How To Assemble Your Essay’s Unique Structure

This is a part of a series about writing personal stories for scholarships, fellowships, and other applications. If you want to learn about where to start, start here.

Think of your favorite protagonist. It might be T’Challa, from Black Panther. Or, it could be Korra, from the Avatar series. Doesn’t matter, as long as the character is secure in your mind.

For me, I’d say one of the best in the business is Ender, from Ender’s Game. I have a soft spot for misplaced geniuses who have to use nothing but their wits and skills to make it against countless foes. I’m sure I see myself in the character; aiming to excel against all odds.

Found yours? Now, let’s do something wild: let’s imagine some fanfiction. Let’s put them in an experience the world would never expect.

Ender in post-apocalyptic Shanghai?

Ender on Arrested Development?

Ender Versus Walter White?

Now, start to world-build. Imagine how they would interact with their surroundings. What would be their end goal? Who would they meet, and how would they interact with them? What troubles would they surmount? How would they shape the world, and how would the world shape him?

Most importantly, what grand journey would keep an audience interested?

I’m glad you made it here. If you did, you’re well on your way to a solid personal narrative.

If you followed my instructions on vomit writing, you’ll have more personal stories than you know what to do with. Now, you’ve discussed everything under the sun, and have no idea how to fit the stories together. It’s as if you have the perfect ingredients to make a gorgeous wedding cake, but have never baked a day in your life. It’s time to make your story structure.

Where do we start?

Of course, it makes sense to tell the story chronologically; that’s how the story happened to you. Many great stories start at a beginning and make it to an end — even though you’re clearly not at the end of your own narrative.

Or, actually, you found a theme you wanted to isolate. Sure, if you start there, you can build the parts of the story that resonates with your values that matter most.

Or, how about an event? Surely, there was a single, shocking, depressing, revealing, altogether transformational experience that will knock the reviewers off their feet.

Clearly, you have a lot of diverse stories that represent parts of you, but you’re not sure which ones to include.

Sure, these might each be the way to start building the scaffold. The question is, which of these is your right start?

First, let’s learn from the experts of story scaffolding in the first place.

Susan L Stewart published a sensational text on different types of story structures and made it available for everyone. If you want to see the ways different stories can be broken down, it offers you a few opportunities to see how.

The post outlines many frameworks we’ve heard before:

the Hero’s Journey by Joseph Campbell, the Three Act Novel, the W story Structure, even a complex Story Equation. Each of these tools is useful for developing the story’s mechanistic journey.

Another essential strategy, however, is considering a story’s emotional arc. By tracing the ups and downs of the protagonists’ feelings, the reader empathizes with the experience of the characters over time. Emotional arcs follow one of six categories:

  • Rags to riches: A steady, ongoing rise in emotional valence, as in a rags-to-riches story, such as Alice’s Adventures Underground by Lewis Carroll,
  • Riches to rags: A steady ongoing fall in emotional valence, as in a tragedy such as Romeo and Juliet,
  • Man in a hole: A fall, then a rise, like the Man-in-a-Hole story, discussed by Vonnegut,
  • Icarus: A rise, then a fall, such as the foretold Greek myth,
  • Cinderella: Rise-fall-rise, from the sensational Brandy movie, and
  • Oedipus: Fall-rise-fall, such as the family-friendly tale of old.

Big data backs these story styles. A couple of years ago, researchers from the University of Vermont and the University of Adelaide used big data techniques, and Project Gutenberg, a volunteer effort to digitize and archive cultural works, to analyze the emotional arcs of stories. Sure enough, they found the six archetypes in the data.

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Source: The emotional arcs of stories are dominated by six basic shapes.

The study even argued that certain story arcs were more compelling than others. Apparently, ‘Icarus’, ‘Oedipus’, and the ‘Man in a hole’ arcs were the most successful, based on the individual books’ downloads. We’re not saying you have to force yourself into an arc that doesn’t fit your personal story. What we are saying is, you have a choice.

Building Emotional Rebar

You might ask yourself; why are we focusing so heavily on the emotional structure of the story? What happened in my life is what happened, right? Facts are facts.

Wrong. In a personal narrative, your job is to combine the factual with the emotional. At this point, you’ve done much of the hard work; you’ve actually lived the life that compels you to even apply. Still, no one’s going to pay attention unless you draft a story people are compelled to read. So, draft them a show.

Remember, your story answers the question: Why you?

Scan your stories again — for themes, conflict, and resolution.

Here, we’re looking for resonance. Apologies to Aaron Sorkin, good writing is taking your writing, and punching your audience in the face with it.

That being said, there are countless punches that are effective. Do you want a jovial punch? A sad punch? A shocking, unbelievable punch? It all depends on the parts of your story that can make you stand out.

For example, when I tell the story about how I transitioned from aerospace to international development, I usually start like this:

I needed work that had a soul.

In my experience, it serves three purposes: (1) it captivates the audience, (2) it immediately shows what I value, and (3) it offers tension for me to resolve. A soulful punch, if you will.

It might not seem like it, but you definitely have stand-out stories somewhere in your life; stories that are unique, captivating, and buildable. Make them clear and known.

Play with the layout of your paragraphs.

I mean it. Try putting your stories literally behind and in front of each other. What matters here is finding out which story flow works the best.

Of course, it’s highly logical to tell a professionally chronological story. That doesn’t mean, however, it’s the most compelling permutation. You could shock your audience with something that happened recently, and start from the beginning to explain how you arrived at that setting in the first place.

For instance:

Ender told me, that if I applied to NYU’s sociology program again, he would personally destroy my lineage. I welcome him to try; I’ve been through these challenges before. Let me tell you why.

To be clear; most essays I’ve seen were fully chronological. Authors explain the earliest things first and move from there. But that might not work for you. Go out and find the most captivating outline.

Additionally, there’s another question you can answer: which transitions should you use? Your transitions are like the staircases to different rooms in your house; if you don’t build them smoothly, reviewers will get caught on the construction instead of the interior decoration. Find out which transitions are understandable, and still captivate the audience effectively?

Build your diversity.

You’re here to show all the parts of yourself a reviewer would want to see. So, use each story to show them the diversity you bring to the table. Here are some examples I’ve used:

  • I explained how I went from a deathly-scared freshman drummer to the section leader of the Morehouse College Marching Band. I explained how two years in a row, the band marched for five straight hours in the New Orleans Mardi Gras Parade. That story revealed my ability to grow in complicated situations, leadership experience, and practical tenacity.
  • I also talked about being a part of five separate undergraduate research experiences: from NASA, to MIT, to NIST. This showed adaptability and variety in disciplinarity training. Point being, it didn’t matter the research I was put in front of; I could excel, regardless of environment or topic area
  • Finally, I talked about my engineering laureate program I experienced in China. This showed interest in multicultural collaboration and deep interest in how culture interacts with science.

You carry these stories within you every day. In these narratives, your stories define your worth. So, make sure the parts complement each other and offer parts of you they wouldn’t be able to see. Your time is limited; if you repeat a point about yourself, cut it out and move on.

Include two parts: Before “Them”, and After “Them”.

Your essay represents a point of transition. You’ve done a sensational amount of things, and you’ve made an indelible impact on society through your professional work, your research, and your social activities. They give the reviewers an understanding of who you are.

Clearly, you’re writing this essay because what you’re still aspiring to do more. Next, you have to describe who you plan to become because of the institution’s influence. If you’ve done an effective job of telling your story, the reviewers will see exactly how and why you decided to pursue the program in the first place.

At least, cover these bases:

  • What attracts you to this program?
  • What resources are you intended upon using?
  • Who do you want to learn from, and how?
  • What projects enthrall you?
  • What topics do you plan on learning?

You must do your research on what the program offers, and show how you plan to utilize it to make the world better. When you focus on these topics, you offer them three levels of academic independence:

(1) you can conduct independent and applicable research,

(2) you can understand its importance on the world, and

(3) you can imagine how you would personally make an impact on the world as a whole.

There’s the key: Remember, the ultimate question you’re answering is “Why you?” While talking about the university, you’re actually answering “Why them?” But, by presenting this case, your research, communication, and visioning skills make a stronger case for “Why you?”.

Wild, right?

Rocking Your Scaffold

Now, you have your baby. You’ve gestated this essay for months; now, it seems ready for the world. Of course, you want to keep it safe; you’ve put so much time and energy into its construction.

Too bad. As Maya Angelou said, love liberates. You have to let it go, to see how it stands on its own. The best way to do that? Get a friend to (lovingly) tear it down.

When you structure your story, remember: it doesn’t just have to make sense to you. It has to make sense to anyone who reads it.

It’s vital to your success. Your story is meant to be cohesive, gripping, and well told. You need a trustworthy, honest soul (with writing skills) to identify the pieces that don’t fit, don’t work, and aren’t necessary. In fact, you need multiple such souls. The more revisions, the better.

However, it also helps to have one editor who goes the extra mile; someone with whom you can talk through the thoughts you’re trying to write. This can be anyone; a mother, a father, a professor; someone whom you trust your story with, and who can view your story with a different lens. Record all of those conversations as well; you’ll never know when you’ll find a new creative way to tell an old story.

We’ll talk about that next time. In the meantime, you have some buildings to build.

I deeply appreciate you making it this far.

I know it’s hard to write about yourself. It’s much easier if you have someone to help along the way.

If you’re interested in talking more, I’m always open for a discussion. Let’s find a reason to connect.

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