Chapter Two: Telling a Story

“We’re all stories, in the end.” – Steven Moffat, Doctor Who1

Whether or not you’ve seen a single episode of Doctor Who, you can appreciate this quote. I love it for its ambiguities.2 As I can tell, we can interpret it in at least four ways:

All we are is stories, in the end. Our identities, our ambitions, our histories are all a composite of the many stories we tell about ourselves.
All of us are stories, in the end. Our stories are never just our own: you share common stories with your parents, your friends, your teachers and bosses, strangers on the street.
Each of us is a story, in the end. Your entire life, while composed of many interlocking stories, is one story among many.
We are stories (in all of the above ways), but only at the end. Our individual stories have no definite conclusion until we can no longer tell them ourselves. What legacy will you leave? How can you tell a piece of your story while it’s still up to you?

But perhaps that’s enough abstraction: narration is a rhetorical mode that you likely engage on a daily basis, and one that has held significance in every culture in human history. Even when we’re not deliberately telling stories, storytelling often underlies our writing and thinking:

“Story” by rossyyume is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
  • Historians synthesize and interpret events of the past; a history book is one of many narratives of our cultures and civilizations.
  • Chemists analyze observable data to determine cause-and-effect behaviors of natural and synthetic materials; a lab report is a sort of narrative about elements (characters) and reactions (plot).
  • Musical composers evoke the emotional experience of story through instrumentation, motion, motifs, resolutions, and so on; a song is a narrative that may not even need words.

What makes for an interesting, well-told story in writing? In addition to description, your deliberate choices in narration can create impactful, beautiful, and entertaining stories.

Chapter Vocabulary



the process by which an author builds characters; can be accomplished directly or indirectly.

a communication between two or more people. Can include any mode of communication, including speech, texting, e-mail, Facebook post, body language, etc.

a character who noticeably changes within the scope of a narrative, typically as a result of the plot events and/or other characters. Contrast with static character.

a character’s sudden realization of a personal or universal truth. See dynamic character.

a character who is minimally detailed, only briefly sketched or named. Generally less central to the events and relationships portrayed in a narrative. Contrast with round character.

the emotional dimension which a reader experiences while encountering a text. Compare with tone.

a term describing a text that combines more than one media and/or more than one genre (e.g., an essay with embedded images; a portfolio with essays, poetry, and comic strips; a mixtape with song reviews).

a rhetorical mode involving the construction and relation of stories. Typically integrates description as a technique.

the speed with which a story progresses through plot events. Can be influenced by reflective and descriptive writing.

the boundaries of a narrative in time, space, perspective, and focus.

the order of events included in a narrative.

the events included within the scope of a narrative.

the perspective from which a story is told, determining both grammar (pronouns) and perspective (speaker’s awareness of events, thoughts, and circumstances).

a character who is thoroughly characterized and dimensional, detailed with attentive description of their traits and behaviors. Contrast with flat character.

a character who remains the same throughout the narrative. Contrast with dynamic character.

the emotional register of the text. Compare with mood.


Plot Shapes and Form

Plot is one of the basic elements of every story: put simply, plot refers to the actual events that take place within the bounds of your narrative. Using our rhetorical situation vocabulary, we can identify “plot” as the primary subject of a descriptive personal narrative. Three related elements to consider are scope, sequence, and pacing.


The term scope refers to the boundaries of your plot. Where and when does it begin and end? What is its focus? What background information and details does your story require? I often think about narrative scope as the edges of a photograph: a photo, whether of a vast landscape or a microscopic organism, has boundaries. Those boundaries inform the viewer’s perception. In this example, the scope of the left photo allows for a story about a neighborhood in San Francisco. In the middle, it is a story about the fire escape, the clouds. On the right, the scope of the story directs our attention to the birds. In this way, narrative scope impacts the content you include and your reader’s perception of that content in context.

Three photographs. The first is of a San Francisco neighborhood with apartment buildings, fire escapes, and birds. The second photograph is a zoomed in and cropped excerpt of the first photograph, with only the fire escape and birds on power lines in view. The third photograph is a zoomed in and cropped excerpt of the second photograph, only picturing the birds on power lines with a backdrop of blue sky.
“SF Neighborhood” by SBT4NOW is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

The way we determine scope varies based on rhetorical situation, but I can say generally that many developing writers struggle with a scope that is too broad: writers often find it challenging to zero in on the events that drive a story and prune out extraneous information.

Consider, as an example, how you might respond if your friend asked what you did last weekend. If you began with, “I woke up on Saturday morning, rolled over, checked my phone, fell back asleep, woke up, pulled my feet out from under the covers, put my feet on the floor, stood up, stretched…” then your friend might have stopped listening by the time you get to the really good stuff. Your scope is too broad, so you’re including details that distract or bore your reader. Instead of listing every detail in order like this:

Diagram: A timeline that includes every moment as a plot event

… you should consider narrowing your scope, focusing instead on the important, interesting, and unique plot points (events) like this:

Diagram: A timeline that includes only select moments as plot events

You might think of this as the difference between a series of snapshots and a roll of film: instead of twenty-four frames per second video, your entire story might only be a few photographs aligned together.

It may seem counterintuitive, but we can often say more by digging deep into a few ideas or events, instead of trying to relate every idea or event.

The most impactful stories are often those that represent something, so your scope should focus on the details that fit into the bigger picture. To return to the previous example, you could tell me more about your weekend by sharing a specific detail than every detail. “Brushing my teeth Saturday morning, I didn’t realize that I would probably have a scar from wrestling that bear on Sunday” reveals more than “I woke up on Saturday morning, rolled over, checked my phone, fell back asleep, woke up, pulled my feet out from under the covers, put my feet on the floor, stood up, stretched….” Not only have you foregrounded the more interesting event, but you have also foreshadowed that you had a harrowing, adventurous, and unexpected weekend.

Sequence and Pacing

The sequence and pacing of your plot—the order of the events and the amount of time you give to each event, respectively—will determine your reader’s experience. There are an infinite number of ways you might structure your story, and the shape of your story is worth deep consideration. Although the traditional forms for narrative sequence are not your only options, let’s take a look at a few tried-and-true shapes your plot might take.

You might recognize Freytag’s Pyramid3 from other classes you’ve taken:


Exposition: Here, you’re setting the scene, introducing characters, and preparing the reader for the journey.

Rising action: In this part, things start to happen. You (or your characters) encounter conflict, set out on a journey, meet people, etc.

Climax: This is the peak of the action, the main showdown, the central event toward which your story has been building.

Falling action: Now things start to wind down. You (or your characters) come away from the climactic experience changed—at the very least, you are wiser for having had that experience.

Resolution: Also known as dénouement, this is where all the loose ends get tied up. The central conflict has been resolved, and everything is back to normal, but perhaps a bit different.

This narrative shape is certainly a familiar one. Many films, TV shows, plays, novels, and short stories follow this track. But it’s not without its flaws. You should discuss with your classmates and instructors what shortcomings you see in this classic plot shape. What assumptions does it rely on? How might it limit a storyteller? Sometimes, I tell my students to “Start the story where the story starts”—often, steps A and B in the diagram above just delay the most descriptive, active, or meaningful parts of the story. If nothing else, we should note that it is not necessarily the best way to tell your story, and definitely not the only way.

Another classic technique for narrative sequence is known as in medias res—literally, “in the middle of things.” As you map out your plot in pre-writing or experiment with during the drafting and revision process, you might find this technique a more active and exciting way to begin a story.

In the earlier example, the plot is chronological, linear, and continuous: the story would move smoothly from beginning to end with no interruptions. In medias res instead suggests that you start your story with action rather than exposition, focusing on an exciting, imagistic, or important scene. Then, you can circle back to an earlier part of the story to fill in the blanks for your reader. Using the previously discussed plot shape, you might visualize it like this:

Diagram: Freytag's pyramid, but demonstrating an in media res sequence


Diagram: Freytag's pyramid, but demonstrating an in media res sequence
How will your choices of narrative scope, sequence, and pacing impact your reader’s experience?

You can experiment with your sequence in a variety of other ways, which might include also making changes to your scope: instead of a continuous story, you might have a series of fragments with specific scope (like photographs instead of video), as is exemplified by “The Pot Calling the Kettle Black….” Instead of chronological order, you might bounce around in time or space, like in “Parental Guidance,” or in reverse, like “21.” Some of my favorite narratives reject traditional narrative sequence.

I include pacing with sequence because a change to one often influences the other. Put simply, pacing refers to the speed and fluidity with which a reader moves through your story. You can play with pacing by moving more quickly through events, or even by experimenting with sentence and paragraph length. Consider how the “flow” of the following examples differs:

  • The train screeched to a halt. A flock of pigeons took flight as the conductor announced, “We’ll be stuck here for a few minutes.”
  • Lost in my thoughts, I shuddered as the train ground to a full stop in the middle of an intersection.I was surprised, jarred by the unannounced and abrupt jerking of the car. I sought clues for our stop outside the window. All I saw were pigeons as startled and clueless as I.

I recommend the student essay “Under the Knife,” which does excellent work with pacing, in addition to making a strong creative choice with narrative scope.

Photograph: A mail truck parked on a hill, with the photo frame oriented parallel to the crooked ground
Different perspective” by Carlos ZGZ is in the Public Domain, CC0

The position from which your story is told will help shape your reader’s experience, the language your narrator and characters use, and even the plot itself. You might recognize this from Dear White People Volume 1 or Arrested Development Season 4, both Netflix TV series. Typically, each episode in these seasons explores similar plot events, but from a different character’s perspective. Because of their unique vantage points, characters can tell different stories about the same realities.

This is, of course, true for our lives more generally. In addition to our differences in knowledge and experiences, we also interpret and understand events differently. In our writing, narrative position is informed by point-of-view and the emotional valences I refer to here as tone and mood.

point-of-view (POV): the perspective from which a story is told.

This is a grammatical phenomenon—i.e., it decides pronoun use—but, more importantly, it impacts tone, mood, scope, voice, and plot.4

Although point-of-view will influence tone and mood, we can also consider what feelings we want to convey and inspire independently as part of our narrative position.

tone: the emotional register of the story’s language.

What emotional state does the narrator of the story (not the author, but the speaker) seem to be in? What emotions are you trying to imbue in your writing?

mood: the emotional register a reader experiences.5

What emotions do you want your reader to experience? Are they the same feelings you experienced at the time?

A Non-Comprehensive Breakdown of POV




1st person

Narrator uses 1st person pronouns (I/me/mine or us/we/ours)

Can include internal monologue (motives, thoughts, feelings) of the narrator. Limited certainty of motives, thoughts, or feelings of other characters.

I tripped on the last stair, preoccupied by what my sister had said, and felt my stomach drop.

2nd person

Narrator uses 2nd person pronouns (you/you/your)

Speaks to the reader, as if the reader is the protagonist OR uses apostrophe to speak to an absent or unidentified person

Your breath catches as you feel the phantom step.

O, staircase, how you keep me awake at night.

3rd person limited

Narrator uses 3rd person pronouns (he/him/his, she/her/hers, they/they/theirs)

Sometimes called “close” third person. Observes and narrates but sticks near one or two characters, in contrast with 3rd person omniscient.

He was visibly frustrated by his sister’s nonchalance and wasn’t watching his step.

3rd person omniscient

Narrator uses 3rd person pronouns (he/him/his, she/her/hers, they/they/theirs)

Observes and narrates from an all-knowing perspective. Can include internal monologue (motives, thoughts, feelings) of all characters.

Beneath the surface, his sister felt regretful. Why did I tell him that? she wondered.


Narrator uses inconsistent pronouns, or no pronouns at all

Approximates the digressive, wandering, and ungrammatical thought processes of the narrator.

But now, a thousand empty⎯where?⎯and she, with head shake, will be fine⎯AHH!

Typically, you will tell your story from the first-person point-of-view, but personal narratives can also be told from a different perspective; I recommend “Comatose Dreams” to illustrate this at work. As you’re developing and revising your writing, try to inhabit different authorial positions: What would change if you used the third person POV instead of first person? What different meanings would your reader find if you told this story with a different tone—bitter instead of nostalgic, proud rather than embarrassed, sarcastic rather than genuine?

Furthermore, there are many rhetorical situations that call for different POVs. (For instance, you may have noticed that this book uses the second-person very frequently.) So, as you evaluate which POV will be most effective for your current rhetorical situation, bear in mind that the same choice might inform your future writing.

Building Characters

Whether your story is fiction or nonfiction, you should spend some time thinking about characterization: the development of characters through actions, descriptions, and dialogue. Your audience will be more engaged with and sympathetic toward your narrative if they can vividly imagine the characters as real people.

Like description, characterization relies on specificity. Consider the following contrast in character descriptions:

My mom is great. She is an average-sized brunette with brown eyes. She is very loving and supportive, and I know I can rely on her. She taught me everything I know.

In addition to some of my father’s idiosyncrasies, however, he is also one of the most kind-hearted and loving people in my life. One of his signature actions is the ‘cry-smile,’ in which he simultaneously cries and smiles any time he experiences a strong positive emotion (which is almost daily).6

How does the “cry-smile” detail enhance the characterization of the speaker’s parent?

Diagram: Character is built through description, thoughts (internal monologue), speech (dialogue), and actions & behaviors

To break it down to process, characterization can be accomplished in two ways:

Directly, through specific description of the character—What kind of clothes do they wear? What do they look, smell, sound like?—or,

Indirectly, through the behaviors, speech, and thoughts of the character—What kind of language, dialect, or register do they use? What is the tone, inflection, and timbre of their voice? How does their manner of speaking reflect their attitude toward the listener? How do their actions reflect their traits? What’s on their mind that they won’t share with the world?

Thinking through these questions will help you get a better understanding of each character (often including yourself!). You do not need to include all the details, but they should inform your description, dialogue, and narration.

Round characters

are very detailed, requiring attentive description of their traits and behaviors.

Your most important characters should be round: the added detail will help your reader better visualize, understand, and care about them.

Flat characters

are minimally detailed, only briefly sketched or named.

Less important characters should take up less space and will therefore have less detailed characterization.

Static characters

remain the same throughout the narrative.

Even though all of us are always changing, some people will behave and appear the same throughout the course of your story. Static characters can serve as a reference point for dynamic characters to show the latter’s growth.

Dynamic characters

noticeably change within the narrative, typically as a result of the events.

Most likely, you will be a dynamic character in your personal narrative because such stories are centered around an impactful experience, relationship, or place. Dynamic characters learn and grow over time, either gradually or with an epiphany.

Photograph: Two people talking in front of a sunset
“Conversation” by Ray Wewerka is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

dialogue: communication between two or more characters.

Think of the different conversations you’ve had today, with family, friends, or even classmates. Within each of those conversations, there were likely preestablished relationships that determined how you talked to each other: each is its own rhetorical situation. A dialogue with your friends, for example, may be far different from one with your family. These relationships can influence tone of voice, word choice (such as using slang, jargon, or lingo), what details we share, and even what language we speak.

As we’ve seen above, good dialogue often demonstrates the traits of a character or the relationship of characters. From reading or listening to how people talk to one another, we often infer the relationships they have. We can tell if they’re having an argument or conflict, if one is experiencing some internal conflict or trauma, if they’re friendly acquaintances or cold strangers, even how their emotional or professional attributes align or create opposition.

Often, dialogue does more than just one thing, which makes it a challenging tool to master. When dialogue isn’t doing more than one thing, it can feel flat or expositional, like a bad movie or TV show where everyone is saying their feelings or explaining what just happened. For example, there is a difference between “No thanks, I’m not hungry” and “I’ve told you, I’m not hungry.” The latter shows frustration, and hints at a previous conversation. Exposition can have a place in dialogue, but we should use it deliberately, with an awareness of how natural or unnatural it may sound. We should be aware how dialogue impacts the pacing of the narrative. Dialogue can be musical and create tempo, with either quick back and forth, or long drawn out pauses between two characters. Rhythm of a dialogue can also tell us about the characters’ relationship and emotions.

We can put some of these thoughts to the test using the exercises in the Activities section of this chapter to practice writing dialogue.

Choosing a Medium

Narration, as you already know, can occur in a variety of media: TV shows, music, drama, and even Snapchat Stories practice narration in different ways. Your instructor may ask you to write a traditional personal narrative (using only prose), but if you are given the opportunity, you might also consider what other media or genres might inform your narration. Some awesome narratives use a multimedia or multigenre approach, synthesizing multiple different forms, like audio and video, or nonfiction, poetry, and photography.

In addition to the limitations and opportunities presented by your rhetorical situation, choosing a medium also depends on the opportunities and limitations of different forms. To determine which tool or tools you want to use for your story, you should consider which medium (or combination of media) will help you best accomplish your purpose. Here’s a non-comprehensive list of storytelling tools you might incorporate in place of or in addition to traditional prose:

  • Images
  • Poetry
  • Video
  • Audio recording
  • “Found” texts (fragments of other authors’ works reframed to tell a different story)
  • Illustrations
  • Comics, manga, or other graphic storytelling
  • Journal entries or series of letters
  • Plays, screenplays, or other works of drama
  • Blogs and social media postings

Although each of these media is a vehicle for delivering information, it is important to acknowledge that each different medium will have a different impact on the audience; in other words, the medium can change the message itself.

There are a number of digital tools available that you might consider for your storytelling medium, as well.8

Video: Storytelling with Robyn Vazquez9
Screenshot from Storytelling with Robyn Vazquez. Two people seated across from each other smiling and talking.
Video of Storytelling with Robyn Vazquez is available via PSU Media Space.


Idea Generation: What Stories Can I Tell?

You may already have an idea of an important experience in your life about which you could tell a story. Although this might be a significant experience, it is most definitely not the only one worth telling. (Remember: first idea ≠ best idea.)

Just as with description, good narration isn’t about shocking content but rather about effective and innovative writing. In order to broaden your options before you begin developing your story, complete the organizer on the following pages.

Then, choose three of the list items from this page that you think are especially unique or have had a serious impact on your life experience. On a separate sheet of paper, free-write about each of your three list items for no less than five minutes per item.

List five places that are significant to you (real, fictional, or imaginary)

List ten people who have influenced your life in some way (positive or negative, acquainted or not, real or fictional)

List ten ways that you identify yourself (roles, adjectives, or names)

List three obstacles you’ve overcome to be where you are today

List three difficult moments – tough decisions, traumatic or challenging experiences, or troubling circumstances

Idea Generation: Mapping an Autobiography

This exercise will help you develop a variety of options for your story, considered especially in the context of your entire life trajectory.

First, brainstorm at least ten moments or experiences that you consider influential—moments that in some way impacted your identity, your friendships, your worldview—for the better or for the worse. Record them in the table below.

Then, rate those experiences on a degree of “awesomeness,” “pleasurability,” or something else along those lines, on a scale of 0 – 10, with 10 being the hands down best moment of your life and 0 being the worst.

Next, plot those events on the graph paper on the back of this page. Each point is an event; the x-axis is your age, and the y-axis is the factor of positivity. Connect the points with a line.

Finally, circle three of the events/experiences on your graph. On a clean sheet of paper, free-write about each of those three for at least four minutes.10

Your age

Event, moment, or experience

Awesomeness Factor (0-10)

Graph with "Your Age" on the X axis and "Awesomeness Factor" on the Y axis ranging from 1-10.

Experimenting with Voice and Dialogue11

Complete the following three exercises to think through the language your characters use and the relationships they demonstrate through dialogue. If you’ve started your assignment, you can use these exercises to generate content.

The Secret
  1. Choose any two professions for two imaginary characters.
  2. Give the two characters a secret that they share with one another. As you might imagine, neither of them would reveal that secret aloud, but they might discuss it. (To really challenge yourself, you might also come up with a reason that their secret must be a secret: Is it socially unacceptable to talk about? Are they liable to get in trouble if people find out? Will they ruin a surprise?)
  3. Write an exchange between those characters about the secret using only their words (i.e., no “he said” or “she said,” but rather only the language they use). Allow the secret to be revealed to the reader in how the characters speak, what they say, and how they say it. Pay attention to the subtext of what’s being said and how it’s being said. How would these characters discuss their secret without revealing it to eavesdroppers? (Consider Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” as a model.)
  4. Draw a line beneath your dialogue. Now, imagine that only one of the characters has a secret. Write a new dialogue in which one character is trying to keep that secret from the other. Again, consider how the speakers are communicating: what language do they use? What sort of tone? What does that reveal about their relationship?
The Overheard
  1. Go to a public space and eavesdrop on a conversation. (Try not to be too creepy—be considerate and respectful of the people.) You don’t need to take avid notes, but observe natural inflections, pauses, and gestures. What do these characteristics imply about the relationship between the speakers?
  2. Jot down a fragment of striking, interesting, or weird dialogue.
  3. Now, use that fragment of dialogue to imagine a digital exchange: consider that fragment as a Facebook status, a text message, or a tweet. Then, write at least ten comments or replies to that fragment.
  4. Reflect on the imaginary digital conversation you just created. What led you to make the choices you made? How does digital dialogue differ from real-life dialogue?
Beyond Words

As you may have noticed in the previous exercises, dialogue is about more than just what the words say: our verbal communication is supplemented by inflection, tone, body language, and pace, among other things. With a partner, exchange the following lines. Without changing the words, try to change the meaning using your tone, inflection, body language, etc.


“I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Can we talk about it?”

“I want it.”

“Have you seen her today?”


“Leave me alone.”

“What do you want from me?”

“You can’t have it.”


After each round, debrief with your partner; jot down a few notes together to describe how your variations changed the meaning of each word. Then, consider how you might capture and relay these different deliveries using written language—what some writers call “dialogue tags.” Dialogue tags try to reproduce the nuance of our spoken and unspoken languages (e.g., “he muttered,” “she shouted in frustration,” “they insinuated, crossing their arms”).

Photograph: Two people sitting on a park bench, facing away from each other in silent anger
“Body Language” by Paolo Fefe’ is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0
Using Images to Tell a Story

Even though this textbook focuses on writing as a means to tell stories, you can also construct thoughtful and unique narratives using solely images, or using images to supplement your writing. A single photograph can tell a story, but a series will create a more cohesive narrative. To experiment with this medium, try the following activity.

  1. Using your cell phone or a digital camera, take at least one photograph (of yourself, events, and/or your surroundings) each hour for one day.
  2. Compile the photos and arrange them in chronological order. Choose any five photos that tell a story about part or all of your day.
    • How did you determine which photos to remove? What does this suggest about your narrative scope?
    • Where might you want to add photos or text? Why?

To consider models of this kind of narrative, check out Al Jazeera’s “In Pictures” series. In 2014, a friend of mine recorded a one-second video every day for a year, creating a similar kind of narrative.

Model Texts by Student Authors

Under the Knife12

The white fluorescent lights mirrored off the waxed and buffed vinyl flooring. Doctors and nurses beelined through small congregations of others conversing. Clocks were posted at every corner of every wall and the sum of the quiet ticking grew to an audible drone. From the vinyl floors to the desks where decade old Dell computers sat, a sickly gray sucked all the life from the room. The only source of color was the rainbow circle crocheted blanket that came customary for minors about to undergo surgery. It was supposed to be a token of warmth and happiness, a blanket you could find life in; however, all I found in the blanket was an unwanted pity.

Three months ago doctors diagnosed me with severe scoliosis. They told me I would need to pursue orthopedic surgery to realign my spine. For years I endured through back pain and discomfort, never attributing it to the disease. In part, I felt as if it was my fault, that me letting the symptoms go unattended for so long led it to become so extreme. Those months between the diagnosis and the surgery felt like mere seconds. Every day I would recite to myself that everything would be okay and that I had nothing to worry about. However, then minutes away from sedation, I felt like this bed I was in—only three feet off the ground—would put me six feet under.

The doctors informed me beforehand of the potential complications that could arise from surgery. Partial paralysis, infection, death, these words echoed throughout the chasms of my mind. Anxiety overwhelmed me; I was a dying animal surrounded by ravenous vultures, drool dripping awaiting their next meal. My palms were a disgusting swamp of sweat that gripped hard onto the white sheets that covered me. A feeling of numbness lurked into my extremities and slowly infected its way throughout my body.

The vinyl mattress cover I was on felt like a porcelain toilet seat during a cold winter morning. It did not help my discomfort that I had nothing on but a sea blue gown that covered only the front and ankle high socks that seemed like bathroom scrubbers. A heart rate monitor clamp was tightly affixed onto my index finger that had already lost circulation minutes ago. The monitor was the snitch giving away my growing anxiety; my heart rate began to increase as I awaited surgery. Attached to the bed frame was a remote that could adjust almost every aspect of the bed. I kept the bed at an almost right angle: I wanted to be aware of my surroundings.

My orthopediatrician and surgeon, Dr. Halsey, paced in from the hallway and gave away a forced smile to ease me into comfort. The doctor shot out his hand and I hesitantly stuck out mine for the handshake. I’ve always hated handshakes; my hands are incredibly sweaty and I did not want to disgust him with my soggy tofu hands. He asked me how my day was so far, and I responded with a concise “Alright.” Truth was, my day so far was pretty lackluster and tiring. I had woken up before the birds had even begun to chirp, I ate nothing for breakfast, and I was terrified out of my mind. This Orthopedic Surgeon, this man, this human, was fully in charge of the surgery. Dr. Halsey and other surgeons deal with one of the most delicate and fragile things in the world—people’s lives. The amount of pressure and nerves he must face on an everyday basis is incredible. His calm and reserved nature made me believe that he was confident in himself, and that put me more at ease.

An overweight nurse wheeled in an IV with a bag of solution hooked to the side. “Which arm do you prefer for your IV?” she inquired.

Needles used to terrify me. They were tiny bullets that pierced through your skin like mosquitos looking for dinner, but by now I had grown accustomed to them. Like getting stung by a bee for the first time, my first time getting blood taken was a grueling adventure. “Left, I guess,” I let out with a long anxiety-filled sigh.

The rubber band was thick and dark blue, the same color as the latex gloves she wore. I could feel my arm pulse in excitement as they tightly wrapped the rubber band right above my elbow.

“Oh, wow! Look at that vein pop right out!” The nurse exclaimed as she inspected the bulging vein.

I tried to distract myself from the nurse so I wouldn’t hesitate as the IV was going in. I stared intently at the speckled ceiling tiles. They were the same ones used in schools. As my eyes began to relax, the dots on the ceiling started to transform into different shapes and animals. There was a squirrel, a seal, and a do—I felt pain shock through my body as the IV needle had infiltrated into my arm.

Dr. Halsey had one arm planted to the bottom end of the bed frame and the other holding the clipboard that was attached to the frame. “We’re going to pump two solutions through you. The first will be the saline, and the second will be the sedation and anesthesia.” The nurse leaned over and punched in buttons connected to the IV. After a loud beep, I felt a cooling sensation run down my arm. I felt like a criminal, prosecuted for murder, and now was one chemical away from finishing the cocktail execution. My eyes darted across the room; I was searching for hope I could cling to.

My mother was sitting on a chair on the other side of the room, eyes slowly and silently sweating. She clutched my father’s giant calloused hands as he browsed the internet on his phone. While I would say that I am more similar to my mother than my father, I think we both dealt with our anxiety in similar ways. Just like my father, I too needed a visual distraction to avoid my anxiety. “I love you,” my mother called out.

All I did was a slight nod in affirmation. I was too fully engulfed by my own thoughts to even try and let out a single syllable. What is my purpose in life? Have I been successful in making others proud? Questions like these crept up in my mind like an unwanted visitor.

“Here comes the next solution,” Dr. Halsey announced while pointing his pen at the IV bags. “10…,” he began his countdown.

I needed answers to the questions that had invaded my mind. So far in life, I haven’t done anything praiseworthy or even noteworthy. I am the bottom of the barrel, a dime a dozen, someone who will probably never influence the future to come. However, in those final seconds, I realized that I did not really care.

“7…,” Dr. Halsey continued the countdown.

I’ve enjoyed my life. I’ve had my fun and shared many experiences with my closest friends. If I’m not remembered in a few years after I die, then so be it. I’m proud of my small accomplishments so far.


Although I am not the most decorated of students, I can say that at least I tried my hardest. All that really mattered was that I was happy. I had hit tranquility; my mind had halted. I was out even before Dr. Halsey finished the countdown. I was at ease.

Teacher Takeaways

“I like how the scope of the narrative is specifically limited to the hours leading up to the surgery. That shifts the focus on the author’s anticipation and anxiety, rather than the surgery itself. This essay also successfully employs slow, deliberate pacing in each section, reflecting that sense of anticipation and anxiety. However, at some points this slow pacing results in minute descriptions of details that don’t clearly advance the narrative, making the essay feel bloated at times and diminishing the effectiveness of those sections where the pacing is more appropriate.” – Professor Dunham

Breathing Easy13

Most people’s midlife crises happen when they’re well into adulthood; mine happened when I was twelve. For most of my childhood and into my early teen years, I was actively involved in community theater. In the fall of 2010, I was in the throes of puberty as well as in the middle of rehearsals for a production of Pinocchio, in which I played the glamorous and highly coveted role of an unnamed puppet. On this particular day, however, I was not onstage rehearsing with all the other unnamed puppets as I should’ve been; instead, I was locked backstage in a single-stall bathroom, dressed in my harlequin costume and crying my eyes out on the freezing tile floor, the gaudy red and black makeup dripping down my face until I looked like the villain from a low-budget horror movie.

The timing of this breakdown was not ideal. I don’t remember exactly what happened in the middle of rehearsal that triggered this moment of hysteria, but I know it had been building for a long time, and for whatever reason, that was the day the dam finally broke. At the time, I had pinpointed the start of my crisis to a moment several months earlier when I started questioning my sexuality. Looking back now, though, I can see that this aspect of my identity had been there since childhood, when as a seven-year-old I couldn’t decide if I would rather marry Aladdin or Princess Jasmine.

Up until the age of 16, I lived in Amarillo, Texas, a flat, brown city in the middle of a huge red state. Even though my parents had never been blatantly homophobic in front of me, I grew up in a conservative religious community that was fiercely cisheteronormative. My eighth-grade health teacher kicked off our unit on sex education with a contemptuous, “We aren’t going to bother learning about safe sex for homosexuals. We’re only going to talk about normal relationships.” Another time, when I told a friend about a secret I had (unrelated to my sexuality), she responded with, “That’s not too bad. At least you’re not gay,” her lips curling in disdain as if simply saying the sinful word aloud left a bad taste in her mouth.

I laid in a crumpled mess on that bathroom floor, crying until my head throbbed and the linoleum beneath me became slick with tears and dollar-store face paint. By the time my crying slowed and I finally pulled myself up off the floor, my entire body felt weighed down by the secret I now knew I had to keep, and despite being a perfectionist at heart, I couldn’t find it within myself to care that I’d missed almost all of rehearsal. I looked at my tear-streaked face in the mirror, makeup smeared all over my burning cheeks, and silently admitted to myself what I had subconsciously known for a long time: that I wasn’t straight, even though I didn’t know exactly what I was yet. At the time, even thinking the words “I might be gay” to myself felt like a death sentence. I promised myself then and there that I would never tell anyone; that seemed to be the only option.

For several years, I managed to keep my promise to myself. Whereas before I had spent almost all of my free time with my friends, after my episode in the bathroom, I became isolated, making up excuses anytime a friend invited me out for fear of accidentally getting too comfortable and letting my secret slip. I spent most of middle school and the beginning of high school so far back in the closet I could barely breathe or see any light. I felt like the puppet I’d played in that production of Pinocchio—tied down by fear and shame, controlled by other people and their expectations of me rather than having the ability to be honest about who I was.

Just as I ended up breaking down in that theater bathroom stall when I was twelve, though, I eventually broke down again. My freshman year of high school was one of the worst years of my life. Struggling with mental illness and missing large portions of school as I went in and out of psychiatric hospitals was hard enough, but on top of all of that, I was also lying about a core part of my identity to everyone I knew. After a particularly rough night, I sat down and wrote a letter to my parents explaining that I was pansexual (or attracted to all genders and gender identities). “I’ve tried to stop being this way, but I can’t,” I wrote, my normally-neat handwriting reduced to a shaky chicken scratch as I struggled to control the trembling of my hands. “I hope you still love me.” With my heart pounding violently in my chest, I signed the letter and left it in the kitchen for them to find before locking myself in my room and pretending to go to sleep so I wouldn’t have to deal with their initial response.

By some amazing twist of fate, my parents did not have the horrible reaction I’d been dreading for the past two years. They knocked on my door a few minutes after I’d left the letter for them, and when I nervously let them in, they hugged me and told me that they loved me no matter what; my dad even said, “Kid, you couldn’t have picked a better family to be gay in.” For the first time in years, I felt like I could breathe again. My fear of rejection was still there—after all, I still had to come out to most of my friends and extended family—but it seemed so much more manageable knowing I had my parents on my side.

It took me several years to fully come out and get to a point where I felt comfortable in my own identity. A lot of people, even those who had known and loved me since I was a baby, told me that they couldn’t be friends with me or my family anymore because of my “sinful lifestyle.” As painful as it was each time I was shunned by someone I thought was my friend, I eventually gained enough confidence in myself and my identity to stop caring as much when people tried to tear me down for something I know is outside of my control. Now, as a fully out-of-the-closet queer person, I still face discrimination from certain people in my life and from society as a whole. However, I’ve learned that it’s a lot easier to deal with judgement from external forces when you surround yourself with people who love and support you, and most importantly, when you have love for yourself, which I’m glad to say I now do. Even though it was terrifying at first, I’m glad I broke the promise I made to myself in that backstage bathroom, because no matter what struggles I might face, at least I know I’m able to be open about who I am.

Teacher Takeaways

“This essay begins in compelling fashion, in a dramatic, vividly descriptive scene that proves central to the narrative. The use of dialogue is also strong here, especially in the letter the narrator writes to their parents and the father’s response to that letter. The author also experiments with narrative sequence. It’s a good move, but it does introduce some chronological confusion, making it difficult to place events on a timeline in relation to one another. This is a challenge with non-traditional narrative sequencing, but it can be resolved with strategic editing.”– Professor Dunham


Before I got sober I never paid attention to my dreams. I don’t even remember if I had dreams. In the end I was spiritually broken, hopeless, scared and desperate. My life was dedicated to blotting out my miserable existence using copious amounts of booze and drugs. The substances stopped working. Every night was intoxicated tear soaked erratic fits of despair until I passed out. Only to wake up the next morning and begin the vicious cycle all over. Bending and writhing my way out of a five year heroin and alcohol addiction was just as scary. I was in jail. I had no idea how to live. I had no purpose in life. Then the dreams came back. Some of them were terrifying. Some dreams had inspiration. There is one dream I will never forget.

I am standing in a room full of people. They are all sitting looking up at me. I am holding a hand drum. My hands are shaking and I am extremely nervous. An old woman enters the room and walks up to me. The old woman is about half my height. She is barefoot and wearing a long green wool dress. She is holding a walking stick and is draped in animal furs. She has long flowing hair that falls over the animal furs. The old woman looks at all the people in the room. Then she looks at me and says, “It’s okay, they are waiting, sing.” My heart is racing. I strike the hand drum with all my courage. I feel the heartbeat of the drum. It’s my heartbeat. I begin to sing, honoring the four directions. After each verse I pause and the old woman pushes me forward “It’s okay,” she says, “Sing.” I am singing louder now. The third verse is powerful. I am striking the drum with all my strength. Many people singing with me. My spirit is strong. During the fourth verse sparks are flying from the contact between the beater stick and my drum. I am striking the drum with all our strength. We are all singing together. The room is shaking with spirit. The old woman looks over at me and smiles.

I woke up. My heart was racing. I took a deep breath of recirculated air. I could taste the institution. I looked over and saw my cellmate sleeping. I remembered where I was. I knew what I had to do. I had to get sober and stay sober. I had to find my spirit. I had to sing.

At six months of sobriety I was out in the real world. I was living on the Oregon Coast and I was attending local AA meetings. I was still lost but had the dream about singing with the drum in the back of my mind. One day an oldtimer walked into the meeting and sat down. He introduced himself, “My name is Gary, and I am an alcoholic from Colorado.” We all respond, “Welcome Gary.” Gary intrigued me. He was wearing old jeans, a sweatshirt and a faded old native pride hat with an eagle feather embroider on the front. Beneath the hat he wore round eyeglasses which sat on top of his large nose, below his nose was a bushy mustache. He resembled an Indian version of Groucho Marx. Something felt familiar about his spirit. After the meeting Gary walked up and introduced himself to me. I invited him to our native recovery circle we have on Wednesday nights.

Gary came to our circle that Wednesday. We made plans to hang out after the meeting. Gary is Oglala Lakota. He is a pipe carrier for the people. We decide to hold a pipe ceremony in order to establish connectedness and unite with one heart and mind. To pray and get to know each other. We went down to the beach and lit a fire. It was a clear, warm night. The stars were bright. The fire was crackling and the shadows of the flames were bouncing of the clear night sky. I took my shoes off and felt the cool soft sand beneath my feet and between my toes. The ocean was rumbling in the distance. Gary started digging around in his bag. The firelight bounced off his glasses giving a twinkle in his eye as he gave me a little smile. He pulled out a hand drum. My heart stopped. He began to sing a song. I knew that song. He was honoring the four directions. My eyes began to water and a wave of emotion flooded over me. I looked up to the stars with gratitude. I asked Gary if he would teach me and he shrugged.

I began to hang around Gary a lot. I would just listen. He let me practice with his drum. He would talk and I would listen. Sometimes he would sing and I would sing along. We continued to go to our native recovery circle. It was growing in attendance. Gary would open the meeting by honoring the four directions with the song and we would smudge down. I would listen and sometimes sing along.

I had a year of sobriety when I got my first drum making supplies. I called Gary and he came over to help me make it. Gary showed me how to prep the hide. How to stretch the hide over the wooden hoop and how to lace it up in the back. I began to find purpose in the simple act of learning how to create stuff. I brought my drum to our native recovery circle. Around forty people attend our circle now. Many of them young and new still struggling with addiction. We lit the sage to open the meeting. The smoke began to rise into the sky. I inhaled the smoky scent deep and could feel the serenity and cleansing property of the sage medicine. I looked around at all the people. They were all looking at me and waiting. Then I looked at Gary. Gary smiled and said, “It’s okay, they are all waiting, sing.”

We now have another recovery circle here in Portland on Friday nights. Gary is gone. He had to move to Nashville, Tennessee. Many people come to our circle to find healing from drug and alcohol abuse. We light the sage and smudge down while I honor the four directions with the same song. I carry many of the traditional prayer songs today. Most of them given to me by Gary.

At one meeting a young man struggling with alcoholism approaches me and tells me he needs to sing and wants to learn the songs. The next week we open the meeting and light the sage. The young man is standing next to me holding his own drum. His own heartbeat. He looks at all the people. They are all looking at him. He looks at me. I smile and say, “It’s okay, they are waiting, sing.”

Teacher Takeaways

“I love this essay. It’s clear that the student is personally invested in the subject matter—that they’ve chosen something that is important to their identity and worldview—and they use repetition to highlight the experience of learning and growing. If this author planned to revise further, I would encourage them to experiment with sentence structure: the author uses what we call ‘simple sentences’ predominantly, which leads to a rhythmic but sometimes monotonous cadence. For instance, instead of ‘Gary is gone. He had to move to Nashville, Tennessee,’ the student could try ‘Because he had to move to Nashville, Tennessee, Gary is gone now.’ (Neither sentence is inherently better, but variety in sentence structure keeps the reader more engaged.)”– Professor Dawson

1 “The Big Bang.” Doctor Who, written by Steven Moffat, BBC, 2010.
2 Of interest on this topic is the word sonder, defined at The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows:(n.) the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.Koening, John. “Sonder.” The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, 22 July 2012,
3 Gustav Freytag is credited with this particular model, often referred to as “Freytag’s pyramid.” Freytag studied the works of Shakespeare and a collection of Greek tragic plays to develop this model in Die Technik des Dramas (1863).
4 For the sake of brevity, I have not included here a discussion of focalization, an important phenomenon to consider when studying point-of-view more in-depth.
5 Sometimes tone and mood align, and you might describe them using similar adjectives—a joyous tone might create joy for the reader. However, they sometimes don’t align, depending largely on the rhetorical situation and the author’s approach to that situation. For instance, a story’s tone might be bitter, but the reader might find the narrator’s bitterness funny, off-putting, or irritating. Often, tone and mood are in opposition to create irony: Jonathan Swift’s matter-of-fact tone in “A Modest Proposal” is satirical, producing a range of emotions for the audience, from revulsion to hilarity.
6 Excerpt by an anonymous student author, 2016. Reproduced with permission from the student author.
7 Thanks to Alex Dannemiller for his contributions to this subsection.
8 Tips on podcasting and audio engineering []Interactive web platform hosting [] Audio editing and engineering: NCH WavePad Audio Editing SoftwareWhiteboard video creation (paid, free trial): Video scribeInfographic maker: PiktochartComic and graphic narrative software (free, paid upgrades): Pixton
9 Vazquez, Robyn. Interview with Shane Abrams. 2 July 2017, Deep End Theater, Portland, OR.
10 This activity is a modified version of one by Lily Harris.
11 Thanks to Alex Dannemiller for his contributions to this subsection.
12 Essay by Joey Butler, Portland Community College, 2016. Reproduced with permission from the student author.
13 Essay by an anonymous student author, 2016. Reproduced with permission from the student author.
14 Essay by an anonymous student author, 2014. Reproduced with permission from the student author.