Narrative Essay Assignment


The Basics:


3-5 typed pages (8-12 paragraphs).  I encourage you to devise an original title.




For this essay, I am asking you to tell a story about something that happened to you.  There’s a catch, of course, but recognize that the assignment starts out that simply and that straightforwardly.  Think of a moment when you felt something significant happening to you, and then write about it.


The “catch,” if you want to call it that, is that I would like you to narrate your story so that you concentrate the majority of it on a single instant.  As you tell what happened, imagine as if time were standing still and you found yourself able to analyze a whole range of simultaneous and conflicting thoughts. 


Appropriate topics: 


The most obvious possibilities for an essay like this are dramatic events, things such as car accidents (or close calls), the final second of an exciting sporting event, reaching the end of some goal, or finally solving some mystery.  There are countless more subtle possibilities, however.  You might also consider quieter moments where you felt conflicted.  Have you ever found yourself alone after some powerful experience?  Have you ever had to say goodbye to someone or found yourself in new and lonelier surroundings?


The key to whatever you do select is that you recognize a single instant in which you had conflicted thoughts.  Be careful to focus on that one moment for 4-5 full paragraphs.  If that sounds like a lot, we’ll discuss specific strategies for doing so during class.  In selecting your topic, you will make your writing richer if you can find an event about which you still have somewhat conflicted thoughts.


Some pitfalls:


Don’t let yourself be fooled by the idea of “time standing still.”  Time often seems to stop; in fact, I suspect it stops regularly for most people in Effective Writing.  All that I ask is that you find a moment when you had so many different ideas that ¾ if we could stop time and examine your mind under a microscope ¾ we would see several ideas that bounce off of one another.


As you write, work on building up to your climax ¾ the moment at the heart of your essay ¾ efficiently.  You will probably cover months or even years in the first 2-4 paragraphs and then reduce the scope of your narrative to a single instant for the next 4-5.  That calls for real control.  You will probably need to revise your beginning several times before you are able to build up to your climax as directly as I hope.


Consider the difference between feelings and thoughts; then be careful to focus on your thoughts.  Thinking about what you felt during the climax of your narrative is a good way to brainstorm, but be careful to move on and think about what your corresponding thoughts were.  It might help if I put that same idea another way: try to avoid adjectives such as “happy” and “lonely” in favor of nouns and verbs that describe your specific reactions. 


Features of the best essays:


I hope you will manage to accomplish two things as you write this essay.  First, I want to see you conscious of the basic strategy here.  Find a way to tell a story so that you focus on one instant in the midst of something that took a great deal longer, whether a 2-3 hour evening or all of your life.


Second, I hope you will also find a way to explore some conflicts that you might or might have resolved by now.  Take a look at George Orwell’s essay for the way his head ¾ his sense that colonialism was an evil and the natives he knew were victims ¾ battles his heart ¾ his own ego and his own insecurities.  His essay is an awfully good model of what a brief narrative can show about the conflicts we keep inside ourselves.