If unrelieved, it becomes the ticking clock in the jail or, worse, the flat line of death.Savvy essayists, as a result, twist their chronology, beginning at the end or breaking to a moment in the past, even weaving together several timelines. Take, for example, Jo Ann Beard’s essay “The Fourth State of Matter.” The narrator, abandoned by her husband, is caring for a dying dog and going to work at a university office to which an angry graduate student has brought a gun.
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He had learned this principle from screenwriters in Hollywood and insisted, “Think what you want, those guys know how plots work.” One interesting side note: trauma, which is a common source for personal essays, can easily cause an author to get stuck on the sort of plateau Kittredge described.
Jo Ann Beard, while clearly wrestling with the immobilizing impact of her own trauma, found a way to keep the reader moving both forward and upward, until the rising tension reached its inevitable climax: the graduate student firing his gun.
It also allows for a wider variety of perspectives—illuminating the subject from multiple angles.
A classic example would be “Under the Influence,” Scott Russell Sanders’s essay about his alcoholic father.
More crucial, though, is their use of tension, which changes the flat line of chronology into a rising line—a plot. The sequence of scenes matches roughly the unfolding of real events, but there is suspense to pull us along, represented by questions we want answered.
Such tension forces the reader into a climb, muscles contracting. In fact, within Beard’s narrative, two sets of questions, correlating to parallel subplots, create a kind of double tension.
Sometimes I even seem to go backward, losing all direction.
Nothing is wasted though, said the design professor, because every bend in the process is helping you to arrive at your necessary structure.
The essay is a figure locked in a too-large-lump of personal experience, and the good essayist chisels away all unnecessary material.
One helpful way to understand this principle of deletion is to think of the essayist looking through a viewfinder to limit the reader’s focus.