good
singing along to Elvis music
Dad only ate unfrosted cookies
I learned how to use mixer
she let me add ingredients
learned to read recipes
I was glad sister didn’t like to help
made extra frosting so I could eat it
wrapped cookies in box and gave as gifts
couldn’t bake as she got older
I baked for her and she helped decorate

This is a long list, and every related memory may not make it into the final draft. If you have too much material for your essay, decide what the main ideas you want to write about are.

In our narrative, we want to show Grandma’s love of baking and how she passed it on, so the details of Grandma’s actions and what the writer learned from Grandma are important. Other details, such as the writer’s feelings about her sister, her Dad’s favorite cookies, or which cookbook Grandma used, may be less important and can be omitted. Once you decide what the story is you want to tell, you’ll begin to see what the important memories are, the focus will gradually become clearer, and the story will start to spring from the memories.

Easy as pie.

 

 

Invention: Brainstorming Topics

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As we embark on our winter quarter here at MCC, many students will soon be presented with their first written essay assignment. For many writers, beginning and experienced, simply finding a topic to write about is the most difficult part of the writing process. Utilizing some simple invention or brainstorming tools will set you on your way to uncovering an engaging topic, one audiences will be interested in reading, and you will be excited writing about for the next several weeks.  

Brainstorming

This catch-all term is thrown around quite often in the writing classroom. An instructor will ask you to spend some time “brainstorming” before you begin the writing process, but for many, this request just draws a blank. How exactly does one brainstorm?

1.  Take a piece of paper, and list numbers 1-20.
2.  To begin filling in this list, write down what interests you. If you draw a blank, consider what has been going on in your life lately – conversations you have had, or things you have read or heard on the news – and jot them down on your list.

If this seems too overwhelming, try categorizing your list into groups of 5.

Create one list of 5 labeled POLITICS (this could include current legislation that might affect you or your community; concealed weapons; mandatory military service; electoral system, etc.)

Create one list of 5 SOCIAL ISSUES (this might include healthcare, deforestation, sharing wealth, etc.)

Create one list of 5 CULTURAL ISSUES (this might include language reform, religious freedom, polygamy, etc.)

Create a list of 5 COMMUNITY ISSUES (this might include things that affect you where you work and live, such as parking, recycling, dorms on campus, A-F grade system, etc.)

Once you break it down into manageable chunks, it’s much easier to uncover some interesting and unique topics from current issues. Let’s look at our examples from above. One way to decide if a topic will make a good persuasive paper is to ask a “should” question based on the topic. Let’s look at some of the issues from our examples and put them into a “should” question:

  •   Should the government require mandatory military service?
  •   Should the government alter the tax system to force the rich to share their wealth with the poor?
  •   Should elementary schools require students to learn a second language?
  •   Should colleges and universities abolish the A-F grade scale and GPA system?

Digging Deeper: What do you already know about?

Another way to identify topics you might be interested in writing about is to consider your own knowledge and expertise. Everyone is knowledgeable about something, and many of us are knowledgeable about several things. What topics are you an authority on? Don’t sell yourself short.  A list might include:

  1.     Unique hobbies (spelunking, metal detecting, dumpster diving)
  2.     Unique skills (second language, yoga master, cartoonist)
  3.     Training or education (CPR, computer tech, sign language)
  4.     Work Experience (manager, bartender, crisis counselor)
  5.     Personal Experience (single parent, foster parent, football coach, nurse aide)

Now that you have a good list of hobbies, skills, and other knowledge and experience, consider how you can pull a topic out of those lists to compose an interesting essay. Some topics would make great informational essays, while others would make great persuasive essays.

  •   To reduce waste and our reliance on landfills, dumpster diving, or reusing or repurposing someone else’s trash, is a viable alternative.
  •   Yoga has been proven to not only improve balance, lower blood pressure, and fight disease, but can also relieve symptoms of depression and anxiety.
  •   Training in CPR should be mandatory for all public school teachers.
  •   Bartenders should/should not be held liable for the accidental injury or death of a person by someone they served who was found to be intoxicated.
  •   Same sex couples should/should not be allowed to become foster parents.
     

Taking time in the early stages of the writing process to brainstorm will lead you to unique and engaging topics for your paper. No one wants to write another “Legalize Marijuana” or “Lower Drinking Age” essay like they did for their high school teacher, and I promise instructors don’t want to read another one either. Uncovering topics you wouldn’t normally consider or even think about will earn you the admiration of your instructor, and you’ll enjoy the research process more as well.

STUDENTS: Share your unique topic ideas with us. How did you uncover your topic?

Write on!