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: The most common approach is to start from the beginning. Many people have a story to tell about their early interests in their particular field. This tactic can be an effective way to grab the reader's attention and offer insight into your fundamental attraction to your area of interest. You should be aware, however, of two concerns: a) It has been done many times before, and if you don't offer any unique or personal insights, you won't stand out; 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 doesn't mean, however, that your essay must start from the beginning. Often it can be effective to open with a more recent episode to accomplish three purposes: a) establishing a clear context for the rest of the material; b) demonstrating a strong interest in your particular field from the beginning; c) bringing to the forefront a significant experience with depth you could not have achieved in an earlier stage. It's 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 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.

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'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:

  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: Don't 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. Of course, you should not get carried away and go down tangents or become monotonous. For example, if you're recalling a conversation, don't 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'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.

An Example

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.

Next: Paragraphs

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