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Writing the Personal Narrative
Personal Narrative Defined:
The personal narrative is a compositional piece of writing, usually employing the first person, which entails a factual event, incident, experience, or person integral to the author’s life.
“The experiences we have are the basis of our dispositions, our world views, our characters, our ways of thinking, and our ability to undertake and integrate new experiences,” according to George Hillocks, Jr. in his book, “Narrative Writing: Learning a New Model for Teaching” (Heinemann, 2007, p. 1). “They are, in every meaningful way, who we are. When the experience is gone, our memories of it remain and become part of us. The way we integrate them into the stories of our lives determines our identities, how we see ourselves.”
They can serve several additional purposes for the writer, including enabling him to reflect on his experience; re-examine something that occurred in his childhood when he lacked the tools, understanding, maturity, development, intelligence, and even emotional capability; process and resolve misunderstood, emotionally charged incidents; integrate them, and understand how he was shaped by them.
What he chooses to write may be either consciously or only subconsciously known. If it falls into the latter category, it may become the first step to the revelation of its significance.
There is no such thing as an unimportant topic. If, for whatever reason, the writer chooses it, then it can be considered important to him.
For the reader, it vicariously enables him to purse the same path, experience the event as it then unfolded, share any feelings or sensations, assess potential growth or development, and be rewarded with the insight or wisdom the experience provided.
Like other writing forms, it can employ expository, narrative, and/or narrative summary types, and, depending upon length, can incorporate characters other than himself, settings, dialogue, inter-personal interactions, interior monologue, scenes, climaxes, and resolutions. It places the reader in the writer’s world for the duration of the story.
While it may not be definitively possible to determine the origin of ideas for the personal narrative or any other genre for that matter, they can certainly emanate internally, from a thought generated by the mind or inspiration of the soul, or externally from a countless number of stimuli. In either case, they give the author an opportunity to express, reflect, preserve, understand, work out, or complete something that formed a part of his life.
Ideas can spring from having the writer ask himself what changed him, what caused him to view the world differently, what effect did an influential person have on him, what realization did he have, what was one of his failures or successes, what occurred in his childhood that he has not yet processed, what evoked sadness, happiness, humor, surprise, fright, shame, or pride, what defied his logic or understanding, what reflected his essence or values, what proved contrary to them, and what helped him discover or understand something about himself.
There are several writing guidelines to keep in mind regarding the personal narrative. The author should, first and foremost, strive to tell a clear, well-developed story with the appropriate details that contribute to it. Well-organized and linked by logical transitions, it should feature an optimum mixture of vocabulary and varied sentence structure. Finally, grammatical, spelling, and punctuation errors, even before the editing stage, should be insignificant enough so that they do not interfere with first draft understanding.
Compositionally, its actions should be specifically and appropriately narrated with character gestures, expressions, postures, and movements. If scenes are employed, they should contain visual details so that the reader is able to picture them in his mind, and realism should be increased with the use of dialogue, character interaction, interior monologue, and actions. It can be particularly enhanced with the use of several senses. The author should, if at all possible, express any recalled feelings, emotions, and sensations he experienced as he reconnects with his past incidents and include any realizations or insights they evoked.
Pacing implies the speed and intervals with which the events are recounted and it can be both accelerated to accommodate time, illustrate mood changes, and omit unnecessary details, and reduced to elaborate upon or highlight those events that are crucial to the moment and integral to the climax, if any. The latter can create tension, suspense, or surprise.
If more than one scene is included, then the author must determine the interrelation and importance between them.
Integral to effective personal narrative writing is the use of concrete detail so that the author can create a sense of reality and immediacy, and arose an empathetic response in his readers.
“Perhaps the most important quality of effective stories is concrete detail,” according to Hillocks, Jr. (ibid, p.43). “Specific details allow readers to see scenes in their own minds as they read. But effective specific detail may be the most difficult quality to achieve. Writers have to remember or imagine what it is they want to portray, search their memories for words to do it, arrange the words in effective syntax, (and) evaluate the effort by comparing it with the version in their mind… “
The types and number of details are equally important. By selecting and incorporating those events that illustrate the story and complete its narrative purpose, and eliminating those that offer little effect, the text will be concisely and cohesively illustrative.
If the writer, for example, wishes to discuss what occurred at his afternoon board meeting, he does not need to mention what time he woke up that day, what he had for breakfast, and which activities characterized his morning.
Other important elements to be considered are readership, length, and style.
In the first case, the author needs to ask himself what his intended audience is and how relevant his composition will be to them. His friends and relatives, for example, may enjoy reminiscing about incidents they shared with him, but how important will they be in the greater arena where readers have never met him?
The impact his incident had on him and, to a degree, the interval during which it occurred, will, in the second case, determine his narrative’s length. If, for instance, he wishes to write about his last drive to the beach, he may be able to cover it in only a page. If, on the other hand, he wishes to explore the impact his parent’s divorce had on him when he was nine, it would most likely require several pages to explore, if not a longer memoir.
Style, the third aspect, may hinge upon writing proficiency and experience, but entails considerations of language, forcefulness, syntax, and control over stylistic devises, including the use of humor, suspense, and foreshadowing, among other author voice determinants.
There are several types of writing and the personal narrative, like many genres, may employ all or any combination of them.
Expository writing, the first of these, is primarily fact-oriented. It presents information, explains, analyzes, and discusses ideas. Think of an essay. It tells, illustrates, explains, and reviews what occurs. In this type of writing, the author speaks. He seeks to “expose” through it and it is usually associated with reports, dissertations, newspaper and magazine articles, encyclopedia entries, and history books, but it is used to tell, inform, and explain in all literary forms, including memoirs, biographies, creative nonfiction pieces, flash fiction, short fiction, and novels.
“Narrative, which is simply the act and art of storytelling, (is the second of them and) makes use of several modes of discourse: scene, summary, and exposition among them,” according to Bill Roorbach in “Writing Life Stories: How to Make Memories into Memoirs, Ideas into Essays, and Life into Literature” (Writer’s Digest Books, 2008, p. 45).
“Every narrative makes use of these, with different writers giving different emphasis to each. A scene takes place in a specific time and place, records events, actions, talk, stuff happening.” It shows, through scenes, dialogue, features, feelings, facial expressions, interior monologue, actions, and character interactions, what occurs, as if the reader had a front-row seat in a play on stage. In narrative writing, the characters speak.
Narrative summary, which combines elements of both of these, provides a collapsed-event, condensed-form illustration of a particular story and offers a brief mention of people and places, minimizing interaction, as illustrated through dialogue. It generalizes time, but still moves the plot along.
Depending upon the length, depth, detail, and writing types employed, the personal narrative can incorporate many or all of the following elements.
Hook: An interesting, unique, enticing, or evocative opening, consisting of a single statement or short paragraph, which “hooks” or lures the reader into the piece, sparking the interest or intrigue that will propel him through it.
Inciting incident: The event or conflict that sets the story in motion.
The location and time of the narrative.
Characters: Those, other than the author himself, who were involved in his real-life incident or episode.
Dialogue: The conversations and verbal interactions between the narrative’s characters.
Interior monologue: The thoughts the author wishes to share with his readers, even though they are not otherwise audibly expressed.
Scenes: The character interaction, dialogue, and actions illustrated in narrative style.
Emotions: The emotions, feelings, and sensations evoked as a result of the narrative’s events.
Resolution: The successful outcome, along with any knowledge, wisdom, and insight, the author may wish to capture at the end of his story.
Transitions links similar and divergent thoughts, expressed in individual words, phrases, or entire sentences, together, creating logical connections for the reader. Consider the following: “He was very poor. However, he was rich in insight.” Here the transition “however” provides both an exception and a contrast.
As signposts, they facilitate the reader’s direction of thought and argument, enabling him to determine how to think about, organize, and react to the information they connect. They provide relationships between ideas. Like seams between puzzle pieces, they foster the inter-relation between them so that he can understand how the writer’s thoughts and facts have been cohesively assembled.
Personal narratives, like pieces belonging to other genres, are subdivided in two fundamental ways. The first is the order in which details, events, points, people, arguments, and actions are presented, and the second is the relationships between them. In the later case, transitions are the helping hands in their connection.
Placed at the beginning, middle, and/or end of sentences, paragraphs, and even sections of longer works, these logical inks enable the reader to compare, comprehend, and anticipate, like switches in railroad tracks, the journey of information encountered.
Setting is the location or stage where the narrative takes place and can lace any action with mood, meaning, and thematic connotations. Longer pieces may incorporate two or more settings. Although they can range from an elementary school classroom to an Eskimo settlement above the Arctic Circle, there are several aspects to them.
The “locale,” for instance, entails a house, street, neighborhood, city, state, or country, among others. The “time of day” can encompass dawn, afternoon, dusk, and midnight, and of the year, summer, the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, and New Year’s Eve. “Elapsed time” implies the time required for the scene to play out, such as ten minutes, the time between scenes, such as a day, and the elapsed time the narrative covers, such as a week. Flashbacks and backstory will amend these totals. ‘Mood and atmosphere” include such elements as the weather, the temperature, light, darkness, and twilight. And “climate” entails designations like tropical, Sahara, and monsoon.
Since the personal narrative entails something the author himself has done or experienced, including how he dealt with it and what he learned from it, he can be considered its “character.” His story, however, may entail others.
Characters themselves can be illustrated in two fundamental ways: physical description and personality.
In the former case, it might entail height, weight, hair color, eye color, facial features, mannerisms, and voice tone, such as raspy or high-pitched. In the latter case, the character’s personality, which is far more important than his visual image, is illustrated through his actions, ways, thoughts, feelings, and viewpoints.
Personality, in psychological terms, can be considered a consistency or continuity of these very aspects. Whatever a person does, feels, or thinks originates within him, reflecting his psyche, and is translated into behavior, which can be considered fairly reliable in the prediction of it. Combined with his predominant, commonly exhibited traits, such as caring or careless, reliable or unreliable, and neat or sloppy, it reflects his essence or what makes him tick.
The author is thus tasked with taking numerous behavioral characteristics and reducing them to a few illustrative mannerisms, attributes, and defects, manifested in his actions and interactions with others. The manner in which the person does and says things is the final determinant of his personality.
Dialogue audibly expresses thoughts, feelings, intentions, and actions between two or more characters, while interior monologue, or “silent dialogue,” reflects what a person thinks. Usually written in italics, it allows the reader to tune into what the person is running through his mind. Single characters, of course, can speak to themselves aloud.
Dialogue should reflect a character’s opinion, viewpoint, educational level, culture, accent, and region, and should approximate how he really speaks, even if it is grammatically incorrect or nonstandard and his sentences are incomplete.
Quotation marks should surround what people say and should be followed by a comma and a dialogue tag, which itself should be restricted to terms such as “he said” and “Sarah asked.” With the exception of those like “William yelled,” “Jonathan screamed,’ and “Lorraine whispered” that emphasize volume, emotions such as anger and happiness should be reflected by the character’s behavior. Adverbs, as in “Jennifer said joyfully,” should be minimized if not altogether eliminated.
Each time a new person speaks, the sentence, in quotes, should be indented. Dialogue tags themselves should be used sparingly-that is, when it is not clear who is s peaking, when there are more than two characters, and when they have not been used for some time.
Thoughts, Feelings, and Senses:
Tantamount to the understanding of and reader connection with characters in a personal narrative is the ability to illustrate their inner thoughts, feelings, and sensations.
The latter two, particularly, can be expressed both explicitly and implicitly, enabling the author to illustrate both what occurred and how his characters felt when it did-in other words, how it affected them. Interior monologue can be an effective technique in exposing their thoughts to the reader.
Events usually generate both thoughts and feelings. If, for example, the character’s grandmother passes away and serves as the event, then his thought may be, I’ll have to take off from work tomorrow to attend the funeral, and his feeling may be, I’m so sad. I feel so empty. Similarly, if close friends send the character an invitation to their son’s wedding and this serves as the event, her thought may be, It was really nice of them to include me, and her feeling may be, I feel grateful and honored that they want me to join in on their celebration.
Any type of writing can be significantly enhanced and its descriptions rendered more vivid by incorporating as many of the five senses-that is, sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste-as possible, so that the writer can transfer the images in his mind to the reader’s, creating a more immersive experience. Although the first of these, sight, is most prevalently used and it is often difficult to replicate the others on paper, the effort will produce far greater realism.
In the case of sight, it usually precedes the experiences of the other senses-that is, a person will see a shirt on the rack in a department store before he actually touches it and tries it on or view the donuts in a box before he tastes them. Description therefore begins in the writer’s eye and can incorporate aspects such as size, shape, color, physical properties, and even comparisons. The process can be aided by using an item’s or object’s proper name, such as “African violet” as opposed to just “flower.”
Sound, the next sense, “plays an important part in many narratives,” according to Hillocks Jr. (op. cit. p. 83). “Sometimes they are used to underscore the importance of an event, sometimes to set a scene, sometimes to make an important point about a character.”
Sound-incorporating literary techniques include indicating the sound’s source, describing its character, using words that sound like it (onomatopoeia), and employing analogies or similes to describe it. The technique can be aided by taking them apart, thinking of words or phrases which describe their rhythm and tone, and modifying them with adjectives, such as “The fluffy bedroom slippers whispered as they swept across the hardwood floor.”
Smell is another often avoided sense employed in writing because there are few words that can adequately describe it, leaving the writer to use comparisons to serve the purpose. As the most primitive one, however, it is also the strongest, linking memory with emotion. The scents of blooming flowers and pine, for instance, can certainly pave a neurological path to, respectively, spring and Christmas. Descriptions of an odor’s properties can also enhance reader transfer, sparking olfactory memories. Ammonia, for instance, can be described as “abrasive,” “sharp,” and “nostril-piercing.”
Touch, a tactile sensation contingent upon intimate contact with a person or a physical object, requires describing texture and temperature, as in “scratchy wool blanket” or “soft, mushy mashed potatoes.”
Taste can be most effectively described in terms of the tongue’s gustatory map of sweet, salty, sour, and bitter. Comparisons are also useful, as is paring it with other senses. For example, “The sweet iced tea tempered the sultry heat that July day.”
There are several other techniques, over and above sensory imagery, which can enhance writing descriptions.
Onomatopoeia, as already alluded to, consists of using words that emulate the sounds they represent, such as “buzz,” “sizzle,” “bonk,” “honk,” “thud.”
Another is the use of metaphor.
“Metaphor, like all components of successful description, begins in the eye and ear of the beholder,” according to Rebecca McClanahan in “Word Painting: A Guide to Writing More Descriptively’ (Writers Digest Books, 1999, p. 87). “It isn’t a fancy embroidery stitch. It’s the whole cloth out of which the writing is formed.”
An ideally used metaphor indicates that the writer has a good perception of resemblances and inter-relationships. Unlike literary speech, it is a figure of speech or a comparison between two seemingly unlike people, concepts, or things, enhancing or shedding light on them. Consider the following metaphor. “My past is an ocean in which I’m drowning.”
Simile is yet another descriptive technique. Although it is similar to the metaphor, it differs in that it is a comparison which uses words such as “like” and “as,” but still requires the comparison between unlike concepts. “Your past is an ocean in which you’re drowning” (metaphor) as opposed to “Your past is like an ocean in which you’re drowning” (simile). “That big lake is like an ocean” is neither because of the similarity of the water bodies. “Waiting for the dentist to enter the examination room was like being strapped to the electric chair” is another example of a simile.
A hyperbole is an exaggerated metaphor or simile. For example, “His boss is a weasel.”
Personification entails giving non-living objects, abstract things, and nature human qualities, properties, and emotions, such as “The tree bent over and sagged to the ground until it cried.”
Finally, synethesia entails using one stimulation to evoke or suggest another. It is almost a crossbreeding of the two senses. “It smelled blood red”-combines sight (color) with smell (blood). “Nightmares are like tsunami waves, crashing on to your shore until you’re drenched by them”-combines sight (tsunami wave), sound (crashing), and touch (drenched). Which senses does the following sentence employ: “The ocean air was salty and fishy.”
A scene, a unit of story structure, is a sequence of continuous action within a short time frame and incorporates characters, dialogue, actions themselves, and reactions, and can reveal both time and place. Employing narrative writing technique, it can consist of a single, stand-alone episode or incident or, in the case of several, can depend upon the previous one as its foundation or serve as the stepping stone to the next.
“We think of settings as natural landscapes and inanimate objects, such as buildings and machinery,” according to Hillocks Jr. (op. cit., p. 111). “(But) scenes are settings that include people doing things, descriptions of action.”
They serve to move the story forward, establish character causes-and-effects, reveal the consequences of a previous scene, foreshadow what may occur in the next or subsequent ones, subdivide the narrative into smaller units of action, and provide character interface. They can incorporate mini-story arcs-that is, those with beginnings, middles, and ends that are characterized by small climaxes or points of tension. They can feature new direction, decisions, and character change.
They should, however, have a high degree of specificity or concrete details.
“Accordingly, the scale for specificity… is concerned with the presence, elaboration, and focus of details of action, of sensory impression, of internal responses of the body and emotions of imagery and figurative language, and dialogue both internal and between characters,” Hillocks Jr. continues (ibid, p. 23).
Scenes, or episodic elaborations, can potentially encompass numerous aspects, including the inciting incident that changes the protagonist’s (the main character’s) position, condition, and/or environment; the conflict which creates the goal that will rectify of resolve it; an internal response, which may be implied or reflected in the emotional reaction that forms and fuels his quest; the protagonist’s effort to embark upon and pursue it; the antagonist, represented by an actual person or circumstance that opposes that quest; a consequence, indicating whether that goal has been achieved; a reaction to the consequence, which can either be emotional in nature or the catalyst to the formulation of a new or secondary goal; rising tension; a climax, and the character change that results from the journey. As with all scenes, it should contain one or more characters, a setting, dialogue, interaction, and the action itself.
Revision entails the addition, deletion, reorder, rewording, condensing, strengthening, and tightening of the author’s personal narrative, as initially captured in first draft form, to improve its clarity, cohesion, and flow.
“… (It) involves evaluating a text against the writer’s plan as it related to (his) intended audience, persona, meaning, and semantic layout,” according to Hillocks Jr. (ibid, p. 126).
The process involves a change from generating text to self-assessing it, critiquing it, and finally correcting it.
Additions, particularly, improve its understanding, rectify inconsistencies, insert information that may otherwise be lacking, and increase reader interest and impact, while deletions, which can encompass single words, phrases, clauses, sentences, and paragraphs, eliminate superfluous, redundant, and irrelevant material. Reordering creates a more logical sequence of it, placing that which subsequent events, actions, dialogue, and scenes depend ahead of them.
“Students need to learn that revising is a process of re-seeing what has been written,” Hillocks Jr., concludes (ibid, p. 127). “If writers can see what they have written in a different way, they will be able to improve it.”
The actual process entails comparing and evaluating the first draft against the outline, if that step was employed; identifying the reason(s) for the mismatches or discrepancies; selecting the appropriate revision remedies; and executing them to produce a second or subsequent draft.
The process itself can be enhanced by allowing some time to pass between the initial revision and the rereading of it, reading the draft aloud, and having others read it aloud to the writer.
Hillocks, George, Jr. “Narrative Writing: Learning a New Model for Teaching.” Portsmouth, New Hampshire: Heinemann, 2007.
McClanahan, Rebecca. “Word Painting: A Guide to Writing More Descriptively”. Cincinnati, Ohio: Writer’s Digest Books, 1999.
Roorbach, Bill, with Kristen Keckler, PhD. “Writing Life Stories: How to Make Memories into Memoirs, Ideas into Essays, and Life into Literature.” Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, 2008.
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