Once upon a time… the essay as story by Carrieann Cahall

posted Feb 7, 2017, 2:33 PM by Writing Center

Organization in essay writing is a common challenge among developing writers. While there are various approaches and exercises available in helping you improve your organization (many of them utilized here at the Writing Center), one that might be worth considering is thinking of your essay as a story.

Once upon a time there lived three little pigs

There is a likely chance that you’ve read or heard this classic tale or similar versions at some point in your life. Three little pigs are confronted by a wolf that keeps trying to blow their structurally unsound homes down, one by one. Likewise, you might have also seen this graphic at some point in your academic life:




This is Fretytag’s pyramid. It is the basic structure of a plot-driven story. There is the exposition where time, place, characters, and motivations are introduced. This exposition precedes the rising action, full of conflict and a buildup of continual, stakes-increasing events to get to the climax. The climax is the highest point of conflict and the turning point in the story. What follows is the falling action to tie up all those lose ends, so that readers can finally reach the denouement, a resolution of the protagonist’s conflict, whether good or bad. All of this, of course, moved along the entire time by the plot. 

So how does this apply to essay writing and organization?

Think of your essay as a story. Your introduction functions similarly to the exposition, providing the reader with the basic information needed to comprehend the content. It prepares them for what to expect throughout the entire essay. It can be difficult to get invested in a story where you don’t have a clue what’s going on from the start. A reader can lose interest or become confused without being informed of the place, settings, and characters, just as an unclear, overly broad introduction can make your essay less effective.


Also, keeping in mind the flow of the rising action, climax, and falling action can help you with staying focused on your thesis and grouping together the subtopics in your body paragraphs. Often, the points you are making in an essay should build upon each other, like the rising action, until reaching the highest point of defense for your thesis. Highest point, sounds like the climax, right? If you’re writing an argument paper, this would be the point in which a conflicted reader might seriously start to consider supporting your stance; or, if you’re writing a rhetorical analysis, this is when your observations would appear the most valid.

 Any body paragraphs that parallel the falling action can vary in content. They could address topics such as opposing arguments and their counter arguments, or fill in any details of research that you have yet to present, and even further elaborate on what you already have. Coupled with your conclusion, these last few paragraphs help give your reader a sense of satisfied resolution while leaving little room for them to poke holes in your writing.

Overall, improving organization is largely about staying focused on the prompt, your thesis, and the flow of the writing. Are you consistent in what you’re talking about? Do the “events” of your essay follow each other in a comprehensible arc? What connects your body paragraphs to each other, and the entire essay to your thesis? Imagine if the wolf had gone to the pig with the brick house first. The famous nursery tale would probably be considerably shorter and not as memorable as the original. So, the next time you’re stuck with where to go in your writing, think about it as a story. What story are you trying to tell, and what do you need to happen in the plot to get to the end?

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