Lesson No. 3: Narrative Arc in Personal Essays

many arcs



“How to Create a Narrative Arc for Personal Essays” by Jody Bates

“Fuck You, Columbus” by Sloane Crosley

“Inheritance” by Angela Pelster

“Not Less than 1,000 Bottles for Horesradish” by Jen Hirt 



Beginning. Middle. End.

Introduction. Body. Conclusion.

Act I. Act II. Act III

Past. Present. Future. 

These are the narrative arcs to which we are accustomed. It’s that line that charts the plot and action, that’s swollen and pregnant with meaning about to come. The slow rise of setting up a story, hitting that climax, and then the denouement.

In other words:


narrative arc



Many essays and stories, however, are more complicated than this. There are so many stories and arcs going on, so many stages of development and meaning that a simple beginning-middle-end cannot apply to these written works. 

In other words:


narrative arc complicated


You may be thinking that the above diagram is confusing instead of helpful. You are right. Sort of. It is confusing because narrative arc can be complex. Not every person in an essay rises to its climax at the same time. Thus, there are no word orgies. But there is a relationship there. 

The narrator starts to develop more as the story builds in events and meaning. The more problematic situations she is placed in, the more we can understand her own complexity. 

Let me state right now that I haven’t given any inclination that the narrative arc has to be a chronologicaly-told one. As Jody Bates explains in her craft essay, not every story has to start at the beginning and end at the end.

In other words:


shakes arc


Or, if you’re a definition-defying narrative arc genius, then perhaps this:


weird arc


Whatever your narrative arc is, it eventually has to lead to something that answers the question the essay is posing, or at least acknowledge that it’s there. You can start where ever you want to start in an essay, and you can end whenever you want to end. And in between all of that is some connective tissue that clasps onto every facet of the arc, that makes an essay incredibly strong.



  1. What is the general beginning, middle, and end of each of the essays you read this week?
  2. Thinking about chronology and time, in what ways do you think Hirt’s organization of her essay strengthen the narrative? In what ways did it weaken the narrative?
  3. Pelster uses both past and present tense in “Inheritance.” If she had written the whole essay in just present tense, would the essay have a different move? What if it was all in past tense? Would that change the tone?
  4. What do the time stamps bring to the story in Crosley’s essay? Do they strengthen her story or weaken it at all?


Writing Exercises

  1. Think of one of the weirdest or most complicated day you have ever experienced. Write out the events of the day in the same way that Crosley does. Make up times if you can’t remember them.
  2. Think of a moment in your life when you felt complete love and joy for the world. In one brief paragraph, describe an aspect or part of this moment in past tense. Then, write it in present tense. Then, you guessed it, write the same story in future tense.
  3. Write about your grandparents or anyone you have known for years and describe the arc and details of your relationship through physical features of you and this person. Have you seen wrinkles grow? What about hairstyles? Show the passing of time through these physical traits.


Chelsey-Clammer-FacultyChelsey Clammer received her MA in Women’s Studies from Loyola University Chicago and MFA from the Rainier Writing Workshop program. She has been published in The RumpusAtticus Review, and The Nervous Breakdown among many others. She is an award-winning and Pushcart Prize nominated essayist. 




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