Introduction to Personal Essay Assignment

[Definitions] [How to Write a Description]
[How to Write a Character Skethch] [How to Write a Narrative]

The paper for this project should be about 4 or 5 pages long, and it should be double spaced. According to the syllabus, the first paper for English 300A is a personal narrative, description, or character sketch. All three of these kinds of writing are basically creative writing. When you write this kind of paper, you are trying to create an image that the reader can recreate in her imagination.

Here are the basic definitions of each kind of writing. I have changed the order to reflect increasing complexity.

How to Write a Description

Because a description is a text that creates an image in the mind of the reader, it should give information to the reader in the same way that the reader would get the information directly. If a person were actually observing the same thing as the writer describes, how would she take in the information?

Let's suppose that you are trying to describe a scene. What would the person do to get the image of the scene into her imagination if she were actually there? She see things; she would hear things, smell things, feel things. She would take these things in either in some kind of sequence or simultaneously. Her observation of the scene would create a mood in her mind, and the mood would then become the tone of the image for her and that tone would highlight certain parts of the scene and diminish others.

The writer becomes the observer in place of the reader. You become the reader's eyes, ears, nose, and body. So the first thing to do is to collect this kind of information. What do you see, hear, feel, smell? Write down specific observations. What shape are the various things you see? What colors? Where are they in relationship to each other? What do you smell? What is the scent like? What do you feel? Make the details as specific and concrete as possible. Related to being the reader's body is the notion that you supply a "point of view" for the reader. Where are you as you describe the scene? Let the reader know.

The writer also becomes the soul of the reader. What mood does the scene create? What is it reminiscent of? Why does this scene create this emotion or mood? Given this mood, which of the details recorded earlier stand out? Which seem to be insignificant? How does the mood change the character of the specific things you see and hear? As you write the description, select from the details that reinforce the mood you want to create.

The writer also becomes the consciousness of the reader. A person's consciousness is like a pilot. It directs the attention. Given the mood you want to create in the description and the selection of details you want to emphasize, you now must consider what order most strategically reinforces the mood or impression you want to create. The order for a description can be spatial, thematic, or impressionistic.

If you follow a spatial pattern, you begin usually by describing the whole scene briefly and then by focusing on one place in the scene, describing it in detail and then moving on to an adjacent place in the scene and describing it. The whole description continues as you move in a systematic description of each section of the whole.

If you follow a thematic pattern, you divide the scene into mental categories, and regardless of their actual relationship to each other in space, you describe elements that support one theme and then another theme. This pattern is really closer to classification than to description, but it is a description as long as you continue to create pictures within the subsections.

If you follow an impressionistic pattern, you imagine, given the mood of the observer, what things would draw attention to themselves first, and then second, and so on. The description would then present these details in the order that they would normally be noticed.

Overall, a good description should create a mood or tone by giving concrete details in a strategic sequence. The reader should have a strong sense of the whole scene, but should also be able to conjure up specific details easily.


How to Write a Character Sketch

When you write a character sketch, you are trying to introduce the reader to someone. You want the reader to have a strong mental image of the person, to know how the person talks, to know the person's characteristic ways of doing things, to know something about the person's value system. Character sketches only give snap shots of people; therefore, you should not try to write a history of the person.

A good way to write a character sketch is to tell a little story about one encounter you had with him or her. If you do that, you could describe a place briefly, hopefully a place that belongs to the person you are describing, focusing on things in the scene that are somehow representative of the person you are describing. Describe how the person is dressed. Then simply tell what happened as you spent time together. From time to time, describe the person's gestures or facial expressions. It is important to put words into the person's mouth in direct quotations.

As you work on this paper, you should decide what kind of emotional reaction you want the reader to have in relationship to this person. What kind of details can you select to create that emotional reaction? Avoid making broad characterizing statements; instead, let the details you give suggest general characteristics. Let the reader draw her own conclusions.


How to Write a Narrative

If you choose to write a narrative, it should be a story in which either you or someone you know well was actually involved. You should avoid stories that simply recount accidents. What I mean is this: a good story needs to have the element of choice in it. If you describe an accident, you need to show that decisions led up to it. This story should be about people, about the decisions they make and the consequences that follow.

A narrative is a moving picture. Like description, narratives need to have a rich texture of details so that the reader is seeing, hearing, smelling, and touching. The reader should experience the story, not simply hear it.

Stories add the element of time to description. Often stories start at the beginning and then follow the sequence of events chronologically. However, an effective variation on this pattern is to start in the middle of things and then use flashbacks to fill in the background information. This method is especailly effective in holding the reader's attention.

There are two extremes you want to avoid in writing a narrative. First, you can simply tell the story, event by event, without giving it any texture because you leave out descriptive details and dialogue. At the opposite extreme is a narrative that attempts to tell everything, painting detailed descriptions of every scene, quoting everything that is said, even speculating about the thoughts of the characters. A good narrative has texture, but it is suggestive rather than exhaustive. After all, the reader's imagination needs some room to fill in details. Giving too many details not only overwhelms the reader's imagination, it also slows the pace of the narrative.

Pacing is an important concept in narrative writing. Basically, pacing means that the writer sometimes slows the pace by putting more detail in, but sometimes she also hurries over details. A good way to know where to put in details and where to leave them out is to think of a narrative as consisting of episodes (smaller scenes that are strung together to make up a longer story). If you divide your story into a few short episodes, then you want suggestive detail within the episodes, but you want to hurry over the transitions between them. Think of episodes as pearls on a string. Make the pearls full orbed; keep the string stringy. The reader dwells in the episodes, but she needs to be oriented to them, and that is the function of the transitions.

As with description, point of view is important. What position is the story being told from? Another way of talking about this is to talk about the story's narrator. The narrator is not the writer, but the consciousness through which the story is told. Sometimes the story is told in third person, which means that every one is referred to as he, or she, or they. Sometimes, however, it is told in first person, which means that the narrator refers to himself as "I" and is actually involved in the story. Not all narrators are reliable.

The more sophisticated narratives become, the more problematic is the narrator. When the narrator tells the story in first person, but details in the story lead the reader to suspect that the narrator is not reliable, the result is irony. Irony is a narrative condition in which the reader and the writer share a common judgmental attitude toward the narrator, or when the reader knows more than the narrator and characters in the story.

For this assignment, it is probably better to tell the story as straight as possible. Irony is hard to pull off successfully. If you want to experiment with narrative form, I would suggest that you start somewhere in the middle of things and then use flashbacks. Also work on putting in suggestive but not overwhelming detail and dialogue. Try dividing your story into short episodes that build on each other. If you can pattern a sequence of events so that the story has some kind of climax (a scene of great tension and even explosion) followed by a denoument (a scene in which everything is worked out), you will have done more than many of us can.