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Monday, August 3, 2009

Narrative Essays

WRITING is a difficult skill. It is for this reason that continuous writing is the bane of many students. Unlike directed writing, the students have to start from scratch and deal with content as well as language.

They have to think of what to write and how to write. The question on directed writing gives them a context within which to write, so they do not have to worry about their roles as writers or who their audience is.

With continuous writing, they have to consider these two factors besides having to explore ideas and watch out for language.

In continuous writing, candidates are given five topics, from which they select only one. The topics can be categorised as follows:

Narrative

(e.g. Write a story ending with: I never saw her again after that.)

Descriptive

(e.g. Describe a visit to a night market.)

Factual/expository

(e.g. National service should be compulsory for all. Do you agree?)

Argumentative (e.g. It is better to study the science subjects than the arts. Do you agree?)

One-word essays

(e.g. Beauty.)

General guidelines for continuous writing
  • Read all the questions given. Some students make the mistake of selecting the first question that they read, or zooming in on a question they think is manageable only to realise, later, that they could have handled another question with more ease
  • Choose a topic you are familiar, or comfortable with, which is within your scope of experience, so you do not have to struggle with content
  • Opt for something that is within your linguistic ability. Do not select a topic just because you think it is challenging. This is not the time for experimentation. As for weak students, it is generally advisable to write a narrative
  • Plan your essay: the outline, points/ideas/thoughts and supporting points (if you are writing an argumentative or factual essay).
  • Remember to use a variety of sentence structures (simple, compound and complex).
Competent candidates should use more of the latter as your competency will be made obvious by your ability to use these structures accurately. Do not use too many simple sentences as, at SPM level, more is expected of you.
  • Use sentences of varying lengths. A short sentence can be very effective after several long sentences
  • Choose words carefully. You should be able to use words with different nuances. For instance the word “walked” can be replaced with synonyms such as ambled, strolled, sauntered, staggered, strode
  • Write out your essay in neat, legible handwriting. There is nothing more annoying than small or untidy handwriting, or a combination of both, as the reader has to spend valuable time deciphering what you have written
  • Write in paragraphs. You may leave a line between paragraphs as it is easy on the examiner’s eye
  • Edit and revise language if necessary. Allocate 10 minutes for this and make sure spelling and punctuation are accurate
  • Do heed the length of the essay. You are required to write an essay of not less than 350 words. Anything shorter would definitely be penalised. But do not write too long an essay. Some students can easily write anything between 600 and 800 words. Remember, the more you write, the more mistakes you may make. Weak students are strongly advised not to write a lengthy essay.
Narrative essays

Let us begin with the narrative essay. Narrative essays are a favourite among students as they are easier to handle. This type of essay enables the writer to use and share experiences with the reader.

Guidelines to remember when writing a narrative essay
  • You have to decide whether to write your essay from your own perspective or someone else’s. The first person or third person singular is the most popular voice
  • If you choose to write from your own perspective, then use the first person singular, that is, “I”.
  • If you choose to write from someone else’s perspective, use third person pronouns (he, she, it). Be consistent in your choice of pronouns. Do not switch perspectives mid-way through the essay.
  • Engage your reader. Make the story real for him. Get him involved in your experience
  • Bring your characters to life. Make them real. Make them memorable
  • It is always more interesting to read about flawed characters.
  • Have a simple plot. You will be better off using chronological order. Flashbacks are a wonderful device but you should only engage in this if you can carry it off
  • Use the simple past tense if you cannot handle the past perfect tense
  • Use verbs and adjectives to enable your reader to visualise things in his mind’s eye
  • You may use dialogue but use it sparingly and effectively. Remember, you are writing a narrative, not a script
  • Avoid using informal language
  • Avoid clich├ęs
Sample essay

Write a story ending with, “I never saw her again after that”. The gaunt figure that inched its way slowly towards the medicine counter looked old and haggard.

Her dreary-looking outfit did nothing to conceal her bleak and depressing demeanour. Anyone who looked at her would have thought she carried the world’s burdens on her shoulders.

Quietly, she sat on one of the chairs and waited patiently, like the rest of us, for her number to be flashed on the digital screen.

I was rattled. I knew I had seen her somewhere before — a younger, happier version. There was no way I could be wrong. Like an arrow released from its bow, the buried and forgotten memories pierced my heart with an unknown intensity.

It had to be Mary Anne, my best friend in secondary school. Then again, this person looked old, much too old to be 29. Anyway, I summoned enough courage and went towards her. Hearing my footsteps, she looked up slowly. The flash of recognition in her eyes told me I was not wrong.

“It is you, Mary Anne Danker, is it not?”

She nodded her head silently as if embarrassed.

“Hello, John? You are looking good.”

Her remarks reminded me of how beautiful she had been once. Mary Anne had been the school beauty. Everyone had admired her for her looks, her brains and her beautiful character.

Many had said, rather enviously, that God had worked overtime with her – making her one of his masterpieces.

One day, Mary Anne had stopped coming to school. Devastated, I had gone to her house, only to find it all locked up. Checks with neighbours proved futile. No one knew where the Danker family had gone and why they had left so suddenly.

Taking a seat next to her, I wondered what had happened to the ravishing beauty I had once known.

“Why did you leave so suddenly, Mary Anne? Why?”

She looked at me nervously, clasping and unclasping her hands in her lap. I could sense that she was rather reluctant to talk, reluctant to expose a part of her life which had probably caused her a great deal of pain and suffering. A prolonged silence ensued. Finally, she inhaled deeply and started telling me her story.

Her mother had been diagnosed with endstage cancer and there was nothing the doctors could do. They said that she had only three months to live. Her father thought it best to return to their hometown, to let her live in peace in the surroundings she had grown up in.

Her father, devastated by his wife’s death, started to neglect his own health and three months later, he too died of a broken heart, leaving Mary Anne in the care of relatives.

Tears rolled down Mary Anne’s cheeks as she related the difficult years with her aunt.

The old widow treated her badly, forcing Mary Anne to quit school and to work as a dishwasher in a restaurant. The cruel old lady often beat her, and her cousins, jealous of her beauty, were more vicious than their mother.

Now that the aunt was old and suffering from cancer, her five children had deserted her when they realised that she needed special care. Despite her aunt’s ghastly treatment of her, Mary Anne felt sorry for her.

“I cannot leave her. She has no one else,” she said. “I have promised to take care of her till the end of her life.”

I looked at Mary Anne and saw her goodness. Instead of seeing a gaunt and weary figure, I saw an amazingly beautiful human being.

My heart went out to her. Just then her number was flashed on the screen. She got up and collected the medicine which, I understood, was for her aunt. Never had I felt so helpless and wretched. Her story reminded me of something my late grandfather used to say,

“Life is like an onion: You peel it off one layer at a time, and sometimes you weep.”

Before leaving, Mary Anne turned and smiled sadly at me. I never saw her again after that.

(677 words)

Let us analyse the elements in the sample essay.

Simple plot
  • The story revolves around Mary Anne who leaves town when her mother is diagnosed with cancer. Her parents die and she is treated cruelly by her aunt
  • A chance encounter at a pharmacy reveals this to the narrator.
  • Setting
  • Most likely, a pharmacy/clinic
  • A past event (no specific time entioned).
  • Important characters
  • Mary Anne
  • Narrator
  • The aunt
How the essay seeks to engage the reader

Vivid portrayal of the character through the use of verbs, adjectives and adverbs.

The gaunt figure that inched its way slowly towards the medicine counter looked old and haggard. Her dreary-looking outfit did nothing to conceal her bleak and depressing demeanour.

Quietly, she sat on one of the chairs and waited patiently, like the rest of us, for her number to be flashed on the digital screen.

Vivid reminder of what the character had been like before.

Mary Anne had been the school beauty. Everyone had admired her for her looks, her brains and her beautiful character.

Focus shifts from loss of external to internal beauty.

I wondered what had happened to the ravishing beauty I had once known. Then again, this person looked old, much too old to be 29.

Narrator’s realisation that she is still beautiful — on the inside.

I looked at Mary Anne and saw her goodness. Instead of seeing a gaunt and weary figure, I saw an amazingly beautiful human being.

Narrator’s thoughts and feelings.

Anyone who looked at her would have thought she carried the world’s burdens on her shoulders.

I was rattled. I looked at Mary Anne and saw her goodness. Instead of seeing a gaunt and weary figure, I saw an amazingly beautiful human being. My heart went out to her.

Effective use of past and past perfect tense.

Her remarks reminded me of how beautiful she had been once. Mary Anne had been the school beauty. Everyone had admired her for her looks, her brains and her beautiful character.

Touch of humour.

Many had said, rather enviously, that God had worked overtime with her – making her one of his masterpieces.

Choice of words.
  • Precise/apt – pitiable
  • Not repetitive, e.g. “treated her badly”, “ghastly treatment”.
  • Inclusion of dialogue.
  • Gives voice to the narrator and Mary Anne.
  • Breaks monotony of narration
Varied sentence structures.

I was rattled. (simple sentence)

Her mother had been diagnosed with end-stage cancer and there was nothing the doctors could do. (compound sentence)

Now that the aunt was old and suffering from cancer, her five children had deserted her when they realised that she needed special care. (complex sentence)

Use of repetition for emphasis.

"Why did you leave so suddenly, Mary Anne? Why"

Unexpected ending.

Mary Anne does not desert her aunt in her time of need. The beauty of her character shines through.

Sometimes, you can change a story to suit another topic. Why don’t you manipulate the sample essay to fit the topic “Beauty”?

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Collection of SPM English Language Question Papers

2005
Terengganu Trial [Paper 1]

2007
Johor Trial [Paper 1] [Paper 2], Terengganu Trial [Paper 1] [Paper 2], Pahang Trial [Paper 1] [Paper 2] [Answers], Melaka Trial 2007 [Paper 1] [Paper 2], TIMES [Paper 1] [Paper 2] SPB [Paper 1] [Paper 2]

2008

Terengganu Mid Year [Paper 1] [Paper 2],
Trial
MRSM Trial [Paper 1] [Paper 2], SBP Trial [Paper 1] [Paper 2], Kelantan Trial [Paper 1 & 2], Terengganu Trial [Paper 1] [Paper 2], Kedah Trial [Paper 1] [Paper 2], Pahang Trial [Paper 1] [Paper 2], Johor Trial [Paper 1 & 2], Perlis Trial [Paper 1] [Paper 2], Sabah Trial [Paper 1] [Paper 2], Sarawak Trial [Paper 1 & 2], Melaka Trial [Paper 1] [Paper 2]

2009

Terengganu TOV [Paper 1] [Paper 2] Terengganu Mid Year [Paper 1] [Paper 2]
Melaka Trial , Johor Trial , Sabah Trial , Kedah Trial , Perlis Trial , Times , SBP , Pahang Trial [Paper 1] [Paper 2]

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