Writing about an important event in your life
Effective narrative tells a story to make a point. It has a focus. When the we are finished reading, we have a very clear impression of why you told us this.
Effective narrative leaves out things that don't contribute to the point. If your story is about scoring the points that won the big game, we don't need the name of your coach or the brand of your shoes, BUT if you couldn't find your lucky shoes and had to wear borrowed shoes to win the game, that might be a detail worth including.
Effective narrative has pace. Scoring the final basket only takes a moment, but it should be a large part of your story. If we have to wade through every play of the first quarter and every moment of the second quarter when you sat out, we lose track of what you think is important.
Effective narrative has a point of view. Whose eyes are we seeing through? Yours? Your little brother's? People in general?
- Avoid telling a story for no reason. Tell your story for a specific purpose. Perhaps it is entertaining, points to an important truth, teaches a lesson, or illustrates a fact of life.
- Avoid rambling. You must keep your story on track and moving forward. Do not bore your reader with side trips into areas that do not advance the story line or explain its significance.
- Avoid made-up stories. These are better left to creative writing classes. For now, tell stories that come from your own experience or observation.
Coming Up with Enough Words
School papers normally have a minimum assigned length, but many important events (scoring the touchdown, wrecking the car, etc.) take just a moment. Some students panic and throw in everything they can think of, from the brand of cereal they ate this morning to the name of their fourth-grade coach. All that extra baggage just distracts the reader, so when the big moment comes, we don't even notice it. Here are some suggestions for legitimate ways to expand your narrative:
- Set the stage. Perhaps the setting has nothing to do with the event, but if it does, tell us. Did the Big Car Wreck take place on a dark, stormy night when you were driving an unfamiliar car with bad tires? Did you run the big race with a bad cold and a sore ankle?
- Let people talk. If your father said, "Son, I wish you didn't have to drive all the way to Centerburg on a night like this," let him say it to us.
- Slow the clock. Anyone who has been in a car wreck knows that the details get imprinted. "From the passenger seat, I watched helplessly as our tiny red Geo Metro slid toward the backside of the enormous white Oldsmobile. I could hear the driver screaming, 'It's not stopping! It's not stopping!' while I pressed as hard as I could on my non-existent brake pedal."
- Think about what it means. Try to avoid tired language that we have all heard far too many times: "After the wreck, I realized that state police officers really do have a compassionate side, and that perhaps I shouldn't keep quiet when the driver obviously misses a speed limit sign."
- Does your narrative make a specific point? What is it?
- Have you answered all the journalist's questions? Who? What? Why? Where? When? and How? Have you emphasized the answers that support your point? Have you taken your audience into account?
- Is your narrative well-paced and free of irrelevant detail?
- Are the details arranged chronologically? If you decide to do flashbacks, do you clue the reader in?
- Do you interrupt the story when you need to comment on an event or explain its significance?
- Have you used conversation and description to make the story more vivid?
- Have you used transitions to help the reader keep track of your time sequence?
How to Write About The Big Touchdown
Often, when students are asked to write about an important event in their lives, they zero in on The Big Touchdown (or The Winning Basket or some other athletic success). Or they may write about The Big Car Wreck. Here are some suggestions for writing about this sort of event.
Begin with questions about your audience:
- Why should we care? Your parents, school, and girlfriend screamed like maniacs when you scored—give us a reason to care too.
- How much do we know about your sport? If you say that you're a "striker," can you assume we all know that you're a soccer forward? Do we know why they are called that?
- How much detail can we stand? My father-in-law could remember card games—every card laid down by every player in last week's poker game. And he'd tell you, complete with an analysis of why each play was a good or a bad one. Do you want to put your readers through that? Does that kind of detail relate to your purpose?
Now ask questions about time. Most of the big events in life take just a few seconds, but you are writing a fairly long paper. You need to focus on managing time.
- How much background do you really need here? I remember a "big touchdown" paper that began with the writer in the third grade, and moved up gradually to the end. Along the way, it discussed the personality of the coach and the athlete's favorite clothing. That might have worked if the point had been that the touchdown was the culmination of a football career. In fact, all this detail was mainly filling space.
- How can you show what's important? Often we remember every tiny detail of a disaster: the brand and color of the car that hit us, the weather, the music on the radio. Details at this point slow down the paper and focus the reader on the big moment. Details earlier or later tend to take the focus off the big moment.
- Reflecting on the meaning of the big moment also emphasizes it. The football awards banquet, the conversation with your grandparents, the coach talking to you after the game—all are yet more opportunity to focus on what's really important here.
- Have you got a point to make here? Did you learn anything? Did your life change? If your only point was "the Big Touchdown was great," you haven't yet given us any reason to care, and you weren't changed very much by the experience.