This lesson covers... the three parts of a narrative/challenges essay.
By the end you should... have a basic understanding of how to write your own narrative/challenges essay.
Time 5 minutes

Below is an example of a solid narrative/challenges essay. Read it first, then I’ll discuss it briefly.

Breaking Up With Mom

Written using Narrative Structure and adapted for the UC Application
Essay could have worked for prompts 5, 8, and perhaps others.      

When I was fifteen years old I broke up with my mother. We could still be friends, I told her, but I needed my space, and she couldn’t give me that.
She and I both knew that I was the only person that she had in America. Her family was in Russia, she only spoke to her estranged ex-husband in court, her oldest son avoided her at all costs. And yet, at fifteen years old, I wasn’t equipped to effectively calm her down from her nightly anxiety attacks. At forty-three, she wasn’t willing to believe that I did love her, but that I couldn’t be responsible for stabilizing her life.
Moving in with my dad full time felt like I was abandoning her after tying a noose around her neck. But as my Drama teacher (and guardian angel) pointed out, my mother wasn’t going to get better if I kept enabling her, and that I wasn’t going to be able to grow if I was constrained by her dependence on me.
For the first time, I had taken action. I was never again going to passively let life happen to me.
During four long months of separation, I filled the space that my mom previously dominated with learning: everything and anything. I taught myself French through online programs, built websites, and began began editing my drawings on Photoshop to sell them online. When my dad lost his third job in five years, I learned to sew my own clothes and applied my new knowledge to costume design in the Drama Department.
On stage, I learned to empathize. Backstage, I worked with teams of dedicated and mutually supportive students. In our improv group, I gained the confidence to act on my instincts. With the help of my Drama teacher, I learned to humble myself enough to ask for help.
On my sixteenth birthday, I picked up the phone and dialed my mom. I waited through three agonizingly long pauses between rings.
“Katyush?”
“Hi mom, it’s me.”
(Length: 350 words)                                

Analysis: Note the simple structure here...

  1. Challenges She Faced (first three paragraphs)

  2. What She Did About It (beginning with the “During four long months…” paragraph)

  3. What She Learned (rest of the essay)

I can’t emphasize enough how important this structure is. It’s especially useful if you have a complex story; come back to this simple outline and it will simplify things.

Note, though, that this doesn’t follow that ⅓ word budget I suggested--and that’s totally okay. There is no one way to write a great essay. In this case, the writer needed a bit more real estate to describe her challenges.

But notice how clearly she communicates what she did about it and what she learned. It can be that simple.

Advanced Version: For those of you who are ambitious, you may notice that the author does actually follow the five steps of Narrative Structure that I describe here:

  • Inciting Incident: “When I was fifteen years old I broke up with my mother.”

  • Status Quo: See Paragraph 2.

  • Raising the Stakes: See Paragraph 2.

  • Moment of Truth: “For the first time, I had taken action. I was never again going to passively let life happen to me.”

  • New Status Quo: After not speaking for some time, the author reaches out again in the final paragraph (i.e. they are re-opening the lines of communication), which is different from the opening of the story.

So it is possible to work in these elements. But is not necessary. And it is hard to do in 350 words. That’s why I call this the Advanced Version.

Keep things simple by asking yourself those three questions:

  1. What challenge(s) did I face?

  2. What did I do about it?

  3. What did I learn?

You’re probably wondering: What if I’m NOT writing about challenges? I’ll explain that next.

To learn about montage structure, click below.


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