Narratives

Stories can be the heart of your essay, if you handle them effectively. Below are some tips on how to maximize their value.

How to Incorporate a Narrative

Integrating your story effectively ensures that it flows well within the essay and has a strong impact. Failing to do so could lead to choppiness or confusion on the reader's part. Here are some possible approaches, but what you ultimately use depends on your content:

  1. The Origin—If your essay is about your passion for some subject or activity, you may want to begin with a story about how your interest originated. This tactic can be an effective way to grab the reader's attention and offer insight into your fundamental values. You should be aware, however, of two concerns: a) it has been done many times before; and b) most early stories revolve around passive observation and therefore offer limited insight into your character and abilities. Despite these concerns, there is still much potential in this approach if you have a compelling, original story to tell.
  2. The Flash Forward—Sometimes your essay's main focus will be showing the progression or growth of your interests and abilities. That does not mean, however, that your essay must start from the beginning. Often it can be effective to open with a more recent episode to accomplish two purposes: a) establishing a clear context for the rest of the material; b) bringing to the forefront a significant experience with depth you could not have achieved in an earlier stage. It is the last point that distinguishes this approach from the previous one. Using a Flash Forward opening enables you to highlight your strongest points, as in the Hierarchy of Evidence structure, but then move backward to show your growth process.
  3. The Bookend—Like the first two, this approach involves using a story in the introduction, but it leaves that story unfinished until the conclusion. For example, you might stop within the story to reflect on how you found yourself in that position. The body of the essay would then be a flashback to the experiences that led you to the place of the introduction, and the conclusion would return to complete the story. Another possibility would be a story that involved two distinct phases; the body of such an essay might discuss what you learned between the phases, and the conclusion would show how you applied what you learned to the second phase. Again, the precise approach depends on your content, but the Bookend method can be a very effective way to create a flowing, coherent piece.
  4. Within the Body—Regardless of whether you choose to open with a narrative, you may find opportunities and reasons to insert a story within the body of the essay. This is the approach for which you have to worry most about integration. Unlike introductory anecdotes, you should not jump right into these stories without preface. You will need at least one sentence to make the transition from the previous paragraph and briefly hint at what themes your story will illustrate. Actually beginning your story will usually require some introductory phrase, such as the following:

    "One memorable incident involved..."

After the story, you should have some significant insight with which to conclude to justify the story's inclusion. Ther line should not be a mere repetition of the transition from the beginning of the paragraph, because you now should have more concrete details from which to draw more in-depth conclusions.

What to Include

The basic rule here is the same as always: include specific details. The purpose of using stories is to illustrate your points with concrete evidence, thereby giving your ideas force and context. Telling one specific story enables you to achieve depth and convey personality beyond what you could achieve in brief, isolated descriptions. It is not enough, however, merely to decide to include a story. Some writers will start on the right track but end up conveying nothing meaningful. For example, they might name a specific personal incident and then jump to generic conclusions without demonstrating anything substantive about their character. Here are some more specific tips that have come up in other contexts but are especially important for stories:

  1. Show Active Contribution—Many people tell stories in which the payoff is a lesson learned. While this can have some value, it does not say as much about your character because you are only responding passively.
  2. Emphasize the Process—Do not set up a problem and jump to the solution. Show us the process of reaching that solution. Give details about your approach and your reasoning.
  3. Paint a Vivid Picture—Try to draw the reader into your story by including details that bring the story alive. One effective way to accomplish this is to think visually. For example, if you are meeting a person in the story, describe the color of his hair or the expression on his face. Of course, you should not get carried away and go down tangents or become monotonous. For example, if you are recalling a conversation, do not bother recounting all the pleasantries with which it began.

Gleaning Insights

Anecdotes should serve some clear purpose, but you have to be careful about sounding contrived. One common mistake is to start citing lessons before you have finished the story. This kind of interruption adulterates the force of the story itself. Be careful that your insights flow naturally from the details of your anecdote: Stay close to your personal story and avoid making grand pronouncements based on a minor episode.

An Example

To put the above suggestions in more concrete terms, we will analyze one actual essay from a critical perspective. This applicant focuses upon a special diamond necklace that has great significance for her. She relates several discrete events in a logical progression, rather than a classical narrative revolving around a single event. Yet the necklace is the common element that binds her experiences. The introduction is successful because it shows the focus of the essay while creating an element of suspense: The reader does not know why or how this diamond necklace is meaningful to the applicant.

The writer provides essential context for the necklace in the second paragraph in a subtle fashion: "A small piece of paper had been ripped and folded to make a card which read: 'Congratulations on your Bat-Mitzvah. Love, Dad.'" What is unique is that the applicant relates why the necklace was initially important ("I valued the necklace only because it was the first time in seven years my dad and mom came together without screaming or causing tears. Thus, it becomes a charm of good luck"), though she admits that it was not of supreme importance to her.

Through specific examples of her subsequent experiences, the writer shows how the importance of the necklace increased in her life: "My necklace brought me strength and the harder I pressed my fingers against it, the more secure I felt...I left work that night and walked in the cold air caressing my star with a sense of connection, a feeling of closeness to the people of my faith." Though vivid details draw in the reader, the essay's power lies within the expressed insight: "While the shape of my star stayed the same, the shape of my life took off in many directions."

Finally, note that she allows the story to unfold naturally without forcing many conclusions. Though several statements seem to be the thematic underpinnings, the writer saves her most significant point until the final two sentences: "My necklace was my identity. I pulled it from underneath my shirt and placed it on the outside of my clothing, not caring if the diamond side faced forward." The flow from anecdotes to insights drawn is smooth and fitting, creating an overall moving personal statement.

Next: Paragraphs