Without question, the most common place for writers to exercise their freedom in personal statements, as well as the most common place where writers feel uncertain about what they’ve done, is in their beginnings. Even personal statements that are scientific in tone and content might have creative beginnings. Although there’s nothing wrong with a straightforward opening simply stating your purpose, especially if you have just one page for your essay, most writers take a bolder tack. Readers of personal statements are used to openings that tell stories or borrow quotations, essays that discuss relevant current events, and even daring writers who risk a bit of well-conceived humor or surprise.
As the most common creative beginning, a personal story tells a tale by briefly setting a scene, often capturing some formative moment of your past when your interest in your course of study blossomed. Whether setting the scene in a classroom or on a mountaintop, remember that your goal is make readers feel they are there with you, and remember that the setting itself can be a character in your “short story”—influencing both the action and a response to that action.
Here is a perfect example of a lengthy creative beginning that winds its way into a formal thesis statement, excerpted from a Rhodes Scholarship essay in Chapter 5:
Soaked in sweat, I sat deep in thought on the small mound of sand and broken rocks in northern Kenya, where 1.7 million years ago a desperately ill Homo erectus woman had died. Her death had entranced me for years. KNM-ER 1808 had died of Hypervitaminosis A, wherein an overdose of Vitamin A causes extensive hemorrhaging throughout the skeleton and excruciating pain. Yet a thick rind of diseased bone all over her skeleton—ossified blood clots—tells that 1808 lived for weeks, even months, immobilized by pain and in the middle of the African bush. As noted in The Wisdom of the Bones, by Walker and Shipman, that means that someone had cared for her, brought her water, food, and kept away predators. At 1.7 million years of age, 1808’s mere pile of bones is a breathtaking, poignant glimpse of how people have struggled with disease over the ages. Since that moment two summers ago, I’ve been fascinated by humans’ relationship with disease. I want to research paleopathology, the study of ancient diseases, in relation to human culture, specifically sex and gender.
Note how this opening confidently integrates technical detail and even slips in an informal citation on the journey to the thesis. Here, setting acts as a character, moving our story’s protagonist to imagine a woman’s long-ago death, and we also recognize the writer’s seriousness of purpose about her work as she (as a character in the tale) contemplates the woman’s fate from a “small mound of sand and broken rocks in northern Kenya.” Just as she was taken to this important place and moment in her life, we are taken there with her as well through narrative.
Here is another example from an introduction to a student's application to medical school:
When I was little my grandfather gave me piggyback rides, brought me donuts every day when he came home from work, and taught me about nature. A simple farmer who survived World War II and lived most of his life under Russian occupation, he told me why trees grow so high, why I should not pull a cow by its ear, and why I should not chase chickens across the back yard. As fond as I was of him, as I grew and became more educated I also saw how this great man made bad choices about his health. I constantly nagged him about his smoking and poor diet. He loved bacon with eggs and milk straight from the cow. In response to my nagging he would simply say, "Eh, you are so young, what do you know?" One morning after breakfast when I was sixteen, he had a heart attack and died in the kitchen while waiting for an ambulance to arrive.
Here we find a writer who simultaneously evokes the memory of his beloved grandfather and also introduces us to his own sensibility. Simple details about his simple upbringing make up a brief but vivid tale with a tragic end, and thus we understand a very personal motivation behind this writer's choice of career.
Other essays open with much briefer and less narrative personal stories, sometimes relying on just one line to set the context, with the writer heading to a purpose statement shortly thereafter. Here are some straightforward but artful beginnings to personal statements from Donald Asher’s book Graduate Admissions Essays:
I attended seventeen different schools before high school.
I spent the morning of my eighteenth birthday in an auditorium with two hundred strangers.
Radio has been my passion for as long as I can remember.
Clearly, the style of an opening that shares a personal story can range from the flashy to the plain—what matters most is that the opening truly is personal.
Like many writers and readers, I’m a sucker for a good meaty quotable quote, which is part of why quotations are used to open each chapter of this handbook. We tape handwritten quotes on our bathroom mirrors, clip them onto the visors in our cars, and paste them into our e-mail signature lines. In a personal essay, not only do quotes set context for the reader, they also allow you to ride on the broad shoulders of another who actually managed to say or write something that was worth quoting. Quotations might be used at the start of the essay, in the closing, or they might appear at a key moment within the body as a way to set context or emphasize a point. In Chapter 5 of this handbook, a quotation is used as an opening to a science-related essay by an applicant for a National Science Foundation Fellowship. In the same chapter, another writer uses a narrative opening in her essay to repeat a favorite quote that her mother used to say: “To find out where you’re going, you need to know where home is.”
Keep in mind that some quotations are highly overused and that quotations can also come off as merely trite and silly, depending on the taste of the reader. Some find Forrest Gump’s “Life is like a box of chocolates” hilarious; others just groan when they hear it. If using a quotation, be sure that you’re not just propping yourself up on it as an apology for a lack of substance to your text. Comment on the quotation’s relevance to your life rather than just let it sit there, and choose the most meaningful quote for the circumstances rather than one that simply tickles your fancy.
The Use of Surprise or Humor
Indeed, the weapon of surprise is a key ingredient in a Monty Python skit about the Spanish Inquisition (no one expects it, just in case you forgot). But in a personal statement humor and surprise can fall flat in the hands of a fumbling writer. Nevertheless, some writers take these calculated risks, and do so with style. Witness this passage from a sample essay in Chapter 4, as a film student explains how he spent his freshman year in a different major:
With a high school education grounded rigorously in math and science, I entered Mythic University on an academic scholarship with Polymer Science and Engineering as my intended major. I like to joke that, after seeing Mike Nichols’ film The Graduate and hearing that terrific line, “plastics,” delivered poolside to a wayward Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman), I was inadvertently led into the hands of the great polymer Satan. But, by sophomore year, I quickly escaped the plastic devil’s clasp and found a new home in the film department.
Here, this student uses self-deprecating humor as many do in the personal statement: to explain what might otherwise look like a curiosity in his background. Readers need not question his devotion to film despite his beginning in the sciences—he even blends the two interests together by being influenced into his initial major by a film, aligning himself briefly and humorously with the hapless character of Benjamin Braddock.
Others use humor or surprise less expansively, but again with the purpose of revealing something personal and using intentional self-commentary. In Mark Allen Stewart’s How to Write the Perfect Personal Statement, one writer quips that his high school classmates voted him “Most likely to have a publishable resume,” which shows that this writer can simultaneously poke fun at and uplift himself. In Donald Asher’s Graduate Admissions Essays. Another writer opens her essay unconventionally with a surprising admission—“Skeletons. Like everyone else I have some hanging in my closet”—then later reveals herself as a “survivor of sexual assault.” Here, the writer’s tone is surprisingly frank, which under the circumstances could help her be viewed as mature and courageous, despite the risk she takes.
Part of what unifies these disparate approaches above is that the writers clearly know they are taking a risk with their rhetoric—there’s nothing accidental or highly cutesy about it. All of them reveal a passion for their chosen fields, and the humor and surprise are attention-getting without being too distracting.
Perhaps a good rule of thumb, then, is this: If using humor or surprise, aim it squarely at yourself without making yourself look silly or undermining your character, and dispense with it quickly rather than push it over the top. No matter how well you tell a joke, some readers may not care for it. And remember that not everyone likes, or even "gets," Monty Python.
It’s often said that one of the best ways to prepare for an interview for a national scholarship is to read The New York Times and be ready to discuss current events. If you make it to the interview selection stage, it’s already clear that you have an excellent academic record and look good on paper. What’s unclear is how you will present in person. By showing yourself to be not just committed to your field but also knowledgeable about the world, you paint yourself as a mature thinker, an informed citizen, a responsible student of life.
In a personal statement, writers typically create topical context by narrating a recent event of some consequence, citing a respected source, or simply establishing an arena for discussion. “Martial arts and medicine,” opens one personal essay from Richard Stelzer’s How to Write a Winning Personal Statement for Graduate and Professional School, using an intentional sentence fragment to grab our attention and to crisply define two intertwined themes in the writer’s life. Other essays—the first from the Asher book and the second from the Stelzer book cited above—lend a sense of importance to their subject matter through topical references:
As I write this statement, Governor Mario Cuomo makes preparations to vacate the Executive Mansion in Albany, New York, after New Yorkers rejected his appeal for another term.
As the United States launched yet another small war in a distant corner of the globe, Senator Everett McKinley Dirksen returned to life and captivated a hometown audience in Pekin, Illinois, with the folksy eloquence that made him nationally famous.
As these politically savvy allusions show, writers who use topical references impress upon their readers that they are both informed and concerned. Here, the color of one’s political stripes is irrelevant—what matters is that they are painted clearly. Whether employing a political reference or citing a current event, when you create topical context you represent yourself as a keen observer of the world.
Any story or novel is, in essence, a series of scenes strung together like beads on a wire, with narrative summary adding texture and color between. A work of fiction will comprise many scenes, and each one of these individual scenes must be built with a structure most easily described as having a beginning, middle and end. The beginning of each scene is what we’ll address here.
The word beginning is a bit misleading, since some scenes pick up in the middle of action or continue where others left off, so I prefer the term launch, which more clearly suggests the place where the reader’s attention is engaged anew.
Visually, in a manuscript a new scene is usually signified by the start of a chapter, by a break of four lines (called a soft hiatus) between the last paragraph of one scene and the first paragraph of the next one, or sometimes by a symbol such as an asterisk, to let the reader know that time has passed.
Each new scene still has a responsibility to the idea or plot you started with, and that is to communicate your idea in a way that is vivifying for the reader and that provides an experience, not a lecture. Scene launches, therefore, pave the way for all the robust consequences of the idea or plot to unfurl. Each scene launch is a reintroduction, capturing your reader’s attention all over again. Start each scene by asking yourself two key questions:
- Where are my characters in the plot? Where did I leave them and what are they doing now?
- What is the most important piece of information that needs to be revealed in this scene?
Only you and the course of your narrative can decide which kinds of launches will work best for each scene, and choosing the right launch often takes some experimentation. Here we’ll cover 10 key techniques for launching scenes in three main ways: with action, narrative summary or setting.
The sooner you start the action in a scene, the more momentum it has to carry the reader forward. If you find yourself explaining an action, then you’re not demonstrating the action any longer; you’re floating in a distant star system known as Nebulous Intellectulus—more commonly known as your head—and so is the reader.
Keep in mind the key elements of action: time and momentum. It takes time to plan a murder over late-night whispers; to cause an embarrassing scene by drunkenly dropping a jar at the grocery; to blackmail a betraying spouse; or to haul off and kick a wall in anger. These things don’t happen spontaneously, they happen over a period of time. They are sometimes quick, sometimes slow, but once started, they unfold until finished.
The key to creating strong momentum is to start an action without explaining anything:
Albert leads them all into the dining room and everyone drifts around the large teak table, studying the busily constructed salads at each place setting—salads, which, with their knobs of cheese, jutting chives and little folios of frisée, resemble small Easter hats.
“Do we wear these or eat them?” asks Jack. In his mouth is a piece of gray chewing gum like a rat’s brain.
Lorrie Moore plunges her reader into the above scene in the story “Beautiful Grade.” Although the action is quiet, there is physical movement and a sense of real time. The lack of explanation for what is happening forces the reader to press on to learn more. The action gives clues to the reader: The characters are led into a room full of wildly decorated salads that one character is uncertain whether he should eat or wear, which gives a sense of the environment—probably chic. We get a feeling for Jack—he’s got a good sense of humor. Clearly something more is going to happen in this environment, and judging from the tone of the paragraph, we can probably expect irony and humor.
Action launches tend to energize the reader’s physical senses. To create an action launch:
1. GET STRAIGHT TO THE ACTION. Don’t drag your feet here. “Jimmy jumped off the cliff” rather than “Jimmy stared at the water, imagining how cold it would feel when he jumped.”
2. HOOK THE READER WITH BIG OR SURPRISING ACTIONS. An outburst, car crash, violent heart attack or public fight at the launch of a scene allows for more possibilities within it.
3. BE SURE THAT THE ACTION IS TRUE TO YOUR CHARACTER. Don’t have a shy character choose to become suddenly uninhibited at the launch of a scene. Do have a bossy character belittle another character in a way that creates conflict.
4. ACT FIRST, THINK LATER. If a character is going to think in your action opening, let the action come first, as in, “Elizabeth slapped the Prince. When his face turned pink, horror filled her. What have I done? she thought.”
Writers often try to include narrative summary, such as descriptions of the history of a place or the backstory of characters, right at the launch of a scene, believing that the reader will not be patient enough to allow actions and dialogue to tell the story. In large doses, narrative summaries are to scenes what voice-overs are to movies—distractions and interruptions.
Yet a scene launch is actually one of the easier places to use a judicious amount of narrative summary, so long as you don’t keep the reader captive too long. Take the opening of this scene in Amanda Eyre Ward’s novel How to Be Lost:
The afternoon before, I planned how I would tell her. I would begin with my age and maturity, allude to a new lover, and finish with a bouquet of promises: grandchildren, handwritten letters, boxes from Tiffany sent in time to beat the rush. I sat in my apartment drinking Scotch and planning the words.
The above bit is almost entirely narrative summary, and the only action—drinking Scotch—is described, not demonstrated. There is no real setting, and the only visual cues the reader has are vague and abstract. However, the narrative summary does demonstrate the nature of the character, Caroline—she feels she must butter her mother up, bribe her even, in order to ask for something she needs, which turns out to be a relatively small thing. It reflects Caroline’s tendency to live in her head, and shows us she’s the kind of person who must prepare herself mentally for difficult things—a theme that recurs throughout the book. It’s also useful because Caroline spends a lot of time by herself, cutting herself off from her relationships, and, therefore, it is very true to her personality. In just one short paragraph of narrative summary, the reader learns a lot about Caroline, and Ward gets to action in the next paragraph:
Georgette stretched lazily on the balcony. Below, an ambulance wailed. A man with a shopping cart stood underneath my apartment building, eating chicken wings and whistling.
If the entire scene had continued in narrative summary, it would have had a sedative effect on the reader, and the scene’s momentum would have been lost.
A narrative approach is best used with the following launch strategies:
5. SAVE TIME BY BEGINNING WITH SUMMARY. Sometimes actions will simply take up more time and space in the scene than you would like. A scene beginning needs to move fairly quickly and, on occasion, summary will get the reader there faster.
6. COMMUNICATE NECESSARY INFORMATION TO THE READER BEFORE THE ACTION KICKS IN. Sometimes information needs to be imparted simply in order to set action in motion later in the scene. Opening sentences such as, “My mother was dead before I arrived,” “The war had begun” and, “The storm left half of the city underwater,” could easily lead to action.
7. REVEAL A CHARACTER’S THOUGHTS OR INTENTIONS THAT CANNOT BE SHOWN THROUGH ACTION. Coma victims, elderly characters, small children and other characters sometimes cannot speak or act for physical, mental or emotional reasons; therefore the scene may need to launch with narration to let the reader know what they think and feel.
Sometimes setting details—like a jungle on fire, or moonlight sparkling on a lake—are so important to plot or character development that it’s appropriate to include visual setting at the launch of a scene. This is often the case in books set in unusual, exotic or challenging locations such as snowy Himalayan mountains, lush islands or brutal desert climates. If the setting is going to bear dramatically on the characters and the plot, then there is every reason to let it lead into the scene that will follow.
John Fowles’ novel The Magus is set mostly on a Greek island that leaves an indelible imprint on the main character, Nicholas. He becomes involved with an eccentric man whose isolated villa in the Greek countryside becomes the stage upon which the major drama of the novel unfolds. Therefore, it makes sense for him to launch a scene in this manner:
It was a Sunday in late May, blue as a bird’s wing. I climbed up the goat-paths to the island’s ridge-back, from where the green froth of the pine-tops rolled two miles down to the coast. The sea stretched like a silk carpet across to the shadowy wall of mountains on the mainland to the west. … It was an azure world, stupendously pure, and as always when I stood on the central ridge of the island and saw it before me, I forgot most of my troubles.
The reader needs to be able to see in detail the empty Greek countryside in which Nicholas becomes so isolated. It sets the scene for something beautiful and strange to happen, and Fowles does not disappoint.
These final three methods can create an effective scenic launch:
8. ENGAGE WITH SPECIFIC VISUAL DETAILS. If your character is deserted on an island, the reader needs to know the lay of the land. Any fruit trees in sight? What color sand? Are there rocks, shelter or wild, roaming beasts?
9. USE SCENERY TO SET THE TONE OF THE SCENE. Say your scene opens in a jungle where your character is going to face danger; you can describe the scenery in language that conveys darkness, fear and mystery.
10. REFLECT A CHARACTER’S FEELINGS THROUGH SETTING. Say you have a sad character walking through a residential neighborhood. The descriptions of the homes can reflect that sadness—houses can be in disrepair, with rotting wood and untended yards. You can use weather in the same way. A bright, powerfully sunny day can reflect a mood of great cheer in a character.
Scene launches happen so quickly and are so soon forgotten that it’s easy to rush through them, figuring it doesn’t really matter how you get it started. Don’t fall prey to that thinking. Take your time with each scene launch. Craft it as carefully and strategically as you would any other aspect of your scene. Remember that a scene launch is an invitation to the reader, beckoning him to come further along with you. Make your invitation as alluring as possible.
This article was written by Jordan E. Rosenfeld.
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