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Written by Jincy Kornhauser at Pearson Tutor Services

In real life, we are wise to avoid “making a scene”—calling attention to ourselves with striking visible behavior that turns strangers in our immediate vicinity into an audience whether they want to be or not.

When writing a narrative essay, though, making at least one scene is vital. A scene is a sequence of events unfolding in “real time.”  A scene doesn’t sum up events: It shows them, moment by moment.  Most successful narrative essays are neither all-summary (telling) or all-scene (showing).  If a narrative contains no scenes, then the story it tells will seem far away and not very involving; if it is one scene after another with no summing-up parts, it will usually exhaust readers, who will, at some point, begin to wonder what all these events add up to.

When you are assigned to write a narrative essay, and you’ve chosen a particular event in your life to narrate—a particular turning point or otherwise truly memorable event—your next job will be to decide which parts of the story should be summed up and which should be rendered as scenes.

For example: If I decided to tell the story of my earliest interaction with someone from another culture, I might tell about the time I went to summer camp and met a Russian child whose father was an ambassador. This was during the Cold War, when our two cultures virtually never interacted, so meeting this girl was a real shock. I might describe the scene of our first meeting, giving my first impressions; I might then tell (in summary form) about how this girl interacted with others, and the trouble she had making friends; I might focus then on the turning point, the moment when I realized we had a lot in common, and I’d describe that moment in detail, including what was going on at that time and where we were, and what we said. Then I’d sum up the meaning of the story for me and explain why it has lingered in my mind all these years.

Do you see that the heart of the narrative would be the turning point?  It would be a scene, and it would take up more space in the essay than the rest of the story.  The scene would show the essence of the story—and my reason for telling it.

Suppose, on the other hand, I were writing a narrative about being a writer having my first experience of rejection. I might begin with an introduction explaining that I’m an established writer of short fiction—that I’ve been writing for a number of years and have been published in numerous magazines and journals. At the end of my introductory paragraph, I might say something like “While my early stories were eagerly snapped up by literary journals, I can honestly say that my career as a successful writer truly began when the New Yorker rejected one of my stories.”  (Do you see that this last sentence alerts the reader that I’m about to tell the story about that particular rejection?)

In my first body paragraph, I might talk about the story itself and my high expectations for its success; I might describe putting it into the mail and beginning to count down the days until I heard back from the magazine.

In my second body paragraph, I might zero in on the morning when that envelope came through the mail slot of my front door: I might show myself drinking coffee and eating breakfast—a particular breakfast, like pancakes or whatever—and chatting with my husband, etc., and then I hear the small thud of the envelope hitting the floor, and I run to the door.

In my third body paragraph, I might show myself opening up that envelope and reading, in disbelief and crushing disappointment, a form rejection slip from the magazine that I hoped would launch my nationwide career.  Note that these two paragraphs together would constitute a scene.

In subsequent paragraphs, I’d take the reader through my reactions/responses to this disappointment. At some point I’d show myself realizing that the magazine was right—that the story really wasn’t all that good—that I had become complacent. I’d show myself determining to do better. In my last paragraph, I might bring the reader up to date with my subsequent successes, and I’d end with remarks on the importance of failure in making ultimate success possible.

When mapping out your narrative essay, probably the most direct way to decide what should be rendered as a scene is to rummage through your own memory banks.  You’ll find that the important moments in that story—the scenic moments—will have left behind a wealth of detail, sensory or otherwise.  You’ll remember the weather, the scent in the air, the song that was playing in the background, the exact look on someone’s face…  Let those memories guide you as you fashion your narrative.

So:  When telling your story, identify the heart of that story, and present it as a scene.


Creating an outline

Show and tell: writing effectively

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Writing Skills

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Written by Jincy Kornhauser at Pearson Tutor Services



Compare these two passages:

  1. I looked at him one day and realized that I loved him.
  2. I looked at him one day, and he was tying his shoes, really concentrating hard, like a little kid, with the tip of his tongue sticking out between his teeth. He was completely unaware of anything but just tying that shoe. "I love you," I told him, and was shocked to realize that I meant it.

Both passages describe the same event: the moment when the narrator realized she loved this guy.

In the first passage, the narrator just tells you what happened. In the second, the narrator shows you what happened.

In the first passage, the narrator stands in front of the event, blocking it from your view.  You can’t see around her. You just have to take her word for the event.  In the second, you can see (sort of) how the narrator came to the conclusion that she loved him; you can see the event unfold because the narrator is showing it to you.

Showing and telling are two very different ways of conveying information, and each has advantages. Telling doesn’t take up as much space on the page as showing, while showing provides the reader with supporting evidence for the claim being made, strengthening that claim.  Showing provides details; telling sums up their meaning.

Showing/telling are important skills for the academic writer as well as for the creative writer.  Compare these two passages from an expository essay—an essay intended to inform:

  1. Dogs are bred for very different uses.
  2. Hounds are bred for tracking and hunting. Terriers are bred for killing.  Herders, as their name implies, are skilled in moving large numbers of domestic animals from place to place. Retrievers assist hunters by fetching downed birds.

The first passage simply tells you something about dog breeds: it makes a general claim about why there are so many of them.  The second passage shows some different breeds and their uses.

In an academic essay, “showing” means “providing illustrative examples and supporting details.” Note that if you took the above passages and put them together, you would have a brief but well-organized and informative paragraph:

Dogs are bred for very different uses. Hounds are bred for tracking and hunting. Terriers are bred for killing.  Herders, as their name implies, are skilled in moving large numbers of domestic animals from place to place. Retrievers assist hunters by fetching downed birds.

Not all essays are written simply to inform.  Some are written to take a position on a controversial issue and persuade the reader that this position is correct.  Compare these two passages:

  1. Experimentation on animals should continue to be allowed to further medical research.
  2. Computer models still do not provide enough testing information for medical research. Animal experimentation can be conducted humanely with minimal suffering. Humans and other animals are not equal in moral importance.

The first passage stakes the writer’s position in the animal testing controversy.  The second passage lists specific reasons for taking that position: Each reason shows the reader why the writer’s position is persuasive.  Together, the first and second passage make the writer’s ideas clear.

Experimentation on animals should continue to be allowed to further medical research. Computer models still do not provide enough testing information for medical research. Animal experimentation can be conducted humanely with minimal suffering. Humans and other animals are not equal in moral importance.

In each of these academic paper examples, the “telling” sentence could function as the topic sentence of the paragraph; the “showing” sentences illustrate and support the claim made by the topic sentence.  Note, too, that each of these passages could function as a thesis, preparing the reader for the purpose of an essay as well as the order and focus of its body paragraphs.

In order to write effectively, you need to do both things: to make general claims of fact (or statements of your position on a controversial topic) and to support those claims (or that position) with supporting evidence, showing your reader what your general claim means (or why the reader should agree).

So:  Telling without showing is not sufficiently enlightening nor persuasive.  Showing without telling burdens the reader with details and arguments without explaining what they mean.  Whatever your purpose for writing—whether you’re writing a short story, or a research paper about the Horsehead Nebula, or an essay arguing the abolition of beauty pageants—take care to both show and tell.


Writing Skills

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Written by Jincy Kornhauser at Pearson Tutor Services Attention! Toe world prospectors unlock the pod tip lighter, alas the writer costing excess to doctor morose stool sheets and otter reference spices, approving the writer to pricier acetate drabs free of misspellings, grimy eras, and seasonal work shoes.

I hope that’s clear. It certainly ought to be, since the whole paragraph was checked using the Microsoft Word spellchecker tool.   In order to achieve this paragraph, all I had to do was look for wavy red lines underneath words (there were lots of them!), run the spellchecker, and click CHANGE for each suggested improvement.  And…voila!  Not a single word is misspelled!

Too bad it’s total gibberish.

In order to correct misspellings in that messy draft—in order to produce a clear, informative paragraph—I should have followed up on each of the spellchecker’s “suggestions” with close, thoughtful inspection (Do I really mean “toe world”? What’s a “pod tip lighter”?) and, in some cases, a trip to the dictionary (“Acetate” just doesn’t sound quite right…).  If I had done that—if I had not entrusted my spellchecker with the entire task of proofreading—the results would have been considerably less embarrassing:

The word processor, unlike the old typewriter, allows the writer instant access to dictionaries, style sheets, and other reference sources, allowing the writer to produce accurate drafts free of misspellings, grammar errors, and questionable word choices.

Indeed, the spellchecker is a great tool—a wonderful first line of defense against typos and misspellings.  Example: When I typed “embarrassing” earlier, I left out one of the Rs (I often do—“embarrassing” often embarrasses me), and that wavy red line saved me. But by itself it won’t save me—or you—from startling and often hilarious word errors.   To your spellchecker, gym and gin, marriage and mirage, udder and utter, paste and paced—they’re all good, regardless of what you are actually trying to say.

When you use your spellchecker and it suggests a substitution for a misspelled word, always:

  1. Take note of that suggestion and make sure it is the word you meant to type.
  2. If you’re not sure—if you think it’s correct, but you can’t claim to know it’s correct, then stop and get out your dictionary.

If you don’t own a dictionary, there are some free online: Merriam-Webster has a particularly helpful one.  Now, when you don’t know how to spell a word it can be a challenge to find it in the dictionary, but this is a challenge worth meeting.

  • For one thing, the more time you spend rummaging through dictionaries and matching spelling with meaning, the more skilled you’ll become.  Once you become comfortable with your dictionary, you’ll realize what a fantastic resource it is.  Dictionaries don’t just give spellings and meanings: they provide synonyms and usage examples.  They even tell you what part of speech the word is.  The dictionary—not the spellchecker—is the writer’s trustworthy companion.
  • For another, taking this issue seriously will save you from handing in papers confusing phenomena with pneumonia, balcony with baloney, and madam with madman.

So:  Treat your spellchecker as a helpful underling.  It’s good at guessing, not knowing. It’s not the boss of you.



Common grammar mistakes

Drafting, revising and editing


Writing Skills

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Writing Tip #32 - Prove It: Incorporating Evidence

Scottish philosopher, David Hume (1711-1776), said: “A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence.” This is the standard to which your professors will hold your papers! If you make an assertion, incorporate evidence for that statement.

For instance, if you make a statement such as: “John Doe believed that scientific proof of Bigfoot existed.” you must support that statement with evidence. Where did you find this information? The correct way to cite and reference this statement in APA format is:

John Doe believed that scientific proof of Bigfoot existed (Smith & Jones, 1998).

Reference: (on reference page) Smith, J. & Jones, J. (1998). Bigfoot. The Journal of Nature’s Beasts, 18(4), 16-18.

In academic writing, evidence usually involves the use of citations and references. If you don’t have a clue how to cite or reference, look at earlier Writing Tip posts or the Writing Center. Using evidence will show your professor that you are a serious, scholarly writer.


Citing and Quoting

Plagiarism Guide


Writing Skills

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