An Illustrated Guide to the Personal Essay

I’m sure every person who has ever been in an American ninth grade English class has seen a plot diagram before, which illustrates the general path a narrative may take. 

However, as any writer past the age of fourteen may come to realize; this is not the only option, nor does a narrative even have to take a diagram-able path. Nevertheless, in an article for Creative NonfictionTim and Claire Bascom illustrated good and bad “plot diagrams” for different types of personal essays that they’ve come across. Despite these being geared toward essayists, I think they’re quite useful for any type of writer who must consider the structure of their piece for a specific audience. The article is divided into titled subsections with illustrations for each. I’ll gloss over a few of them, but I strongly advise checking out the article here.

Narrative with a Lift

As humans who live chronological lives, a time-ordered narrative often seems like the go-to option. This closely resembles the plot diagram we learned about in high school. If you’re planning on writing in chronological order, Beasom suggests using tension to your advantage. He says, “Such tension forces the reader into a climb, muscles contracting. It raises anticipation. Will we reach the top? And what will we see from there?”


A Whorl of Reflection

One of the defining characteristics of a personal essay is that it conveys a message, a quality about humanity or the self that strikes a chord and keeps you reading. Chronological narratives lack the ability to come to a central idea. Yes, it comes to a climax and a denouement, but what if that striking realization didn’t happen at a specific plot point? The reflective structure allows an essayist to convey an idea in a more personal manner instead of a movie-like one. Beasom says: “One of the benefits of such a circling approach is that it seems more organic, just like the mind’s creative process. It also allows for a wider variety of perspectives—illuminating the subject from multiple angles.”


Braided and Layered Structures/ Lyric Essay

More innovative forms are a braided/layered structure and a lyric essay, which bypass a chronological narrative in order to convey a unique tone and idea. Of these structures, Beasom writes: “The lyric essay is devoted more to image than idea, more to mood than concept. It is there to be experienced, not simply thought about. And like many poems, it accomplishes this effect by layering images without regard to narrative order. A lyric essay is a series of waves on the shore, cresting one after the other. It is one impression after another, unified by tone. And it seems to move in its own peculiar direction, neither vertical nor horizontal. More slant.”


Writing, like painting or playing music, is a skill acquired by practice. When I took art classes in high school, I always tried to take a more stylistic approach to depicting people and landscapes; I tried to emulate the artists I admired. But I read something once that said “You have to know the rules in order to break them.” You have to know how to draw before you can break the conventions of drawing and develop your own style. This applies to writing as well. Knowing the rules of writing, not just the grammatical rules you learn in high school, but structures like these, will help any writer develop their own unique style.



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