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Making a Scene: Writing a narrative essay

Written by Jincy Kornhauser at Pearson Tutor Services

In real life, we are wise to avoid “making a scene”—calling attention to ourselves with striking visible behavior that turns strangers in our immediate vicinity into an audience whether they want to be or not.

When writing a narrative essay, though, making at least one scene is vital. A scene is a sequence of events unfolding in “real time.”  A scene doesn’t sum up events: It shows them, moment by moment.  Most successful narrative essays are neither all-summary (telling) or all-scene (showing).  If a narrative contains no scenes, then the story it tells will seem far away and not very involving; if it is one scene after another with no summing-up parts, it will usually exhaust readers, who will, at some point, begin to wonder what all these events add up to.

When you are assigned to write a narrative essay, and you’ve chosen a particular event in your life to narrate—a particular turning point or otherwise truly memorable event—your next job will be to decide which parts of the story should be summed up and which should be rendered as scenes.

For example: If I decided to tell the story of my earliest interaction with someone from another culture, I might tell about the time I went to summer camp and met a Russian child whose father was an ambassador. This was during the Cold War, when our two cultures virtually never interacted, so meeting this girl was a real shock. I might describe the scene of our first meeting, giving my first impressions; I might then tell (in summary form) about how this girl interacted with others, and the trouble she had making friends; I might focus then on the turning point, the moment when I realized we had a lot in common, and I’d describe that moment in detail, including what was going on at that time and where we were, and what we said. Then I’d sum up the meaning of the story for me and explain why it has lingered in my mind all these years.

Do you see that the heart of the narrative would be the turning point?  It would be a scene, and it would take up more space in the essay than the rest of the story.  The scene would show the essence of the story—and my reason for telling it.

Suppose, on the other hand, I were writing a narrative about being a writer having my first experience of rejection. I might begin with an introduction explaining that I’m an established writer of short fiction—that I’ve been writing for a number of years and have been published in numerous magazines and journals. At the end of my introductory paragraph, I might say something like “While my early stories were eagerly snapped up by literary journals, I can honestly say that my career as a successful writer truly began when the New Yorker rejected one of my stories.”  (Do you see that this last sentence alerts the reader that I’m about to tell the story about that particular rejection?)

In my first body paragraph, I might talk about the story itself and my high expectations for its success; I might describe putting it into the mail and beginning to count down the days until I heard back from the magazine.

In my second body paragraph, I might zero in on the morning when that envelope came through the mail slot of my front door: I might show myself drinking coffee and eating breakfast—a particular breakfast, like pancakes or whatever—and chatting with my husband, etc., and then I hear the small thud of the envelope hitting the floor, and I run to the door.

In my third body paragraph, I might show myself opening up that envelope and reading, in disbelief and crushing disappointment, a form rejection slip from the magazine that I hoped would launch my nationwide career.  Note that these two paragraphs together would constitute a scene.

In subsequent paragraphs, I’d take the reader through my reactions/responses to this disappointment. At some point I’d show myself realizing that the magazine was right—that the story really wasn’t all that good—that I had become complacent. I’d show myself determining to do better. In my last paragraph, I might bring the reader up to date with my subsequent successes, and I’d end with remarks on the importance of failure in making ultimate success possible.

When mapping out your narrative essay, probably the most direct way to decide what should be rendered as a scene is to rummage through your own memory banks.  You’ll find that the important moments in that story—the scenic moments—will have left behind a wealth of detail, sensory or otherwise.  You’ll remember the weather, the scent in the air, the song that was playing in the background, the exact look on someone’s face…  Let those memories guide you as you fashion your narrative.

So:  When telling your story, identify the heart of that story, and present it as a scene.

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