“The idea is to write it so that people hear it and it slides right through the brain and goes straight to the heart.” – Maya Angelou
At times we make a statement clear by relating in detail something that has happened. In the story we tell, we present the details in the order in which they happened. A person might say, for example, “I was embarrassed yesterday,” and then go on to illustrate the statement with the following narrative:
I was hurrying across campus to get to a class. It had rained heavily all morning, so I was hop-scotching my way around puddles in the pathway. I called to two friends ahead to wait for me, and right before I caught up to them, I came to a large puddle that covered the entire path. I had to make a quick choice of either stepping into the puddle or trying to jump over it. I jumped, wanting to seem cool, since my friends were watching, but didn’t clear the puddle. Water splashed everywhere, drenching my shoe, sock, and pants cuff, and spraying the pants of my friends as well. “Well done, Dave!” they said. My embarrassment was all the greater because I had tried to look so casual.
The speaker’s details have made his moment of embarrassment vivid and real for us, and we can see and understand just why he felt as he did.
In this section, you will be asked to tell a story that illustrates or explains some point. The paragraphs below present narrative experiences that support a point. Read them and then answer the questions that follow.
Paragraphs to Consider
Bonnie and I had gotten engaged in August, just before she left for college at Penn State. A week before Thanksgiving, I drove up to see her as a surprise. When I knocked on the door of her dorm room, she was indeed surprised, but not in a pleasant way. She introduced me to her roommate, who looked uncomfortable and quickly left. I asked Bonnie how classes were going, and at the same time I tugged on the sleeve of my heavy sweater in order to pull it off. As I was slipping it over my head, I noticed a large photo on the wall – of Bonnie and a tall guy laughing together. It was decorated with paper flowers and a yellow ribbon, and on the ribbon was written “Bonnie and Blake.” “What’s going on?” I said. I stood there stunned and then felt anger that grew rapidly.
“Who is Blake?” I asked. “Bonnie laughed nervously and said, “What do you want to hear about – my classes or Blake?” I don’t really remember what she then told me, except that Blake was a sophomore math major. I felt a terrible pain in the pit of my stomach, and I wanted to rest my head on someone’s shoulder and cry. I wanted to tear down the sign and run out, but I did nothing. Clumsily I pulled on my sweater again. My knees felt weak, and I barely had control of my body. I opened the room door, and suddenly more than anything I wanted to slam the door shut so hard that the dorm walls would collapse. Instead, I managed to close the door quietly. I walked away understanding what was meant by a broken heart. Losing My Father
Although my father died ten years ago, I felt that he’d been lost to me four years earlier. Dad had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, an illness that destroys the memory. He couldn’t work any longer, but in his own home he got along pretty well. I lived hundreds of miles away and wasn’t able to see my parents often. So when my first child was a few weeks old, I flew home with the baby to visit them. After Mom met us at the airport, we picked up Dad and went to their favorite local restaurant. Dad was quiet, but kind and gentle as always, and he seemed glad to see me and his new little grandson. Everyone went to bed early. In the morning, Mom left for work. I puttered happily around in my old bedroom. I heard Dad shuffling around in the kitchen, making coffee.
Eventually I realized that he was pacing back and forth at the foot of the stairs as if he were uneasy. I called down to him, “Everything all right there? I’ll be down in a minute.” “Fine!” he called back, with forced-sounding cheerfulness. Then he stopped pacing and called up to me, “I must be getting old and forgetful. “When did you get here?” I was surprised, but made myself answer calmly. “Yesterday afternoon. Remember, Mom met us at the airport, and then we went to The Skillet for dinner.” “Oh, yes,” he said. “I had roast beef.” I began to relax. “But then he continued, hesitantly, “And … who are you?” My breath stopped as if I’d been punched in the stomach. When I could steady my voice, I answered, “I’m Laura; I’m your daughter. I’m here with my baby son, Max.” “Oh,” is all he said. “Oh.” And he wandered into the living room and sat down. In a few minutes I joined him and found him staring blankly out the window. He was a polite host, asking if I wanted anything to eat, and if the room was too cold. I answered with an aching heart, mourning for his loss and for mine.
Gary’s instructor was helping her students think of topics for their narrative paragraphs. “A narrative is simply a story that illustrates a point,” she said. ‘That point is often about an emotion you felt. Looking at a list of emotions may help you think of a topic. Ask yourself what incident in your life has made you feel any of these emotions.”
The instructor then jotted these feelings on the board:
As Gary looked over the list, he thought of several experiences in his life. “The word ‘angry’ made me think about a time when I was a kid. My brother took my skateboard without permission and left it in the park, where it got stolen. ‘Amused’ made me think of when I watched my roommate, who claimed he spoke Spanish, try to bargain with a street vendor in Mexico. He got so flustered that he ended up paying even more than the vendor had originally asked for. When I got to ‘sad,’ though, I thought about when I visited Bonnie and found out she was dating someone else. ‘Sad’ wasn’t a strong enough word, though – I was heartbroken. So 1 decided to write about heartbreak.”
Gary’s first step was to do some freewriting. Without worrying about spelling or grammar, he simply wrote down everything that came into his mind concerning his visit with Bonnie. Here is what he came up with his first draft.
Development through Revising
Gary knew that the first, freewritten version of his paragraph needed work. Here are the comments he made after he reread it the following day:
“Although my point is supposed to be that my visit to Bonnie was heartbreaking, I didn’t really get that across. I need to say more about how the experience felt.
“I’ve included some information that doesn’t really support my point. For instance, what happened to Bonnie and Blake later isn’t important here. Also, I think I spend too much time explaining the circumstances of the visit. I need to get more quickly to the point where I arrived at Bonnie’s dorm.
“I think I should include more dialogue, too. That would make the reader feel more like a witness to what really happened.”
With this self-critique in mind, Cary revised his paragraph until he had produced the version that appears above. Writing a Narrative Paragraph
WRITING ASSIGNMENT 1
Narrate a real-life event you have witnessed. Listed below are some places where interesting personal interactions often happen. Think of an event that you saw happen at one of these places, or visit one of them and take notes on an incident to write about.
The traffic court or small-claims court in your area
The dinner table at your or someone else’s home
A waiting line at a supermarket, unemployment office, ticket counter, movie theater, or cafeteria
A doctor’s office
An audience at a movie, concert, or sports event
A student lounge
a. Decide what point you will make about the incident. What one word or phrase characterizes the scene you witnessed? Your narration of the incident will emphasize that characteristic.
b. Write your topic sentence. The topic sentence should state where the incident happened as well as your point about it. Here are some possibilities:
I witnessed a heartwarming incident at Taco Bell yesterday.
Two fans at last week’s baseball game got into a hilarious argument.
The scene at our family dinner table Monday was one of complete confusion.
A painful dispute went on in Atlantic County small-claims court yesterday.
c. Use the questioning technique to remind yourself of details that will make your narrative come alive. Ask yourself questions like these and write down your answers:
Whom was I observing? How were they dressed?
What were their facial expressions like? What tones of voice did they use?
What did I hear them say?
d. Drawing details from the notes you have written, write the first draft of your paragraph. Remember to use time signals such as then, after that, during, meanwhile, and finally to connect one sentence to another.
After you have put your paragraph away for a day, read it to a friend who will give you honest feedback. You and your friend should consider these questions:
NARRATION CHECKLIST: The Four Bases
Does my topic sentence make a general point about the incident?
Do descriptions of the appearance, tone of voice, and expressions of the people involved paint a clear picture of the incident?
Is the sequence of events made clear by transitional words, such as first, later, and then?
Have I used a consistent point of view throughout my paragraph? Have I used specific rather than general words?
Have I avoided wordiness and used concise wording?
Are my sentences varied?
Have I checked for spelling and other sentence skills?
Continue revising your work until you and your reader can answer “yes” to all these questions.
In a story, something happens. For this assignment, tell a story about something that has happened to you.
Make sure that your story has a point, expressed in the first sentence of the paragraph. If necessary, tailor your narrative to fit your purpose. Use time order to organize your details (first this happened; then this; after that, this; next, this; and so on). Concentrate on providing as many specific details as possible so that the reader can really share your experience. Try to make it as vivid for the reader as it was for you when you first experienced it.
Use one of the topics below or a topic of your own choosing. Whatever topic you choose, remember that your story must illustrate or support a point stated in the first sentence of your paragraph.
A time you lost your temper
Your best or worst date
A time you took a foolish risk
An incident that changed your life
Your best or worst holiday or birthday, or some other day
A time you learned a lesson or taught a lesson to someone else
A time when you did or did not do the right thing
WRITING ASSIGNMENT 3
Write a paragraph that shows, through some experience you have had, the truth or falsity of a popular belief. You might write about any one of the following statements or some other popular saying.
It isn’t what you know, it’s whom you know.
Borrowing can get you into trouble.
What you don’t know won’t hurt you.
A promise is easier made than kept.
You never really know people until you see them in an emergency. If you don’t help yourself, nobody will.
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
Hope for the best but expect the worst.
Never give advice to a friend.
You get what you pay for.
There is an exception to every rule.
Nice guys finish last.
Begin your narrative paragraph with a topic sentence that expresses your agreement or disagreement with a popular saying or belief, for example:
“Never give advice to a friend” is not always good advice, as I learned after helping a friend reunite with her boyfriend.
My sister learned recently that it is easier to make a promise than to keep one.
Remember that the purpose of your story is to support your topic sentence. Omit details that don’t support your topic sentence. Also, feel free to use made-up details that will strengthen your support.
In this narrative paragraph, you will write with a specific purpose and for a specific audience. Imagine that a younger brother or sister, or a young friend, has to make a difficult decision of some kind. Perhaps he or she must decide how to prepare for a job interview, whether or not to get help with a difficult class, or what to do about a co-worker who is taking money from the cash register. Narrate a story from your own experience (or the experience of someone you know) that will teach a younger person something about the decision he or she must make. In your paragraph, include a comment or two about the lesson your story teaches. Write about any decision young people often face, including any of those already mentioned or those listed below.
Should he or she save a little from a weekly paycheck?
Should he or she live at home or move to an apartment with some friends?
How should he or she deal with a group of friends who are involved with drugs, stealing, or both?
Visit the Classic Short Stories site at http://www.bnl.com/shorts/bib.html. Choose one of the short stories listed and read it carefully, paying close attention to the writer’s tone and use of detail. Then, on a separate sheet of paper, write a new ending to the story you have read. Your ending may be a few paragraphs or a few pages long, but try to model the original story as closely as possible. Finally, write a paragraph in which you explain the choices you have made. What did you change about the original ending? Why?
Think of an experience you have had that demonstrates the truth of one of the statements below or another noteworthy saying – perhaps one that has been a guidepost for your life Then, using one of these statements as your thesis, write a narrative essay about that experience.
If you never have a dream, you’ll never have a dream come true. – popular saying
There are some things you learn best in calm, and some in storm. – Willa Cather
Success is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration – Thomas Edison
Source: Exploring Writing, by John Langan, copyright 2008, pages 219-226.