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5.3: Narrative

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    This is your first large element or pattern for personal writing. This pattern, like all the patterns you will craft, will potentially fit somewhere in your personal essay.

    Your narrative will be in the form of an anecdote. An anecdote is a short, personal narrative about something that has happened to you in your past. It also has a point in telling it. In this case, it should involve, allude to, or otherwise include your object or place; however, it does not have to be "about" your object or place.

    Elements of an Anecdote

    1. Who, Where, When

    Have you ever wondered why children’s stories begin something like this?

    Once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far away, the teachers were revolting …

    It is the start of a simple narrative. It also contains all the elements of a beginning to any narrative: when, where, and who. An anecdote, because it is short, will begin similarly:

    One day, while I was sitting at a stop sign waiting for the light to change…

    This little particle of an anecdote tells when, who, and where before the first sentence even ends.


    An anecdote sets up a particular incident; it does not tell about a long period of time.

    2. What Happened (Sequence of Events)

    Any narrative also includes a sequence of events. You should be able to read an anecdote and tell what happens first, what happens next, and so on. In the following anecdote, the bolded words suggest each event in the sequence:

    3. Implied Point

    Most of us want to make sure that we “get the point across” to whatever story we are telling, assuming it has a point. To do this, we tend to explain what we are telling. It is sometimes very difficult to stop. However, stopping in a timely way allows the reader to draw his or her own conclusions.

    Example \(\PageIndex{1}\): Anecdote

    [Who, Where, When] My first day of college I parked in the “South Forty,” which is what everyone called the huge parking lot on the edge of the campus. It was seven forty-five in the morning, hazy and cool. [Sequence of events] I walked across the parking lot, crossed a busy street, walked over a creek, through a “faculty” parking lot, crossed another street, and came to the first row of campus buildings. I walked between buildings, past the library and the student mall. I passed many quiet, nervous-looking students along the way. Many of them smiled at me. One trio of young girls was even chuckling softly among themselves when they all smiled and said “Hi” to me at once. By the time I got to my classroom, far on the other side of campus from the parking lot, I was smiling and boldly saying “Hi” to everyone, too, particularly the girls. Every single one of them smiled or responded with a “Hi” or made a friendly comment or even chuckled happily. It was my first day of college.

    When I found the building I was looking for, a friend from high school appeared. She was in my first class! I smiled at her and said, “Hi!” She looked at me. She smiled. Then she laughed. [Implied point] She said, “Why are you wearing a sock on your shirt?” I looked down. A sock had come out of the dryer clinging to my shirt.

    Show, don’t tell

    In the anecdote above, I am very tempted to tell the reader what I felt at the moment I realized that everyone was laughing AT me rather than just being friendly. For the ending, where the point is in this case, it is best to let the reader infer (draw conclusions, fill in the blanks) what happens implicitly rather than to state explicitly what the point is, or what the narrator felt, or anything else.


    The more indirect you are about your object or place the better. In the anecdote above, it might be obvious that my object is a sock or my place is a parking lot. The point is, it is not an anecdote “about” a sock; it is referred to indirectly.

    How do we show rather than tell? First, describe what you see (I don’t really see anything with “I was SO embarrassed…”) or what you smell, hear, or taste, but NOT what you feel. An easy way to check whether you are showing or telling is to go through your anecdote and underline the verbs. If the verbs are “be”-verbs (is, was, were, etc.) or verbs that describe actions we cannot see (“I thought…” “I believed…” “I imagined…” “it made me upset…” and so on) then you are probably telling. In the sentence above I used “walked,” “lecturing,” “ripped,” and “said.”

    Most Common Question: “What makes stories or anecdotes interesting and something I can relate to?”

    Actually, it is a simple principle, even though it may not be obvious. Here is the principle: We “relate” or “connect” most easily to situations we recognize and so fill in the blanks. If you “tell” me, for example, “I was SO embarrassed …” then you have not let me fill in MY embarrassment. On the other hand, if you “show” me a scene, it allows me to fit my own experience into it:

    “I walked past the corner of the aluminum whiteboard tray while lecturing to a class. It ripped my pants. After a moment I said, ‘Class dismissed.’”

    As the writer of those statements, I hope you fill in some similarly embarrassing moment without my telling you that that is what you are supposed to do. The connection, the act of “filling in,” is what people tend to refer to as “relating to.”

    Interestingly, it does not even matter whether or not readers fill in what I intend for them to fill in, as I noted above; it is the act of filling in our own experiences that makes us “relate” to an incident. From a writer’s perspective, that means we should show rather than tell.

    Second, resist the temptation to “explain.” Let me fill in the blanks! It is so much more personal when I realize it is an embarrassing situation than when I am told it is an embarrassing situation.

    Assignment: Write an anecdote that contains who, where, when, and what happens (a sequence of events). Think about an anecdote that involves, alludes to, or otherwise includes your object or place; it does not have to be "about" your place. It also does not have to be “true” in the strict sense of the word; we will not be able to verify any believable details if they add to the effect of the anecdote. Type it out. Keep it simple and to the point.

    Most Common Question: “What if the reader does not draw the same conclusion or fill in the blanks the way I want him or her to do?”

    It doesn’t matter! What matters more than anything else is that the reader fills in the blanks – even if it is not what you intend. It is the process of filling in blanks that draws in a reader. If it is a little off, it does not matter – the reader is still hooked.


    After you finish writing your anecdote, revise it according to these specific structure and style notes and writing principles:

    1. Look to make sure that you have the following information near the beginning:

    ___Who is involved?

    Who is involved - name names, be specific about ages and relationships but not overly wordy:

    Right: "…my eight-year-old sister, Bovina…"

    Wrong: "…the uncle of my step-mom on her father's side, George "I Told You So" Johnson, who will be 32 on August 6th, 2001, at 7:03 pm…"

    ___When did it take place?

    When your anecdote took place - this should be a moment in time, or at least should have happened over the course of a short period of time:

    Right: "one morning when I was in the seventh grade"

    Wrong: "…during my seventh-grade year…"

    ___Where did it take place?

    Where your anecdote took place - again, be fairly specific, but without any physical description of the place unless the details are important to point of the anecdote:

    Right: "…under the pecan tree outside the house where I lived at the camp…"

    Wrong: "…at a camp…"

    2. The rest of the anecdote should show what happened as a sequence of events (what happened first? then what happened? and so on).

    ___Sequence of events

    There should be at least 3 events in the sequence of events. If your anecdote is very short, each event should be in a sentence of its own:

    Wrong: "We went to the store, bought the earwax remover, then went home and rubbed it on the cat."

    Each of those events should be in a separate sentence.

    3. Make your ending or point implied.

    ___Implied point

    Your ending or point should not be stated explicitly; you should give me just enough information within the anecdote itself so that I can draw my own conclusions (even if they are not exactly what you want me to conclude).

    Wrong: "It was the best birthday I ever had."

    Right: " " (leave it off)

    4. Show rather than tell.

    ___Show; don’t tell

    Pay careful attention to this and check every sentence. With verbs and adjectives in particular, make sure you "show" me something that I can see happening, a scene. If you use phrases or words like "I thought," "he wanted," "it made me sad," "it was terrible," "I was so embarrassed," and so on, they are "telling" (telling me what to think or feel) instead of "showing" (showing me what you want me to see). Eliminate "telling" words, phrases, or sentences. If they are important to the point of the anecdote, replace them with "showing" words:

    Wrong: "…it must have hurt when he caught the ball…"

    Right: "…the ball shot into his glove with a loud 'pop;' he grimaced, dropped the ball and glove, and thrust his hand into the ice chest…"


    What are ‘clichés’ and why can’t we use them?:

    Clichés are figurative phrases and expressions that you have probably heard a million times. For our purposes, there are two kinds of clichés: the ones that jump out at you and the ones that we use without thinking.

    If you are paying attention, you will notice that the two sentences above contain at least 3 clichés. You might also notice that clichés are best suited to spoken language, because they are readily available and sometimes when we speak, we don’t have time to replace a common expression with a unique one. However, we DO have time to replace clichés while we are writing.

    The problem with clichés in writing is that they are too general when we should be much more specific. They also tend to tell rather than show. In the first sentence above, we have most likely heard the phrase, “have probably heard a million times.” In speech, that expression works. In writing, it should be literal rather than figurative. The first sentence is better this way:

    Clichés are figurative phrases and expressions that we have heard so many times that we all share some understanding of what they mean.

    Not exactly what you thought when you read it at the beginning of this answer, is it? That is why being literal and specific in writing is better than figurative and vague as a rule.

    Here is a re-write of the second sentence at the start of this answer:

    For our purposes, there are two kinds of clichés: the ones that are obvious expressions (like “You can lead a horse to water …”) and the ones that are not part of expressions but seem to “go” easily into a group of words (like “we use without thinking”).

    The second type is more difficult to identify and eradicate. Usually it is a group of words we have heard before that doesn’t add anything to a statement. For example, instead of “We watched the donuts roll down the street every night,” you might be tempted to add to it this way: “We watched the donuts roll down the street each and every night.” Don’t.

    Avoid clichés in your writing

    Example \(\PageIndex{2}\): draft


    One day during the summer before high school, I was alone at home. It was typically hot for summer in Texas and I was inside the house watching TV. The doorbell rang. I walked to the front door and opened it. There was no one there. I stood for a moment, then closed the door and walked back to the TV room.

    A few minutes later, the doorbell rang again. This time, I sprang from the chair and sprinted to the front door, and pulled it open violently. Again, no one there. I stepped outside and looked up and down the block. No one. While standing in the open doorway, I heard a knock on the back door. I hustled back through the house and yanked the back door open. No one there, either. Then, the doorbell rang again.

    There was a basement window on one side of this house that looked out at ground level. I moved to that window and waited. After a minute, a small neighbor boy ran past the window from the front of the house to the back, then from the back to the front.

    I filled a pitcher with water. I tip-toed to the back door and waited. When the doorbell rang at the front door, I counted to myself, with my hand on the backdoor knob. Before there was a knock, I flung open the door. The boy had his hand raised to knock. I threw the water in his face. He was drenched. His hand was still raised to knock. I closed the door.

    I never saw him again.

    This page titled 5.3: Narrative is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Stephen V. Poulter.

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