Written by Jincy Kornhauser at Pearson Tutor Services
In real life, we are wise to avoid “making a scene”—calling attention to ourselves with striking visible behavior that turns strangers in our immediate vicinity into an audience whether they want to be or not.
When writing a narrative essay, though, making at least one scene is vital. A scene is a sequence of events unfolding in “real time.” A scene doesn’t sum up events: It shows them, moment by moment. Most successful narrative essays are neither all-summary (telling) or all-scene (showing). If a narrative contains no scenes, then the story it tells will seem far away and not very involving; if it is one scene after another with no summing-up parts, it will usually exhaust readers, who will, at some point, begin to wonder what all these events add up to.
When you are assigned to write a narrative essay, and you’ve chosen a particular event in your life to narrate—a particular turning point or otherwise truly memorable event—your next job will be to decide which parts of the story should be summed up and which should be rendered as scenes.
For example: If I decided to tell the story of my earliest interaction with someone from another culture, I might tell about the time I went to summer camp and met a Russian child whose father was an ambassador. This was during the Cold War, when our two cultures virtually never interacted, so meeting this girl was a real shock. I might describe the scene of our first meeting, giving my first impressions; I might then tell (in summary form) about how this girl interacted with others, and the trouble she had making friends; I might focus then on the turning point, the moment when I realized we had a lot in common, and I’d describe that moment in detail, including what was going on at that time and where we were, and what we said. Then I’d sum up the meaning of the story for me and explain why it has lingered in my mind all these years.
Do you see that the heart of the narrative would be the turning point? It would be a scene, and it would take up more space in the essay than the rest of the story. The scene would show the essence of the story—and my reason for telling it.
Suppose, on the other hand, I were writing a narrative about being a writer having my first experience of rejection. I might begin with an introduction explaining that I’m an established writer of short fiction—that I’ve been writing for a number of years and have been published in numerous magazines and journals. At the end of my introductory paragraph, I might say something like “While my early stories were eagerly snapped up by literary journals, I can honestly say that my career as a successful writer truly began when the New Yorker rejected one of my stories.” (Do you see that this last sentence alerts the reader that I’m about to tell the story about that particular rejection?)
In my first body paragraph, I might talk about the story itself and my high expectations for its success; I might describe putting it into the mail and beginning to count down the days until I heard back from the magazine.
In my second body paragraph, I might zero in on the morning when that envelope came through the mail slot of my front door: I might show myself drinking coffee and eating breakfast—a particular breakfast, like pancakes or whatever—and chatting with my husband, etc., and then I hear the small thud of the envelope hitting the floor, and I run to the door.
In my third body paragraph, I might show myself opening up that envelope and reading, in disbelief and crushing disappointment, a form rejection slip from the magazine that I hoped would launch my nationwide career. Note that these two paragraphs together would constitute a scene.
In subsequent paragraphs, I’d take the reader through my reactions/responses to this disappointment. At some point I’d show myself realizing that the magazine was right—that the story really wasn’t all that good—that I had become complacent. I’d show myself determining to do better. In my last paragraph, I might bring the reader up to date with my subsequent successes, and I’d end with remarks on the importance of failure in making ultimate success possible.
When mapping out your narrative essay, probably the most direct way to decide what should be rendered as a scene is to rummage through your own memory banks. You’ll find that the important moments in that story—the scenic moments—will have left behind a wealth of detail, sensory or otherwise. You’ll remember the weather, the scent in the air, the song that was playing in the background, the exact look on someone’s face… Let those memories guide you as you fashion your narrative.
So: When telling your story, identify the heart of that story, and present it as a scene.
Creating an outline
Show and tell: writing effectively
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In a definition essay, you explain the meaning of a certain term by giving a detailed description of it, and support your definition with clear examples or facts. Such explanations are needed if a term is special, abstract, disputed, or does not have a common meaning. For instance, individuals can interpret the definition of the words ‘freedom’ or ‘abuse’ quite differently.
Steps for Writing a Definition Essay
- Choose a term you want to define, and introduce it to your readers. This can be done in several ways, but your main goal at the outset is to indicate the contents of your paper clearly.
- Use several sources (dictionaries or encyclopedias) to see how the term you have chosen is usually defined. Then, think of a way to combine or merge them to give your own, unique definition.
- Present the term you’ve chosen to your readers in the introductory part of your paper.
- In the main body paragraphs, provide your readers with information about the term. Along with your own description, you can point out some cases in which this term is used, as well as historical information about its origins and the evolution of its use in literature. Also, you can highlight any common mistakes in its definition.
- Think of a couple of sound examples that will fully illustrate and explain your definition.
Definition Essay Topics
There are plenty of terms we use every day. Many of them are clear to almost everybody, but still there is a vast body of abstract or scientific terms that can become a topic of discussion. While all of us know what a phone, TV, or dog is, concepts such as happiness, faith, love, or calmness may be difficult for some people to grasp. Some terms that could be chosen as a topic for your definition essay are listed below:
- Real estate
- Good and evil
Key Points to Consider
- Giving a definition is not just copying what has been written in other dictionaries. If you cannot define a new meaning for some concept on your own, then use the definition that already exists, but give your own interpretation of it.
- Choose terms you understand, or ones that have impacted your own personal experience. Do not try to define a term you don’t understand, or else you will confuse your readers with the wrong explanation.
- You can define a term by explaining its functions, structure, or nature. You can also define the term by specifying what it does not mean, or by comparing it with other members of the same class of words and emphasizing the differences.
- Follow a determined structure. It would be logical to present your term in the introduction, give extended explanations in the main body paragraphs, and end with brief conclusions.
Do and Don’t
Common Mistakes When Writing a Definition Essay
– Trying to define a term that is too broad in scope for the essay.
– Forgetting to emphasize the term that one is defining. In this case, it may be hard for readers to understand what your essay is ultimately about.
– Writing about terms that are well-known and which do not have conflicting interpretations.
– Ignoring the necessity of examples. No matter how detailed and clear your definition is, without concrete examples, it may be difficult for readers to understand how or when a certain term should be used.
– Copying the existing definition word-by-word. Instead, reinterpret the meaning. Do not be afraid to use your own thoughts for a new, unique definition.
Now that you have acquainted yourself with the basic definition essay writing tips and rules, you can check out our definition essay samples to link theory with practice.
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