Informal essays are often written as stories that trace a sequence of events from beginning to end, with occasional intervals of description or analysis.
The overall movement is forward in time, but with chances along the way to pause at points of interest. Remembering this, you won't feel you're getting sidetracked when folding in some description or explanation. Once you've finished a passage of analysis or description, you can return to the time line and continue moving forward to the conclusion.
Sticking to a straightforward time order can also help you sense your paper's overall shape. This is especially true early on, when you're expanding and exploring possibilities. Later, however, as you shape and rearrange what you've written, you may find other organizational strategies that make your story more interesting and effective.
The overall movement is forward in time, but with chances along the way to pause at points of interest.
5.1 Spend twenty minutes sketching out the rough shape of a story. Write quickly to get down the overall flow of events. Follow events through from beginning to end in a time order. Avoid mentioning concepts and emotions. Concentrate on people, places, and unfolding incidents. Write on one of the following topics, or pick one of your own: a time you took a risk, a time your plans backfired, a time you learned something important about your family, a time you made a major change in lifestyle, a time you acquired a new skill, a time you gave a gift.
A Strategy of Disclosure
Whenever you write, you're presenting or disclosing information. Besides asking how much information the reader wants or needs, you should consider the sequence in which to present it. These, then, are two major considerations:
1. How much information will I disclose about a particular subject, an injury for instance, during the course of my story? At what points in my story will I divulge this?
2. These two questions combine to produce a third: How much information do I want my reader to have at each point in the story?
By the end, the reader will hear the doctor say that my injury was not serious and I would recover quickly, but first I'll describe the blood running over my lips and into my mouth. Then I'll tell about the slow, throbbing pain as I sat in the hospital emergency room filling out forms. That way the reader will wonder, as I did, whether my nose was broken.
The intent is to shape and control how information flows to your readers. While the straight time line is a good starting point, most stories can be improved by experimenting with disclosure strategies like those that follow.
Compression and Expansion
Compression and expansion can help you control your essay's pacing and tempo. Actually, they aren't separate techniques so much as parts of a single technique for controlling the time flow.
This inner-time—fluid, variable, personal—can be simulated in writing by focusing on key scenes and developing them in detail, while other, longer periods can be passed over in a few words
Even in real life, where the clock moves with strict regularity, minutes can seem to drag on for hours while whole weeks vanish in an instant. This inner time—fluid, variable, personal—can be simulated in writing by focusing on key scenes and developing them in detail, while other, longer periods can be passedover in a few words.
When I stood to leave, my father continued looking down at his desk, apparently lost in memory. He shuffled a few sheets of paper, then carefully rearranged them in an order that seemed more satisfying. When he finally looked up, I saw deep sadness in his eyes, as though they were trying to tell me what he couldn't speak of. The following spring, I came home again.
Here, a brief but important moment is expanded in the first three sentences, while the last sentence compresses several months into a few words.
Beginning in the Middle and Flashing Back
This time-tested technique goes back at least as far as ancient Greece, where Aristotle praised it as a way of opening stories up fast and getting readers involved. We've seen how the reader's sense of time can be compressed or expanded. Besides compressing and expanding time, however, writers can move time around. 1945 can come before 1939. Christmas morning can come before Christmas Eve. Spring break can arrive before midterm exams. Of course, too much disruption of normal time order, or disruptions that are pointless or hard to follow, can only weaken your organization and confuse readers.
The key to success lies in knowing what you're doing, and why. Imagine lifting an incident from one point in your story and placing it somewhere else:
Now we move the middle.
Beginning in the middle allows you to hook your readers' interest by bringing them into the story at a crucial point. Then, once you have them hooked, you can flash back to the beginning and fill in background information before moving forward again to the end. When using this technique, be sure to signal readers when you move forward or backward in time.
Foreshadowing and Withholding Information
Experienced storytellers, whether professional writers or old-timers around a pot-bellied stove, know suspense keeps attention levels high. Creating and controlling anticipation, while never simple, depends on a few basic concepts. As a writer, you create expectations in your readers. Then you can satisfy those expectations, in which case the suspense disappears, or delay satisfaction until the last possible moment, thereby intensifying and prolonging the suspense.
It's the atmosphere of the weeks before Christmas. Television, newspapers, schools, friends, and relatives all create an expectation that something important is about to happen—a holiday, presents, festivities, celebration. Along with the expectation comes uncertainty. Will grandma like the present I bought her? Will I get everything I asked for? Will it snow?
Creating and controlling suspense, while never simple, becomes easier if you remember a few basic concepts.
This air of anticipation colored with uncertainty is the essence of suspense. To create suspense, you hint at, but hide, what will come. Foreshadowing is the hinting. Withholding Information is the hiding.
Who hasn't seen this scene or some variation on television? The Simpson family is about to go camping in the mountains, but at the last minute Homer can't fit all the equipment and the dog into the family station wagon. While he goes inside to tell Marge, Bart experiments with a new packing arrangement, in the process removing the spare tire and leaning it against the garage wall. When Marge comes out, she sees some space left and slips in the few remaining items. "Just needed a mother's know-how,"' she says as they hop in and take off, the dog playfully hanging its head out the window. Then, as the car pulls away, we get a quick shot of the spare tire leaning against the garage wall.
Fortunately, not all foreshadowing is this obvious and corny, but even when it is, it often works. Every time the car goes around a curve or over a rocky road, the camera zooms in on a tire.
So much for the foreshadowing. Where's the withholding? Don't we know the family will get a flat tire at some crucial point? Probably so, although writers often set up false leads along with good ones, making readers guess which are important. And even in a situation like the one above, several unanswered questions remain. How will it happen? When and where will it happen?
Thickening the Plot
Imagine, if you can, that while Homer is outside loading the station wagon, Marge is inside talking with Lisa, who doesn't want to go camping at all because she has a saxophone concert on Sunday afternoon. "Don't worry," Marge assures her, "we'll be back in plenty of time." Now we have two stories, in a sense separate, yet intertwined like braided strands of rope.
Every individual story is made up of other stories that overlap and interconnect.And while this example is fictional, real life works that way, too. Every individual story is made up of other stories that overlap and interconnect in interesting ways.
If you notice these strands and see how they relate, you can use them to add texture to your essay. You can shift focus like a movie camera from one story to another, letting the reader see how the stories entwine.
Using Tension and Opposition
Wait a minute, you may be thinking. Who needs tension? Tension causes headaches and ulcers. Why create more of that? These are good questions and deserve answers.
Writers use tension and opposition to explore the texture of experience. Most experience contains opposition, which often produces tension, and not all tension is bad, and not all opposition is conflict. In fact, the poet William Blake went so far as to say, "Opposition is true Friendship." He meant that opposition produces energy and excitement, sometimes even harmony.
Learn to recognize tension, to build it, to control and release it according to your purposes. What would a tennis match or a horse race be without opposition? An election? A romance? Even a guitar string isn't much good until it's put under tension by being pulled in opposite directions. But when it's taut, the slightest touch can produce marvelous sounds. Likewise, using opposition to control your essay's dynamic tension can add energy and vigor.
Tension in writing takes many forms and serves many purposes. It can grow from opposition between people, between people and their surroundings, between hopes and realities, between tradition and change. A single essay can use several sources of tension, exploring their interrelationships. As a writer, you should learn to recognize tension, to build it, to control and release it according to your purposes.
Look at something you've already written to see where you've used oppositions, or where you could increase dynamic ten- sion by developing oppositions more fully. Ask questions like the following:
Does this go against what a person would normally expect?
Example: Forrest is terrible in math, but he's getting an 'A' in algebra.
Does this seem out of place in these surroundings?
Example: I noticed that the beautician kept scratching her scalp.
Does there appear to be an internal contradiction?
Example: In order to find yourself you have to lose yourself.
Is this part of a pair of natural opposites?
Example: The grapefruit juice was bitter after the platter of syrupy pancakes.
Is this a challenge or a struggle?
Example: Grandpa announced that he would catch the pig bare-handed.
Is this part of a contest?
Example: Pujols and A-rod shook hands in front of the dugout.
Does the language itself suggest opposition?
Example: Do you mean to suggest that the honorable senator from the great state of Texas is a filthy crook?
Is an important change being made or contemplated?
Example: After January 15th, all of us who couldn't do twenty-five pushups would have to wear yellow gym shorts.
This is just a partial list of possible oppositions, but it should get you going.
Is something funny going on at the same time as something sad?
Is something trivial going on at the same time as something important?
Opposition and tension add energy and force to your writing. The better you get at exploring, extending, and interrelating oppositions, the more engaging your writing will become.
5.2 Read back over the story sketch you wrote for Activity 5.1. Look for ways to experiment with the information flow to your readers. Some techniques you can use are Compression and Expansion, Beginning in the Middle and Flashing Back, Foreshadowing and Withholding Information, Thickening the Plot, Using Tension and Opposition. Use them alone or in combination to shape your narrative so that it achieves your purposes and satisfies your readers. Write yourself a note describing at least two changes, you could make in your first draft. Tell how you could incorporate these changes and how they might alter the story's overall effect.
People and Places
Stories introduce us to people we've never met, take us to places we've never been. They show us how events change people and how people change events.
A good story is made of more than events.Stories introduce us to people we've never met, take us to places we've never been. They show how events change people and how people change events. They lift us, however briefly, out of our own world and let us experience another, the world of the story, complete with uncles, cats, blizzards, draperies, bananas— whatever the writer chooses to include.
If you have a sense of your story's overall event flow, you may see places where you can pause to add details about the people involved and the place where the story happens. If you're not sure what to write, use The Journalist's Questions or Dramatism to spark ideas.
5.3 Freewrite for 10 minutes on one of the people and for another 10 minutes on one of the places involved in the story sketch you drafted for Activity 5.1 When you finish writing, look back over the draft for spots where you could fold in some of this freewriting.
Telling and Showing
When you show the people, places, and happenings in your story, you invite your reader to feel, see, hear, hear, taste, and smell how it was to be present.
You can tell your reader that your uncle was a careful and methodical person, or you can show your uncle in coveralls, goggles, and work gloves at his smitre saw. You can tell your reader thatof your new apartment looked cold and sterile, or you can show the bare white walls and recently shampooed carpet, the uncurtained windows that looked out on a snow-crusted parking lot.
"The action speaks for itself," we sometimes say, meaning no explanation is needed. We know explanations are useful, but we know, too, that events themselves are often more dramatic and revealing. When you show the people, places, and events in your story, you invite readers into the texture of experience, to feel, see, hear, hear, taste, and smell that experience.
Often a single, well-chosen detail—close-bitten fingernails or a half-buttoned, black silk shirt—will show more than a full paragraph of explanation can tell, and will also be more convincing and memorable.
5.4 Look back over the story sketch you wrote for Activity 6.1 and note any places you've used telling rather than showing to get your point across. In each case, try to recall the concrete details of the scene itself. Write them down, paying special attention to any details that caused you to think or feel as you did about the situation.
Most stories can follow a time order. This time order gives a good sense of direction during the early stages of writing. This storyline also serves as a departure point when you fold in some description or explanation.
Writers often depart from this strict time order, determining the kinds and amounts of information to give readers at each point in the story.
As you shape your story, then, remember this point: you control the flow of information to readers.
5.5 Write a second draft of the story you began for Activity 6.1. Again, write quickly, but this time include any changes you've been considering. When you finish, get some response to your draft and write another.