Writing Mini-Lessons: Effective and Ineffective Personal Narratives
“Why personal narrative?
It means the world becomes yours. If you don’t do it, it drifts away and takes
a whole piece of yourself with it, like an amputation. To attack it and attack
it and get it under control—it’s like taking possession of your life, isn’t it?”
~ Ted Hughes
“The story of your life is not your life. It is your story.”
~ John Barth
Ineffective personal narratives generally suffer from one or more of these difficulties:
- Problems with purpose: there’s no sense of why the writer chose this memory – of its significance to his or her life – or invitation to the reader to care about or become involved in the meaning of the memory.
- Problems with focus: the piece is a bed-to-bed narrative that covers all the events of a day, trip, or visit, with the incident-of-interest buried in a mass of narrative.
- Problems with pace: events unfold way too fast, with little revealing detail, so it’s impossible for a reader to make a movie in his or her mind, or events unfold way too slowly, with the key events buried among a host of unimportant trivialities.
- Problems with reflection: the writer doesn’t tell his or her thoughts and feelings, so there’s no one with whom the reader can connect and empathize.
- Problems with engaging beginnings: the piece begins with a paragraph or more of who-what-when-where-why background information that keeps the reader distanced from the piece.
- Problems with conclusions: the piece either stops cold or runs on, with no reflection by the writer and no satisfaction for the reader.
- Problems with dialogue: either people talk so much that the piece reads like a script for a podcast play and readers cannot visualize the action or empathize with the writer, or people don’t talk at all and their true natures aren’t revealed.
- Problems with setting and character identification: the reader can’t tell where or when something is happening or who all these people are that the writer keeps referring to by their first names.
- Problems with titles: the titles are labels or descriptions of topics, not invitations to the reader.
As writers, we will address each of these personal narrative problems in discrete mini-lessons so that you will know how to write effective personal narratives that have these qualities:
- The title invites and fits: it came last; it was chosen from among possibilities brainstormed by the writer.
- The engaging beginning brings the reader right into the action of the story.
- Background information that the reader needs is woven in – the who-what-when-where-why context is embedded in the narrative.
- There’s lots of I: lots of thoughts, feelings, and observations of the writer.
- The pace fits the Goldilocks rule of being just right: the reader can make a movie in his or her head and isn’t bogged down by unimportant events.
- A reader can see, hear, and feel the experience because the writer provides concrete, sensory details and descriptions of people in action.
- The small details show what matters to the people in the personal narrative.
- There is dialogue; the writer uses it to illustrate what people are like and how they are feeling.
- The language is interesting: included are vivid verbs like sputter, knead, spy, curl, polish, pinch, and grip that a reader can see, feel, and hear.
- The ending is purposeful: it leaves the reader thinking.
- There’s a So what?: a meaning or significance that was discovered by the writer during the act of writing the piece.
- There’s a setting: a time and places.
- The action flashes back and forward in time and creates questions in the reader’s mind about what will happen next.
- Literary devices are used to enhance the depth and quality of the piece.
- The writer may have embellished details that fit with the spirit, intention, and truth of the story.