Art of the Essay
EL 238, Summer 2010
Jonah Willihnganz
Stanford University          

Natural and Literary Narrative

Writers and people who study writing frequently describe creative nonfiction (or any expository writing, really) as being made up of two basic kinds of writing, a bit akin to the traitional show/tell distinction that fiction writers frequently use:

(1) Narration / Dramatization (usually further broken down into plot, description, dialogue, etc.)
(2) Analysis / Reflection (usually further broken down: comparison, classification, definition, cause, effect, etc.)

These categories can be helpful, especially when identifying the ways essays balance narration and analysis. But to appreciate how writers transform simple accounts into compelling stories and essays—what we sometimes call literary writing—we can approach essays like we do stories and understand them as always being first and foremost a story of some kind, and then consider how the essay gets some of its strength from manipulating the usual way of telling a story. In their studies of the way people generally tell stories, linguists William Labov and Mary Louise Pratt have identified six elements that are common to most  “natural narratives”—narratives not manipulated in a premeditated way.  One way to understand what writers are doing in stories and essays is to examine how they manipulate, compress, omit, and rearrange these elements. 

The six elements of natural narrative are constant and usually appear in this order:

(1) Abstract: general purpose of telling the story
(2) Orientation: who, what, when, where
(3) Complicating Action: the event that breaks "stasis" and therefore initiates the plot of the story
(4) Resolution: closure of the plot and return to stasis
(5) Evaluation: interpretation of the plot; the narrative's meaning (sometimes also called Reflection)
(6) Coda: indication that nothing else important to this story or its meaning happened later

Sample Map of David Quamman's "Face of the Spider"

We will discuss this piece and how it works in class, but you might reflect at the outset on the way Quammen's essay manipulates the elements of natural narrative—how he rearranges the order of them, how extends, compresses, or omit particular elements.  This kind of manipulation is the hallmark of almost all writing, but especially "literary" writing.  We will consider the effect of each manipulation—e.g,, delivering the complicating action before the abstract.

In this map only the most dominant element of a paragraph is identified (e.g., description occurs in paragraph 1 but is not the dominant element). 

1 Complicating Action (finds spiders, they pose question)
2 Abstract (the question they pose)
3 Description (context—Tucson, frequency of spiders, etc.)
4 Description (of the babies)
5 Narrative (imagined scene of mother setting up house)
6 Description (elaboration of scene he encounters)
7 Abstract (repetition of the question)

8 Description/Analysis of one answer (the Jain religion)
9 Emphasis (of Jain religion’s position)
10 Analysis (of Jain answer)
11 Analysis (of other positions, their biases & stakes of Q.)
12 Analysis (the question tests the strength of principles)
13 Analysis (what principle use relating to other species)
14 Analysis (Quamman’s answer: eye contact)
15 Description of using principle
16 Narration (of ongoing attempt to use principle; spiders)

17 Description of spider’s face (how hard it is to describe)
18 Description of spider’s face (details)
19 Analysis (of his experience using principle with spiders)

20 Resolution (to Complicating Action); Reflection on effect
21 Narration (about the mother’s remains)
22 Narration (how the question remains)
23 Narration (encounter with tarantula)

Some Questions to Consider:

Section 1: Note how the encounter (Para 1 & 6) elicits the question the essay poses. Note how he starts provocatively & then backs up a bit to give details and background. How else could he have begun the essay? How would it have changed our reading experience?

Section 2: Note how the action is suspended within the first few paragraphs. Note how he does not say he is laying out possible responses until Para 10. Why is the effect of susepnding the action this way? Why does he delay indicating he'll lay out several responses to his question?

Section 3: Note the transition from Para16-17, the way he returns to the encounter. How else might he have returned to the encounter in the essay? How would it have changed our reading experience?

Section 4: Note the tone at the end, esp. in Para 20-21, the effect of “some sort of moral growth” and “remind me of something or other.” What is its effect? Why do you suppose he chooses this tone here?