Writing a Narrative composition appeals to one of humankind's basic instincts, the impulse to share stories. Sometimes the aim of the story-teller is simply to entertain, to provide a moment of escape from the business of the day or the horrors of the night, but sometimes the aim of the story-teller is to instruct, to help others in their understanding of something. The best part of teaching in this way is that our listeners' natural resistance to heeding the words of others is low and they are not always aware that they are being taught anything until it's too late we've got them.
The skills needed to narrate a story well are not entirely the same as the skills needed to write a good essay. Some wonderful short fiction writers are not particularly good essayists and vice versa. Still, it is useful to look at those elements that make up a good narrative and know how to apply what we learn toward making our essays as dramatic as possible whenever that is appropriate.
Review, also, the elements of the Personal Essay, as the personal essay and the narrative essay have much in common.
The ability to describe something convincingly will serve a writer well in any kind of essay situation. The most important thing to remember is that your job as writer is to show, not tell. If you say that the tree is beautiful, your readers are put on the defensive: "Wait a minute," they think. "We'll be the judge of that! Show us a beautiful tree and we'll believe." Do not rely, then, on adjectives that attempt to characterize a thing's attributes. Lovely, exciting, interesting these are all useful adjectives in casual speech or when we're pointing to something that is lovely, etc., but in careful writing they don't do much for us; in fact, they sound hollow.
Let nouns and verbs do the work of description for you. With nouns, your readers will see; with verbs, they will feel. In the following paragraph, taken from George Orwell's famous anti-imperialist essay, "Shooting an Elephant," see how the act of shooting the elephant delivers immense emotional impact. What adjectives would you expect to find in a paragraph about an elephant? big? grey? loud? enormous? Do you find them here? Watch the verbs, instead. Notice, too, another truth about description: when time is fleeting, slow down the prose. See how long the few seconds of the shooting can take in this paragraph. You can read the entire text of George Orwell's story by clicking HERE, and you can read additional essays by this famous author of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty Four at "The Political Writings of George Orwell."
When I pulled the trigger I did not hear the bang or feel the kickone never does when a shot goes homebut I heard the devilish roar of glee that went up from the crowd. In that instant, in too short a time, one would have thought, even for the bullet to get there, a mysterious, terrible change had come over the elephant. He neither stirred nor fell, but every line of his body had altered. He looked suddenly stricken, shrunken, immensely old, as though the frightful impact of the bullet had paralysed him without knocking him down. At last, after what seemed a long timeit might have been five seconds, I dare sayhe sagged flabbily to his knees. His mouth slobbered. An enormous senility seemed to have settled upon him. One could have imagined him thousands of years old. I fired again into the same spot. At the second shot he did not collapse but climbed with desperate slowness to his feet and stood weakly upright, with legs sagging and head drooping. I fired a third time. That was the shot that did for him. You could see the agony of it jolt his whole body and knock the last remnant of strength from his legs. But in falling he seemed for a moment to rise, for as his hind legs collapsed beneath him he seemed to tower upward like a huge rock toppling, his trunk reaching skyward like a tree. He trumpeted, for the first and only time. And then down he came, his belly towards me, with a crash that seemed to shake the ground even where I lay.
Do not forget that the business of the essay is to make a point. In his essay, Orwell succeeds in portraying the horrors of an imperialist state, showing how the relationship between the oppressed Burmese and the British oppressor is dehumanizing to both. When writing a narrative, it is easy to get caught up in the telling of the story and forget that, eventually, our reader is going to ask So What? and there had better be an answer.
Read Jeffrey Tayler's "The Sacred Grove of Oshogbo" (first published in The Atlantic Monthly, used with permission) and try to determine exactly at what passage in the text do you become aware of the point of Tayler's essay. Take note of the rich detailing of the forest, the caretaker, and the minister from the city and try to describe how the details lend themselves toward the purpose of the article. Another Atlantic essay, Jeff Biggers' "Searching for El Chapareke," filled with wonderful details of a remote town in Mexico is also available here.
May 26, 1999
The driver steered his moped down the corrugated red mud road outside of the Nigerian town of Oshogbo, north of Lagos, with me bouncing along on the back seat. In front of a wooden gate he wobbled to a halt. The surrounding rain forest was dripping with humidity; wraiths of mist wandered between the big trees. I got off, paid him, and entered.
The Sacred Grove of Oshogbo was one place I had been looking forward to visiting in Nigeria. As prevalent as indigenous religions still are in West Africa, it is often hard to find public expressions of them in towns and cities; the Christianity brought by European slavers and colonialists has taken root and pushed most of these religions out of mainstream life. But in the Sacred Grove shrines honor all the local deities, including Obatala, the god of creation, Ogun, the god of iron, and Oshun, the goddess of water, whose aqueous essence is made manifest by the river running through the trees. The place is unique in the Yoruba religion, and that intrigued me.
As I passed through the gates I heard a squeaky voice. A diminutive middle-aged man came out from behind the trees the caretaker. He worked a toothbrush-sized stick around in his mouth, digging into the crevices between algae'd stubs of teeth. He was barefoot; he wore a blue batik shirt known as a buba, baggy purple trousers, and an embroidered skullcap. I asked him if he would show me around the shrine. Motioning me to follow, he spat out the results of his stick work and set off down the trail.
We stopped in front of a many-headed statue. "Ako Alumawewe," he blurted out, sucking on the stick. A deity? I asked. He nodded and spat, then headed down the trail to another stone effigy, that of Egbe. After kissing the ground at its base, he held forth at length in mellifluous Yoruba. Since I spoke no Yoruba and he, it turned out, no English, it became clear that my visit wasn't going to be as edifying as I had hoped.
I looked back up the trail. A Nigerian man in penny loafers was making his way gingerly around the puddles and heading our way. He was young but a belly was already spreading under his white Izod shirt; he wore tight beige highwater trousers. It was clear that he was living a life of relative plenty. He introduced himself as Pastor Paul, from a church in Benue State.
"You come to look at the Grove?" he asked, shaking my hand. "Good. It's very touristic."
A young woman emerged from the trail. Her wardrobe, too, could have been bought on sale at JC Penney's, but unlike Pastor Paul, she was fit, with fresh eyes.
"My interpreter," Pastor Paul said, pointing to her. "Of course I can't understand these people. We have our own language in Benue State."
The little man talked up a storm in Yoruba, but the interpreter said nothing. Our guide then led us down to the river. The water ran bright green between the trees; monkeys jumped around the canopy above. Arising from a mess of roots was Oshun's statue, which occasioned a monologue from the little man.
"What is he saying?" I asked the translator.
"He says locals bring sacrifices to the gods here. Maize, moi-moi, cola nuts."
Father Paul shook his head, his brow wrinkling, his lips pursing. There were no locals about, I noticed. Where were they? Dodging oversized ferns, our guide hopped down the trail, and we followed him.
"Debel! Debel!" he said, pointing with disdain at a pug-nosed bust with an evil smirk standing amid a tangle of roots. The Devil.
The pastor's face retained its pinched expression. "Of course, this man is ignorant," he said to me, waving his arm in dismissal. I said nothing.
Up at a promontory above the river we found Olu Igbo the lord of the forest. Placing his stick in his back pocket, the little man fell silent and bowed. It was indeed an awesome sight a giant stone effigy standing among great trees, with huge eyes and long arms spread out like wings. Hoots and warbles percolated in from the foliage; rain began to fall but its drops, intercepted by the manifold layers of leaves above, hardly touched us.
The pastor harrumphed. "I tell my people in church to abandon these beliefs for God." His voice rang loud in the amphitheater of great trees. "Such ignorance. Our American pastors have a lot to say about how ignorant we are. We are trying to change, but these beliefs persist. Life is hard in our country. The people want to insure themselves, so they worship God and these idols. But it's ignorance. Don't you agree?"
"Why did you come here then?" I asked him as we walked back to the road.
"To see the skilled work of our artisans."
That was as good an answer as any. At the gate we tipped the guide and parted ways.
|Jeffrey Tayler is a freelance writer and traveler based in Moscow, and is the author ofSiberian Dawn (1999). He contributes regularly to The Atlantic Monthly and files frequent dispatches for Atlantic Abroad.|
This essay was first published in The Atlantic Monthly and then, online, in the "Atlantic Abroad" section of the Atlantic's Website, at http://www.theatlantic.com/unbound/abroad/jt990526.htm. It is used here with the kind permission of the editors of The Atlantic Monthly. At Atlantic's Web site, you can also find hyperlinks to several other fine examples of descriptive writing.
Read Mark Twain's little piece (below) about the troubles he has with his new watch, as another example of narrative writing. (There is very little in the way of paragraphing in this narrative, and as you read along you might want to think about how you would break this piece into smaller units of thought for your reader.) Answer the questions we pose after Twain's essay and apply them as well to Jeffrey Tayler's essay above.
An Instructive Little Tale
by MARK TWAIN
My beautiful new watch had run eighteen months without losing or gaining, and without breaking any part of its machinery or stopping. I had come to believe it infallible in its judgments about the time of day, and to consider its constitution and its anatomy imperishable. But at last, one night, I let it run down. I grieved about it as if it were a recognized messenger and forerunner of calamity. But by and by I cheered up, set the watch by guess, and commanded my bodings and superstitions to depart. Next day I stepped into the chief jeweler's to set it by the exact time, and the head of the establishment took it out of my hand and proceeded to set it for me. Then he said, "She is four minutes slow regulator wants pushing up." I tried to stop him tried to make him understand that the watch kept perfect time. But no; all this human cabbage could see was that the watch was four minutes slow, and the regulator MUST be pushed up a little; and so, while I danced around him in anguish, and implored him to let the watch alone, he calmly and cruelly did the shameful deed. My watch began to gain. It gained faster and faster day by day. Within the week it sickened to a raging fever, and its pulse went up to a hundred and fifty in the shade. At the end of two months it had left all the timepieces of the town far in the rear, and was a fraction over thirteen days ahead of the almanac. It was away into November enjoying the snow, while the October leaves were still turning. It hurried up house rent, bills payable, and such things, in such a ruinous way that I could not abide it. I took it to the watchmaker to be regulated. He asked me if I had ever had it repaired. I said no, it had never needed any repairing. He looked a look of vicious happiness and eagerly pried the watch open, and then put a small dice box into his eye and peered into its machinery. He said it wanted cleaning and oiling, besides regulating come in a week. After being cleaned and oiled, and regulated, my watch slowed down to that degree that it ticked like a tolling bell. I began to be left by trains, I failed all appointments, I got to missing my dinner; my watch strung out three days' grace to four and let me go to protest; I gradually drifted back into yesterday, then day before, then into last week, and by and by the comprehension came upon me that all solitary and alone I was lingering along in week before last, and the world was out of sight. I seemed to detect in myself a sort of sneaking fellow-feeling for the mummy in the museum, and desire to swap news with him. I went to a watch maker again. He took the watch all to pieces while I waited, and then said the barrel was "swelled." He said he could reduce it in three days. After this the watch AVERAGED well, but nothing more. For half a day it would go like the very mischief, and keep up such a barking and wheezing and whooping and sneezing and snorting, that I could not hear myself think for the disturbance; and as long as it held out there was not a watch in the land that stood any chance against it. But the rest of the day it would keep on slowing down and fooling along until all the clocks it had left behind caught up again. So at last, at the end of twenty-four hours, it would trot up to the judges' stand all right and just in time. It would show a fair and square average, and no man could say it had done more or less than its duty. But a correct average is only a mild virtue in a watch, and I took this instrument to another watchmaker. He said the kingbolt was broken. I said I was glad it was nothing more serious. To tell the plain truth, I had no idea what the kingbolt was, but I did not choose to appear ignorant to a stranger. He repaired the kingbolt, but what the watch gained in one way it lost in another. It would run awhile and then stop awhile, and then run awhile again, and so on, using its own discretion about the intervals. And every time it went off it kicked back like a musket. I padded my breast for a few days, but finally took the watch to another watchmaker. He picked it all to pieces, and turned the ruin over and over under his glass; and then he said there appeared to be something the matter with the hair- trigger. He fixed it, and gave it a fresh start. It did well now, except that always at ten minutes to ten the hands would shut together like a pair of scissors, and from that time forth they would travel together. The oldest man in the world could not make head or tail of the time of day by such a watch, and so I went again to have the thing repaired. This person said that the crystal had got bent, and that the mainspring was not straight. He also remarked that part of the works needed half- soling. He made these things all right, and then my timepiece performed unexceptionably, save that now and then, after working along quietly for nearly eight hours, everything inside would let go all of a sudden and begin to buzz like a bee, and the hands would straightway begin to spin round and round so fast that their individuality was lost completely, and they simply seemed a delicate spider's web over the face of the watch. She would reel off the next twenty-four hours in six or seven minutes, and then stop with a bang. I went with a heavy heart to one more watchmaker, and looked on while he took her to pieces. Then I prepared to cross-question him rigidly, for this thing was getting serious. The watch had cost two hundred dollars originally, and I seemed to have paid out two or three thousand for repairs. While I waited and looked on I presently recognized in this watchmaker an old acquaintance a steamboat engineer of other days, and not a good engineer, either. He examined all the parts carefully, just as the other watchmakers had done, and then delivered his verdict with the same confidence of manner.
He said: "She makes too much steam you want to hang the monkey-wrench on the safety-valve!"
I brained him on the spot, and had him buried at my own expense.
My uncle William (now deceased, alas!) used to say that a good horse was a good horse until it had run away once, and that a good watch was a good watch until the repairers got a chance at it. And he used to wonder what became of all the unsuccessful tinkers, and gunsmiths, and shoemakers, and engineers, and blacksmiths; but nobody could ever tell him.
- A sense of immediacy: Although Twain's narrative is couched in the past tense, we sense that whatever is going on is happening in the very recent past or even now, as we speak. This is especially true as he goes from jeweler to jeweler to get his watch fixed. The appalling movement of his watch after each repair feels real to us. Although Twain's story is couched entirely in the past tense, the past tense does not feel past to us in fiction. In fact, short story writers and novelists call the simple past tense the "fictive present" or "fictional present" because when you're reading it, you feel as if you're reading something that is going on now.
- The sense of reality: Although we might sense that Twain exaggerates the erratic movements of his watch and his imagination is often fantastic, we also sense the reality of his condition. There's the shock of familiarity for you. We have heard automobile mechanics and computer technicians spout technical gibberish to us and been convinced that we had to spend lots of money to have our beloved devices brought back to life. Details, details, details. Showing instead of telling.
- Movement: Action is indispensable in a narrative essay, the sense of people and things moving through time and space. Close study of short story writers will pay off in the long run here. The non-intuitive device most of them use is knowing that when you want to describe something that happens very fast, your text and your selection of details and descriptions of action must slow down. It would be instructive to reproduce here comedian Eddie Murphy's description of his auntie falling down the stairs something she apparently did repeatedly, predictably, and without injury. Murphy reproduces all the sounds she makes at every step as his aunt bounces down the stairway, calling upon every saint and deity she ever heard of and pronouncing ruin upon the house and its residents. The bit is hilarious and takes probably a minute or more to describe what must have taken, in reality, only a couple of seconds. All of us, to our horror, know that "slow motion" effect as we slide on an icy road; the trick is to recapture that in our text. Practice by describing such an event or describing the details of eating an Oreo cookie or fig newton cookie. Leave nothing out.
- In media res: Twain's narrative jumps right into the telling. A Latin phrase, in media res, means just that, in the middle of things, and describes the technique by which story writers begin their tale in the middle of the action. Here, Twain picks up the story about his situation after something has already happened to get him to this place and time. Then he will harken back to the beginning, the necessary background. It's an age-old trick to get the reader involved immediately in the action of the story.
Feedback Form for WebCT Students: Click icon to the left for a form on which you can record your understanding of this material. (Password protected.)
- Quoted language: There is not much in the way of quoted language in Twain's narrative. Notice, though, how the little bits of conversation with the various jewelers seem to leap off the page especially at the very end. It's as if another sense has been called into play, as if you suddenly hear as well as see and read. Using quoted language is something that short-story writers and novelists must master before they get very far in their craft. It can be difficult to create this illusion of the spoken voice, but it's worth the effort, as nothing can make an essay feel more alive, faster, than to give your reader a bit of voice. It lends texture, dimension, to your essay.
- Knowing when to quit: Twain could undoubtedly have gone on and on with this kind of thing, but he was wise to quit when he did. Knowing when to quit is indispensable, but hard to learn. A good rule to live by: if you think your readers would like a little more, write the little bit more and then delete it before you hand over your text to anyone.
|POINTS TO PONDER:|
Besides “Please put your pencils down,” does any admissions-related instruction strike more angst into the heart of a senior than “Please submit a response to the following question in 500 words or less”? (At least we say please.)
As the application deadline approaches, my inbox has been peppered with panicked questions about word limits. Here are two illustrative snips from messages I recently received: “I have spent hours after hours perfecting the Common Application essay, but I am facing immeasurable adversity.” Oh, dear, “immeasurable adversity” sounds bad. My exasperated pen pal continued, “My essay has around 650 words, and if I cut it down to 500 words, the power of my essay seems to diminish significantly.” Let me be clear: diminished quality is never our goal when we set limits on these questions. The goal of the word count is an economy of prose. (Less is more.)
Another worried writer wrote, “I noticed one of my essays went over the word limit by about 20-25 words. I mean seriously, Mr. Coffin,” he typed in pained (feigned) protest as he struggled to contain his effusive response to the “Why Tufts?” question on our writing supplement. “50-100 words on an essay I could go on for days about…? Is this some kind of sick game?”
Contrary to what some of you might be thinking as you draft your college essays and short responses, admission officers are not in the torture business. I don’t covet Jessica Lange’s role as the sadistic nun on American Horror Story. (Quick sidebar: Love Ryan Murphy but I don’t think the asylum is as scary as last year’s Hollywood haunted house…) The application is not designed with the goal of making you twist and sweat as you thrash your keyboard against your desk. Seriously, I’m not that kind of guy. Ask my mom.
As I opine about essays and word limits, let’s see if I can practice what I preach and keep each topical paragraph under the 250 word limit we use on our writing supplement. Oh, the pressure is on… (That was 37 words…)
The word limits we set (maybe you’re thinking “impose” would be a more descriptive verb) on the various questions are guidelines. They signal the scope of what you should submit, not unlike an assignment for AP English. For example, your teacher assigns a critical paper about The Great Gatsby and she tells the class it should be 3-5 pages in length. In doing so, she shares her expectations for the assignment: a two-page paper is probably not a complete embrace of F. Scott Fitzgerald while a 10-page opus is too much love. In her wisdom, 3-5 pages should suffice to explore the topic in a full and complete way. She’s teaching you how to hone your thoughts into a cohesive, cogent narrative and that’s a valuable skill to learn. Just ask you parents if they’ve ever had to write or read a memo at work: no one likes a windbag. (150 words, still lots of breathing room within the limit…)
Although the Common Application server does have a hard character count when you submit an essay, generally-speaking the “limits” have some wiggle room. For example, when we suggest a response to “Why Tufts?” that’s 50-100 words the relatively low count is not a “sick game.” (If my e-mailer is reading this post, I know you were kidding but I appreciate the opportunity you gave me to make a point!) Instead, the limit is a signal that your response should be a couple of sentences highlighting a key thought or two rather than a lengthy discourse on the (many) virtues of Tufts. For example, here’s an effective 42-word answer (yes, it is eight words below the suggested range) from last year: “Tufts speaks to me. It has everything I'm looking for: internationalism, compassion, strong intellectual challenge, and uninhibited joy. It is the only school on my Twitter feed, the only one that unfailingly makes me smile, the only one that feels like home.” That response is pithy, clear and informative. Less was more. (172)
Rather than over-thinking the word limits, focus on the narrative you are creating. As you answer the writing supplemental and Common Application questions, what does your response tell us about you? My niece is a senior this year (she applied early to Bates) and she asked me to read her personal statement before she submitted it. She wrote a funny, interesting essay about her love of reading—and her passion for Stephen King novels in particular—that made me (unexpectedly) laugh out loud (a literal LOL) in several places as she imagined a blue mist swallowing cranky coupon-wielding customers at the supermarket where she works. When she asked me what I thought, I said it introduces her to Bates as “a witty bookworm with a passion for horror.” She smiled broadly and said, “That’s me!” Bingo. (135)
For EVERY piece of writing you offer as part of your college application, ask yourself this question: “What would the headline or sound bite be after someone reads this?” Can the reader distill an image or a message that would make you say “That’s me!” If so, you’ve done your job. The essay adds a jolt of your personality or aspirations or passions or perspective to our understanding of who you are. If not, keep typing. If you’re up to the word limit, delete or modify accordingly. (87)
As your fingers pound your keyboard and your screen fills with characters, focus on what you want us to know about you. Don’t flip that sentence around and try to tell us what you think we want to know about you. It’s your story: tell it in your own words. When given a choice (like on our third writing supplemental question), choose whichever prompt gives you the best vehicle to let your voice roar and soar. (If images resonate more than words as a way of telling us who you are, we welcome whatever medium clarifies your persona for us. Human narrative takes many forms: sing, draw, film or code your voice if that works for you.) (116)
If you love the musty smell of a used bookstore, tell us why old books make you happy. If you are a liberal poet with an affinity for slams at the local coffee shop and your father is a conservative banker who thinks you should major in “something that will make a lot of money,” describe the intellectual tension that frames the environment in which you were raised. If a double helix of DNA makes you giddy, celebrate your nerdy side. One of my colleagues just wandered into my office to celebrate the ED applicant who said his senior superlative would be “Most Likely to be the Crazy Cat Lady Down the Street.” I’m still chuckling. Sometimes a sense of humor goes a long way. (This one is 125; combine the last two paragraphs and it’ 241, still under 250.)
Think of the various short answers and essays as ingredients. Each adds flavor to the recipe that is your application. (Does this metaphor work?) If the dish needs more zest, find a way to add something new by rolling the dice a bit with one of your answers. In turn (at least at Tufts), the admissions officers will never roll our eyes if you take a leap and go somewhere unexpected. (Tufts is that kind of place.) (77)
Be playful. Be daring. Be creative. Above all, be true to yourself. Authenticity counts. We know what a 17-year sounds like when she writes. (Yes, I’m talking to you, Mom. Don’t over-edit your child’s voice into vanilla pabulum.) Stay within the word limits but don’t get distracted by that instruction. And let’s be real: if we didn’t give you any limits you’d be howling at us about how many pages you should write. (This penultimate paragraph is 73 words, easily within the 50-100 range if I were [the subjunctive tense!] answering “Why Tufts?”)
As you race towards the deadline, write what you want to write. Then save it. Reread it. Imagine a headline. Let the ideas steep like a good cup of tea. Edit it. And then submit it. And if you’re daunted by the command to use “500 words or less,” remember that you probably text more than that in a single day. (61)
And may the word count be ever in your favor. (10)
(This full post has 1,402 words. The sound you hear is the buzzer disqualifying it for violating its headline. I'm a windbag.)