Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Narrative Frame: Prewriting a Narrative Essay

Although it can be challenging to plan the frame of a narrative essay, this construct can be tackled effectively by thorough prewriting.

There are many reasons why writers write essays: to inform, to describe, to persuade, and to tell a story. An essay whose purpose is to tell a story is called a narrative essay. However, writing a narrative essay is much more than telling a story. Writing a narrative essay requires a writer to explain to a reader, whether overtly or by inference, why the story deserves to be told. This can be achieved, in the introduction and conclusion of the essay, through the use of what’s called a “frame” technique.

Applying the Narrative Frame to the Essay Form

The frame of a narrative essay is similar to the type of frame used in writing fiction, although a definitive explanation of the frame is hard to pin down. According to Eric Berlatsky in an article called Lost in the Gutter: Within and Between Frames in Narrative and Narrative Theory, “One of the most difficult and confusing of narratological concepts is that of the ‘narrative frame.’ While numerous studies refer to and examine the frame, its definition remains somewhat elusive” (para. 1). This described lack of rigidity in the use of the narrative frame allows it to meet the needs and styles of writers from all genres and modes. It’s because of this fluidity of the definition of the narrative frame we are able to apply this literary concept to our narrative essays.

Of the many definitions available for the narrative frame, the simplest to modify for the purpose of writing a narrative essay is the idea that a framed narrative is a story within a story. For example, in fiction, one of the most famous of the framed narratives is Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. In the story’s present time, people come together on a pilgrimage, and they share stories in the past tense as they progress on their journey. For a narrative essay, as opposed to narrative fiction, the writer uses the frame to say something insightful about a moment from the past. The thesis in this type of essay is stated as a personal insight, or the main reason why the story is being told to the intended audience at this particular present time. In the body paragraphs, the writer shares the moment, the chronological details of a story from the past.

A Prewriting Technique for Planning the Narrative Essay’s Frame

Writing this type of framed narrative requires the writer to prepare the essay both cognitively and metacognitively. Not only must he or she jump from past to present for the sake of the narrative storytelling technique, but also between a past consciousness and a present consciousness for the sake of offering insight to the reader as the essay develops. On a practical level, many of the complex ideas inherent in the narrative essay’s frame can be planned during a very structured prewriting session. Although many writers, both beginning and advanced, can combine prewriting with drafting, revision, and outlining when writing expository or argumentative essays, the concurrent thinking involved in planning a narrative frame calls for a special kind of prewriting.
  • A writer can divide a sheet of paper into three columns, labeled “Past,” Present,” or “Insight.”
  • He or she can prewrite in each column, in any order, using any of a variety of prewriting techniques; clustering, listing or outlining, for example. Because of the metacognitive nature of the writing, jumping from one column to another is an effective strategy, as well.
  • When all ideas are exhausted, perhaps after several minutes to an hour of focused prewriting, the writer must then look for links and connections between ideas across columns.
  • Looking at the columns, a writer might ask, “Is there a lesson or insight listed here that stems from a moment in the past? Is there something happening in the present that makes me remember a moment from the past? Is there a moment from the past that reminds me of a situation I’m experiencing in the present? What can be learned from the reminder?”
  • Once these questions are answered and one moment from the past has been combined with one idea from the present and one moment of insight, a writer can begin to draft the frame.
  • A clear statement of insight should become the working thesis, the statement from which all narrative details in the body paragraphs will be planned. This thesis can then be placed in either the introduction, the conclusion, or both.
  • Once the frame and concurrent storytelling is planned, the writer can go about drafting the remainder of the essay.
The fluidity of the definition of the narrative frame has allowed its use to be adapted to the narrative essay format. The writer simultaneously tells a story from both the present and the past by using the introduction and conclusion as a platform for the telling of a story from the writer’s past. The use of this type of introduction and conclusion, or frame, in narrative essay writing, though it can be challenging to plan, can be tackled effectively in the prewriting stage of the writing process.

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Berlatsky, E. (2009). Lost in the Gutter: Within and Between Frames in Narrative and Narrative Theory. Narrative. 17(2) pp. 162-187. Retrieved from http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/nar/summary/v017/17.2.berlatsky.html

Copyright Amy Lynn Hess. Contact the author to obtain permission for republication.

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