How to write narrative essays using scenes
STRONG NARRATIVE ESSAYS are always moving. They start with action–the narrator snowboarding with the Aspen Ski Patrol, for example, then deepen the scene with descriptions–the dry powder, the steep bowls, the late January sky.
Then they quickly move to background information–aspects of the ski patrol, how they respond to calls–and then cycle back over and over.
When the writer does this well, the reader keeps moving too. Information that might otherwise slow the reader down (for example, details of the training and certifications needed to get on the ski patrol) becomes acutely important and relevant when it’s sandwiched between dramatic scenes of patrol-members getting a call, then riding out to help the victim.
Your ability then, to maintain and control momentum throughout an essay depends on the way you form scenes.
How to Break Your Essay into Scenes
. . a scene is a unit of drama.
The easiest way to create scenes is to decide on a simple and single “event” to use as a narrative framework. This is the ongoing “story-line” to which you’ll add the facts, ideas, and information you want to convey.
The most obvious events already have a kind of inherent dramatic structure built in, like climbing a mountain or going on a date. Or, simply using the chronology of a day (“a day in the life”) or night, following the hours, the position of the sun / moon and other environmental factors, can be an easy and natural way to create scenes, especially for beginning writers.
It’s important to note however, that the event doesn’t necessarily have to be dramatic in and of itself.
In one of my favorite essays, Sleet by Coleman Barks, all that ‘happens’ is the narrator gets stuck in his cabin in the North Georgia mountains and spends the night reading the thesis of a student who has died. In this case, the movement comes through the narrators recollections and imagination.
Regardless of what you choose as your event, what matters is the movement between the scenes and the narrator’s ruminations, thoughts, and whatever information is offered. It must be dynamic.
An Example of Weaving Scenes / Information
Once you’ve decided on an event, and have a general idea about the information you want to discuss, the scenes usually begin to emerge naturally.
Let’s say you live in Las Vegas and want to write a narrative essay about foreclosures there. You want to discuss economic factors behind the foreclosures, the current situation, historical context, and outlook for the future. You spend a day driving around looking at foreclosed homes and talking to different people about it.
Here’s one possible breakdown of scenes followed by what info. will be discussed
- Scene 1: driving around suburban sprawl >>> info 1: facts about current foreclosure situation in Vegas
- Scene 2: stopping and talking to homeowner >>> info 2: overview of economic factors leading foreclosures
- Scene 3: stopping for lunch at restaurant, then visiting casino >>> info 3: historical context of residential development in area contrasting with recent trends
- Scene 4: driving up to surrounding mountains for vista of the city >>> info 4. future outlook
Weaving scenes and information together requires the reader to make quick leaps in and out of the story. This can be disorienting and disruptive unless you tie everything together using smooth transitions.
In the following example, Hal Amen recounts a hike up Chacaltaya Glacier in Bolivia.
On one hand he’s describing the climb, but at the same time he’s really writing an essay about Bolivia, the local community, and the impacts of global climate change.
He opens the story by placing the reader right there on the mountain, in the action:
I stumble, missing a step. A little lightheadedness is all. Maybe I should’ve eaten more for breakfast.
Then using a simple but effective transition, he moves directly into a bit of background information about the area:
Mild dizziness aside, summiting is a cakewalk. Miners do it—the upper plateaus are littered with ore buckets and little lake-lets are stained blood-red from iron and green from copper.
Die-hard skiers do it. Chacaltaya has held the record of world’s highest ski resort since 1939, when Club Andino Boliviano built an access road, small lodge, and rope-tow lift up the glacier.
The narrator continues to give several more paragraphs of information about the history of the area, then uses a quote from the guide to bring the reader right back into the “story”:
“It’s their only source of water,” Juan tells me as I stand shivering at the summit, taking in the smoggy sprawl of El Alto on the Altiplano far below.
When done well, this movement from background information back to scene not only educates the reader but creates this effect of time having passed in the story. It almost seems as if the narrator, while explaining things about the mountain, was actually climbing.
That’s the goal: to convey information or ideas while at the same time create a sense of forward movement. Think of a river, turning, twisting, moving through different kinds of terrain, but always pushing downstream.
*The MatadorU Travel Writing program will help you build the skills you need to become a travel writer.