How to Create a Narrative Arc for Personal Essays

It’s true that all good stories have beginnings, middles and endings—but not always in that order. Find out how to organize your story and build a strong narrative arc in your personal essay that will interest readers (and agents).
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One of those pieces of writing advice so common that even non-writers have heard it, right up there with “write what you know,” is that a good story always has a beginning, a middle and an end. Of course, “write what you know” is somewhat misleading advice; we often write about what we think we know, in order to see if we really do.

(How to Bring Your Voice to Life in Personal Essays.)

Same thing with “beginning, middle and end.” It’s true that all good stories have them—but not always in that order. When writers speak of beginning, middle and end, they’re speaking of the arc of the narrative, not necessarily the linear or chronological order of events. True, sometimes writers do start their stories at the beginning, as we’d expect (sometimes at the very beginning, such as Charles Dickens’ opening to his novel David Copperfield: “Chapter One: I Am Born”). But often writers begin in the middle of the action, in medias res, in order to draw us in quickly. And, yes, sometimes writers even begin with the ending. It all depends on the arc.

An understanding of the chronological sequence of events is important in storytelling, but not as important as the narrative sequence, which is the structure that: 1) brings readers in and hooks their interest; 2) keeps them reading; and 3) leads them and the story to a fulfilling conclusion. That’s how beginning, middle and end function in a narrative.

How to Create a Narrative Arc for Personal Essays

LOOK AT THE BIG PICTURE

How you might best structure your personal essay really depends on several factors that will be specific to the story you intend to tell. An action-packed, tense piece about the time you accidentally ended up in a high-speed car chase, for example, might be far less exciting if it begins, “I am born,” and takes 30 years to get you behind the wheel. In such a case, you might want to begin in medias res, with something akin to:

I don’t hear my tires screeching madly—all I can hear is my own heartbeat thudding in my ears—but I know from the trail of smoke behind me that they are.

(On a side note, you might also want to consider taking the bus from now on.)

If, on the other hand, you’re telling a more introspective story in which a contemporary event causes you to look back and take stock, you might begin with the event itself:

On the day my father died, I found myself thinking back to …

The “ending” in chronological time is really the beginning of the introspection and, thus, the narrative. Knowing how to structure your story is a matter, again, of knowing your objective, what it is you’re hoping to accomplish with the telling. Nevertheless, there are certain things you should keep in mind when thinking of structure as a whole:

THE BEGINNING

Your story’s beginning should draw readers in, establish the tone of the piece and set up some aspect of the conflict or problem. In fact, a good opening line will often introduce much more than this, up to and including the overall plot and theme, and help tell you how the story should proceed.

Try several different first lines, some starting in the beginning, some in the middle and some at the end. See how each of these suggests a different approach to the story. Then choose the one that’s surprising and strong and sets the appropriate mood.

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Writing the Personal Essay 101

This course guides beginning and intermediate writers through elements of how to write a personal essay, helping them identify values expressed in their stories and bring readers into the experiences described. Writers learn how to avoid the dreaded responses of “so what?" and “I guess you had to be there" by utilizing sensory details, learning to trust their writing intuitions, and developing a skilled internal editor to help with revision.

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THE MIDDLE

The middle needs to keep the tension created by the conflict going. This is where you build the relationship between internal and external conflict that you’ll resolve, or not, with your ending.

If you’re having trouble in the middle of the story, step back and ask yourself: What is the external conflict I, as my “character,” am facing? What is the internal or emotional conflict? How are these really the same conflict? Recognizing this connection will show you how to ratchet up tension and conflict throughout this section.

THE END

The ending is where you resolve the conflict in some way and draw your final connections and conclusions about how you as the narrator have faced the conflict. In a personal essay, it’s tempting to save an ending for some kind of epiphany, but keep in mind that these types of endings are difficult to pull off because they must be fully earned over the course of the story. In other words, a personal essay in which you are a bit of a blockhead for six pages, only to realize in the last paragraph, “Hey, I’m a blockhead!” will have your reader asking why you didn’t realize this on Page 1 (or even years before). Consider how the ending reveals the meaning of the story, both for the narrator/writer and for the reader.

Remember that the structure isn’t necessarily the sequence of events as they happened in real life, but the sequence that makes sense for the narrative, that sets up the objective for the character in that moment, reveals (and sometimes revels in) the complications and conflicts facing her, and resolves these conflicts in some meaningful way.

CONSIDER TENSE AND NARRATIVE TIME

Along with thinking about plot and structure, the personal essayist must also consider the narrator’s closeness to, or distance from, the event being described in terms of both tense (past or present) and time (an event happening now versus an event that happened sometime earlier).

(25 Tips to Make You a Better Nonfiction Writer.)

At first glance, tense and time might seem to be the same thing. After all, everything that’s ever happened to us happened in the past, and thus past tense might seem like the most obvious choice in narrating your personal essay, no matter what it’s about.

But this isn’t necessarily the case, depending on the story you’re telling and what you’re trying to achieve. Choosing whether to narrate in the past or present tense makes a huge difference in how the story is received by the reader.

As a general rule, time and tense work this way: The past tense allows for perspective on the event, while the present tense allows for a sense of immediacy as the events unfold.

In our earlier example, the first lines about the car chase are delivered in the present tense, which puts the reader right there in the car beside the narrator, experiencing the excitement and anxiety as it happens. In this story, introspection isn’t as important as the action—though, at some point, you’ll have to move back to the beginning to reveal why you were in a car chase at all, and later, move forward to the end to show the consequences. Starting out in the past tense can be less effective in a story like this one. A first line that says, “On the day I lost my license, I was involved in a massive car chase,” seems to put the emphasis on the outcome (losing your license) rather than the unusual circumstances.

Let’s return to our other example, of the death of the narrator’s father. Past tense is the better choice here because the story requires introspection. The father’s passing is an event that triggers some memory for the narrator:

On the day my father died, I found myself thinking back to the old clunker he used to drive around town when I was a kid, the same car he used to drive me to school in, which filled my proud 12-year-old heart with shame.

This line certainly sets a somber, personal tone, and we can guess at what kind of thinking might follow. Here, narrating in the present tense might be inappropriate. A first line such as, “My father is dying, and I’m thinking about the old car he used to drive,” might come across as callous rather than meditative. 

So keep in mind that the narrator’s relationship to what’s being narrated—whether past or present tense, whether being remembered or happening right now—is of crucial importance in considering how to structure and deliver your story for maximum effect.

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