A frequent writing challenge for new and established writers is the personal narrative. But we often write and tell stories about ourselves without thinking twice about them. Take the following list, for instance:
- Stories, short and long
- Scholarship essays (describe a personal challenged you have overcome)
- Job interviews (tell me about yourself, or tell me about a time you resolved a conflict)
- Police reports (car accidents, crimes, tell me your side of the story)
- Small talk between family and friends (How was your day?)
- Testimonies (how did ____ help you?)
- Elevator pitches
- Short answer prompts
It can be hard to write about ourselves, but this task can be made simple if we frame our stories with one of my favorite writing models.
1. Beginning -> Middle -> End
That’s it. The elegant, personal narrative. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end.
Although this writing model may not be the most advanced approach to storytelling, its strength lies in its simplicity. It is a dependable tool for various writing and speaking tasks, and it can be adapted for creative pursuits. In the hands of a skilled user, a straightforward tool is often more effective than a complex one wielded by an inexperienced individual. This is a viewpoint shared by photographer Ken Rockwell, and the same holds true for writers.
Here are a few other ways of thinking about this model.
2. Situation -> Action -> Result 3. What happened? -> What did I do? -> What happened cause of what I did? 4. Personal circumstances -> Personal choices -> New circumstances 5. Past -> Present -> Future 6. Point -> Info -> Explain
Breaking down the model
When writing a personal narrative with this model, it is good to remember that the three parts play unique roles in the story, and they can be emphasized or deemphasized, depending on the context of the writing task.
I wrote the following breakdown for student writers and their various writing tasks (personal essays, scholarship essays, college admission essays, college transfer essays, fellowships, and job interviews), but it can be helpful for anyone.
The Beginning: Situations, Personal Circumstances
The beginning is where we typically find a displaced balance. This is where things are (or go) wrong. It is also where joyous events put us on new paths in life. Beginnings are where we explain challenges and successes.
Some examples of beginnings include an unexpected diagnosis in the doctor’s office or cure of a disease, a loss of income or landing a dream job, experiencing poverty or wealth, being yelled at by a customer or receiving a surprising gift, immigrating to the United States as an unaccompanied minor or leaving the United States for the first time, the first day of kindergarten or the college graduation, a funeral or a wedding, and so on.
That being said, beginnings should be de-emphasized.
As a writing tutor, scholarship reviewer, and avid listener of stories, I’ve observed a common problem among writers and storytellers. They tend to overemphasize the initial situation and extenuating circumstances to evoke pathos, the appeal to pity. Unfortunately, this approach does both the writer and the reader a disservice, hindering the story’s effectiveness.
You have heard stories that dwell on beginnings. They are called sob stories. The storyteller explains why their life is hard—as if life happens to them. The examples are numerous: the teenager who can’t take accountability for their actions, the person who is the perpetual victim, the panhandler who wants to separate you from your money, the troubled friend who entangles you in their drama, etc.
This form of storytelling overlooks the fact that everyone faces personal struggles. While someone may have a monopoly on Boardwalk and Park Place in the game of Monopoly, no one can claim a monopoly on pain and suffering. Therefore, emphasizing our beginnings in an attempt to appear unique or special can actually lead to poor storytelling if overdone.
To craft a more engaging story, we must think beyond the beginning.
The Middle: Actions, Personal Choices
The middle of this model is where a story becomes compelling. What did you do? What did you do despite your circumstances? What did you do with your circumstances?
Did you experience poverty or homelessness? So did millions of other people. Tell me, what did you do about it? Did you steal or focus on school? Or did you overcome personal and financial challenges, and if so, what exactly did you do? Are you a single mother who experienced racism? Did you tear your ACL and lose your athletic scholarship? Don’t just tell me what the world did to you. Tell me what you did back to the world.
When I review scholarship essays, the students who focus on the beginnings come across as undeveloped. However, students who focus on their actions come through to me as spirited and self-aware.
The middles of stories—our actions—are what readers need to know. We judge and learn from the actions of others more than anyone’s crappy or happy situations. Circumstances aren’t inspiring. Choices are.
It’s important to acknowledge that your circumstances, or someone else’s, are valid and significant. However, when it comes to storytelling, the beginning should serve as a plate for the meal, and the middle should serve as the meal itself.
As we write about our actions, we have a chance to reflect on the central role they play in our lives. However, not all of our actions are fulfilling or satisfying. In fact, they can be just as disappointing as our circumstances. While ideally our actions are inspired, that is not always the case.
But that’s okay. It’s time to end our story.
The End: Results, New Circumstances
Let’s recap. In this model, the beginning of a story serves to establish its premise, while the middle of a story reveals aspects of our character. However, at the end of a story, we arrive at new balances, new questions, and new circumstances. It is the ending that imparts values by offering a lesson learned or a new perspective. Ultimately, it answers the question, “So what?” and it highlights the concrete ways in which we impacted ourselves or the world around us.
Let’s say someone served time in a state prison, and when they got out, they decided to go to college, and, in doing so, they not only found a future for themselves—but set a good example for younger members of their family to esteem higher education.
Let’s say someone was born a slave, who secretly learned to read and write, then wrote his own way to freedom and became an abolitionist whom we call Frederick Douglass.
Let’s say someone became homeless, but instead of finding gainful employment, he joined AmeriCorps VISTA, discovering that voluntary service made his life recognizable and factored into his escape from poverty. (This is my story.)
Even though they are still in the middle of their story, they have reached a conclusion that can be transmitted to other people, making their story relevant, generalizable, and worthy.
Our actions are more important than the circumstances, and the ending is where we put our growth on display, showing the significant implications of our souls, that we are more than vessels of dust.
Weekly and sometimes daily, I teach this storytelling model, and I find it to be useful for inexperienced writers. Yet, I found that by experimenting with this formula, I can successfully tackle different writing challenges, and I plan to share these experimentations on my website in the future.
The reason why this model works so well could be explained by our satisfaction with threes. The “rule of three” has proven effective in comedy, writing, photography, bullet points, and many other fields. Although the exact reason for its success is difficult to pinpoint, it undeniably works.
As an exercise, consider taking an old journal entry or a piece of writing that you found deeply cathartic, or recall a time when you had to overcome a challenge (whether or not you were successful). Use the beginning, middle, and end formula to revise or rewrite it. Is your writing overloaded with beginning matters? What happens if you put the end first or the beginning last? How might your readers be surprised when you play around with this fundamental storytelling formula?
Happy writing, y’all!
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