Stories can be the heart of your essay—if you handle them effectively. Below are some tips on how to maximize their value.
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:
After the story, you should have some significant insight with which to conclude in order to justify the story's inclusion. This 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.
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's 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:
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've 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.
To put the above suggestions in more concrete terms, we will analyze one actual essay from a critical perspective. First, this applicant tells an anecdote that's relatively recent, but still serves to illustrate the origin of her interest in creative writing. Note that the anecdote is largely concerned with the past, and even in her reminiscences, she uses vivid, concrete details. For example, she invokes the past she shared with her peers, "fellow veterans of plaid uniforms and daily masses." To demonstrate her inexperience, she reflects, "The only readings I'd done before a crowd were Paul's letters to the Ephesians and the occasional Responsorial Psalm—and that wasn't my writing on the line."
There's no real place for emphasizing contribution, per se, since this isn't a project or accomplishment. On the other hand, the writer does do an effective job of showing the process: "I grew more nervous as I sat there that night, listening to poem after poem on angst and ennui. I couldn't imagine how the students and faculty around me, who were all listening intently with properly contorted faces, would respond to my grotesque little girl. But I stood up and read a passage, a little shaky at first." Thus she does not simply jump to the point of receiving congratulations. Instead, she provides specific details that not only help us to empathize with her, but also make the results seem more meaningful.
She allows the story to develop on its own terms, instead of interrupting its flow with forced interpretations. The insight she draws comes only in the next paragraph: "At that reading, I realized I could write things that made people laugh—not just friends who felt obligated, but complete strangers. I really liked that feeling, and it's the promise of that laughter that motivates me to continue writing." The flow from story to insights is natural and fitting.
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