How to Write a Comparison Essay on Two Different Stories

26 sep 2017.

Evaluate how well you liked the writing in each story.

When a teacher or professor asks you to compare two stories, this gives you the opportunity to experience the works in a new way. You can look closely at how a writer’s style conveys what is at stake in the story and the way each story connects with the reader. This close assessment will also help you discover what you appreciate in fiction. Knowing some of the components to evaluate in these stories will help you build your comparison essay.

Explore this article

  • Compare Plots
  • Examine Characters
  • Consider Point of View
  • Evaluate Writing Styles

1 Compare Plots

You can discuss the plot, which is what happens in each story. Even with many similarities, stories will vary in what actually takes place. For example, in one story the main character may take a trip and experience many setbacks before discovering her true desires, but in the other story the character may stay home and review his past to make himself stronger. Since someone reading your essay may not know the stories, starting the body of your essay with a discussion of these plot differences and similarities will also help ground the reader in each story, says Jeffrey Nealon and Susan Searls Giroux, authors of “The Theory Toolbox: Critical Concepts for the Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences.”

2 Examine Characters

Another option is to compare the main characters. Look at dialogue, interactions and the decisions they make. You can also evaluate how believable each character seems and whether or not you relate to that character. Look at the side characters in the stories as well. Each character should seem believable and have a role in the story. You might choose to mention if a character doesn’t have a role in moving the story forward, such as evaluating if the story would remain the same if the character were there or not. Discussing these findings will help you compare how well characters work in each story, explains Janet Burroway in “Imaginative Writing.”

3 Consider Point of View

You can also compare the point of view the writers use to tell their stories. Whether each story’s narration comes from a first-person, second-person, or third-person point of view impacts the story, and this might provide an interesting comparison for the stories. For example, one story might have a first-person narrator, making you feel close to the characters. In comparison, a third-person story might create distance between you and the characters, making you feel less involved.

4 Evaluate Writing Styles

Take time to discuss each writer's style throughout the story, evaluating concepts such as level of difficulty and your own enjoyment in reading the story. Consider the writers’ skills and how well they pull their stories together. You may like one writer better than the other, and Janet Burroway suggests you can discuss the reasons for this.

  • 1 Purdue Online Writing Lab: Essay Writing
  • 2 The Theory Toolbox: Critical Concepts for the Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences; Jeffrey Nealon and Susan Searls Giroux
  • 3 Imaginative Writing; Janet Burroway

About the Author

Kate Beck started writing for online publications in 2005. She worked as a certified ophthalmic technician for 10 years before returning to school to earn a Masters of Fine Arts degree in writing. Beck is currently putting the finishing touches on a novel.

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How to Compare Two Novels in Comparative Essay

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  • Writing Essays
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  • M.Ed., Education Administration, University of Georgia
  • B.A., History, Armstrong State University

At some point in your literature studies, probably just about the time you get really good at finding the theme of a novel and coming up with a sound analysis of a single literary piece, you will be required to compare two novels.

Your first task in this assignment will be to develop a good profile of both novels. You can do this by making a few simple lists of traits that might be comparable. For each novel, identify a list of characters and their roles in the story or important characteristics, and any important struggles, time periods, or major symbols (like an element of nature).

You may also attempt to come up with book themes that could be comparable. Sample themes would include:

  • Man versus nature (is each main character battling the elements?)
  • Individual versus society (does each main character feel like an outsider?)
  • Struggle between good and evil (are your characters involved in good v. evil scenarios?)
  • Coming of age (do the main characters experience a tough lesson that makes them grow?)

Your assignment will most likely give you direction as to whether you should find specific characters, story characteristics, or overall themes to compare. If it is not that specific, don't worry! You actually have a little more leeway.

Comparing Two Novel Themes

The teacher's goal when assigning this paper is to encourage you to think and analyze. You no longer read for a surface understanding of what happens in a novel; you are reading to understand why things happen and what the deeper meaning behind a character is a setting or an event. In short, you are expected to come up with an interesting comparative analysis.

As an example of comparing novel themes, we will look at The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Red Badge of Courage . Both of these novels contain a "coming of age" theme since both have characters who grow a new awareness through tough lessons. Some comparisons you could make:

  • Both characters have to explore the notion of "civilized behavior" in the societies where they exist.
  • Each main character has to question the behavior of his male role models and his male peers.
  • Each main character leaves his childhood home and encounters challenges.

To craft an essay about these two novels and their similar themes, you would create your own list of similarities like those above, using a list, chart, or a Venn diagram .

Sum up your overall theory about how these themes are comparable to create your thesis statement . Here is an example:​ "Both characters, Huck Finn and Henry Fleming, embark on a journey of discovery, and each boy finds new understanding when it comes to traditional notions about honor and courage."

You will use your common characteristic list to guide you as you create body paragraphs .

Comparing Main Characters in Novels

If your assignment is to compare the characters of these novels, you would make a list or Venn diagram to make more comparisons:

  • Both characters are young men
  • Both question society's notion of honor
  • Both witness behavior that makes them question their role models
  • Both have a nurturing female influence
  • Both question their former beliefs

Comparing two novels is not as difficult as it sounds at first. Once you generate a list of traits, you can easily see an outline emerging.

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Handling Two Stories At One Time

Joyce Maynard

how to write an essay about two stories

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15. Handling Two Stories At One Time

Class introduction, a short story about a big idea, what do you want to write about, look what you can do with 806 words, stories of change, big ideas to small stories, when you have too many stories, writing about loss & exploring secrets, 1 story 5 ways, deconstructing an example essay, the importance of language, my favorite writing tool, choose your words carefully, what's wrong with being shameless, the opening and landing place, finding the through story, picking the story you should tell, how i write a personal essay, 'letting it fly' - workshopping joyce's personal essay, the privacy question.

I'm going to look at the story of one of the members of our audience here. I grew up with strong patriotic notions having been raised in a military family. My dad was invited into the US Navy after guerrilla fighting as a teen during the Japanese occupation of the Philippines during World War II. Wow, and that opened the doors for my family to come to America. My older siblings-- I have a brother 10 years my senior and a sister who is three years older than me-- were born in the Philippines. I was the first child born in the states, just a few miles from where my dad worked. Incidentally, that's where her story begins. Everything before this, as interesting as it is, happened before she was born, and it's for them to tell the memoir of that story. She can tell the story of being the daughter of that dad, the sister of those siblings, but her story begins as the first child born in the states. That's a big piece, I'm guessing, of Edna's identity. Just a few miles from where my dad worke...

d at the WH. I assume that's White House. Is that what that is? Yes, whoa. Storytelling is a significant facet of my life as is evident with my lifelong hobbies turned careers as a professional dancer in the highly narrative form from Hawaii, the hula, and as an artist/writer teaching specialist in the schools. I believe that my story as a Filipino-American is an important tale worth telling in an era in which immigrants are misrepresented, misunderstood, and treated horribly. I believe my story is an American tale that transcends the color of my skin and my outward appearance. Where is the most concrete information in this story? Where is the picture in this story? Anybody wanna take a guess? You're veterans of several hours of classes at this point. Well, it's the hula, of course. It's that word hula. In between, we've got White House and Japanese occupation and guerrilla fighting and all kinds of big, really interesting stories, big stories. The nice little container is right in the middle, hula, and that's, Edna, where I would love to see you start with a personal essay. And, of course, I always have to qualify because nobody should write any personal essay because I say it. Does that appeal to you at all? I guess, yeah. It is a huge subject for me, the hula itself. The hula. So, even hula, it's not like hula is small for Edna. Hula might look this big for us, but it's this big for you, right? How do we take a big subject like that? Remember when we were talking to Kati about the extraordinary love affair over the, over 35 years? How they met, that's a pretty safe beginning. How you first met hula. How did you first encounter the hula? You're not from Hawaii. I started hula when I was a teenager and I danced in a hula group. Whoa, whoa, whoa, you're jumping way too quick. I danced in a hula group. How did you begin? Everybody's doing this, jumping ahead. Don't... Take your time with this. What was the moment, when did you first see hula? When were you first aware of hula? When did you first put on that skirt? Oh, okay, then I should backtrack. Yes! (laughing) I visited my brother who was living in Hawaii at the time. He was in the military, and... Do you feel what just happened? The whole story shifts. Now, we've got a character going to a place. Continue. And I fell in love with the hula when I was there. Okay, fell in love with the hula. Can we see that? Oh, no, we can't. No, no, no. What's the scene? How did you fall in love with the hula? Well, I... We stayed in the plantation with some friends. We woke up with the roosters, and they lived in the plantation housing, and the girl, she's a good friend of my sister who lived in Hawaii too with my brother, and we went with her to her halau, her school of hula. And that was... Any particular reason why you went to the hula school? Just to hang out. Just to hang out. You didn't have any passion to learn the hula? Not necessarily. We were visitors, we were guests with her. Were you dancer before this? I was, I was a dancer. You were a dancer. Yeah. And, but this was not your culture, this was just... You were just dropping in on the school, and what... Describe seeing that very first hula. I'm sure you've seen hundreds, maybe thousands of hula performances, and you have yourself participated in them. Tell me what you remember of that very first. What was it? I mean, I'm sure you've seen the ballet, you've seen modern dance. What was it about the hula? It was the combination of expression and the movement, it was... Tell me what she did with her body. Well, it was... It was a group of dancers communicating expressively at the same time to the music. Communicating, can't see it. Expressively, this is my annoying self. Okay. Hammering away at you. It made my heart move to see... Describe what she did with her body. Okay. Come on up here. (laughing) You're a hula dancer. I'm not gonna do hula in front of this crowd. Come on up here. Okay, I will describe. This is my first vision of hula. Okay, well, this is a basic movement in hula. It's the hala. Okay, so you saw her... Beautiful. Do a little bit more. Okay. (laughing) This is the kaholo. Okay, whoa, okay. So, now there's a thing with the hips, and I, if I had more time and I were able, I'd wanna study you doing the hula for a while. I would want to talk very specifically about the thing with the hips, and you're not just looking at the thing with the hips and saying that's a really interesting thing with the hips, you want to do that with your hips, right? That's what I feel when I see you. I think whoa, that must feel good being able to do that, especially if you're a, what, 16-year-old girl, 15-year-old girl? Yeah, 15. Yeah, yeah, and a tall girl and a girl who loves to dance. When did you start to actually learn it? Soon as I got back. As soon as she got back. So, now we have what we want. I hope you don't feel put on the spot, but it was so beautiful. I feel lucky. You can sit down now, that's okay. Now we have, instead of this abstract concept of expression, cultural (mumbling), we have a girl, 15-year-old girl, who sees somebody... I won't do it, I won't, I can't do it. And we see her with a quest as soon as she got home, and where was home at that point? Back to the Bay Area. The Bay Area, not a noted hula center, probably. So, was it easy finding a hula teacher? Actually, a classmate was telling other students at school that there was a halau opening up, and I was one of the first students. Okay, now I don't know the landing place of this story, Edna, but this, now we have a story. And is there anybody who doesn't feel the difference between where it was and where it is now? What has hula, I said earlier, that the... An essential element of the personal essay is that it take us somewhere, and it's not just gonna take you to I used to not know the hula, now I know the hula. What has the hula given you? Well, the hula is a narrative form so it allows me to tell a story and... (mumbling) And how interesting that you're at a storytelling workshop and you know how to tell a story with your body, and you're learning how to tell a story with words. I'd like just the opposite. I'd like to learn the hula, actually. In fact, I think this is my last day as a teacher of writing. I'm just gonna give it all up and study hula. So, you get to tell a story. What are some of the stories you can tell or have told in hula? Think about, in fact, I won't say some of the stories 'cause you already know. Instead of a big group, choose one. What's a story you have... Have you lost a parent yet? Yes, I have. I've lost two. You've lost both your parents. Have you... Do you dance your stories of your life? Yeah, they're contained. I'm using your word. They're contained in the songs that I learn as hula dancer with a company. I danced in a company in San Francisco. Yes, what's the name of the company? Nā Lei Hulu Ka Wekiu. So, we... When we dance together, we personalize the songs and so, there's some personal stories for me coming through that. So, have you danced the death of your mother? I've danced a love song to her. A love song to her, yeah. And did the audience know that you were doing that when you did that? I think they could feel it. I think they could feel it on that level. Yeah, is there one night, one performance, that stands out for you as a hula dancer? As a dancer of hula, I'm guessing that's the way to say it. Yeah. And what night is that? It's dancing with the rest of my hula sisters, all of us on stage, and it's dancing to Roberta Flack's First Time Ever I Saw Your Face. So, we, in our group, we danced hula mua, and that means hula moving forward, and that's a term that the director of the company uses. Using non-traditional hula music for a hula dance, and when you danced The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face, whose face were you thinking of? I was thinking of my mom's. Yeah, there is a container. And my dad, too. It is... How recently had your mother and father died when you danced? Well, my father died when I was very young. My mother died in 2010. And when, how old were you when your mother died? Well, that was later. I have to say, I hadn't seen my mom in a long time. So, she was living in another country. Does that feel like part of the story? Yes. Had you become alienated from your mother? No, I just couldn't visit her. You couldn't visit her. So, there was trouble in some way. Yeah. Yeah. It wasn't just logistical, it wasn't that you didn't have the money for a plane ticket. Yeah, it was... There was something else. There were some challenges. Yes, so, does that feel as if it belongs? Absolutely, and if we had the time that we don't have to work on the whiteboard, Edna, I would have a couple of columns, and one would be mother and the other would be hula. And it would all come down to the Roberta Flack song The First Time Ever. How... And it would include the fact that you didn't see her, and I'd wanna know what preceded that. So, you were not there when she died? No. You got a phone call? But I did see... I did see her the year before she died. See her, The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face, and you had not seen her face for a while, but you had seen her for the first time in a long time not long before that, right? What were the circumstances of seeing her? She was very ill. Okay, didn't see her for a long time, then you did see her, then you learned she died. How long after her death did you perform that song? Actually, that was while I was... That was while she was alive. I was missing her. You were missing her. That's... That is a personal essay if ever there was one, and we will certainly hear about the hula, but it is not an essay about the hula. The hula is the lens through which we explore the story of you and your mother, and notice what's not there that are very rich in important studies. The guerrilla fighting, the first child in the family to be born in this country. Guerrilla fighting she only knows through hearsay, through stories, which is not the best way. In fact, not a good way, I would say, for you to focus for your own storytelling, but you are the daughter of that person. You're the daughter of somebody who... And I'm sure that shaped you enormously, and all of those are stories for you to tell, but first tell this one. Thank you. Thank you for this. I didn't wanna put you on the spot, but I just, (clapping) I couldn't resist. Keep it concrete. Hula, very concrete. I mean, it's also a whole idea and an art form, but it was very concrete. Keep it simple. This point, I'm going to read you the little bio of a member of our group, Bambi. (laughing) I grew up in the Owens Valley. This is okay, right, Bambi? Yeah. Yeah. It's too late now. (laughing) No, I don't mean that if you said no. My firstborn son in named Cameron Whitney after Mount Whitney as it is near where he was born. I want to write about the three letters my daughter wrote to her brothers and me before she took her life. In what others often call a selfish act of suicide, she did the most unselfish thing. During her most painful moments, she lovingly told each one of us what we would need to be able to take the next breath. My mother raised three boys and a girl in a small mountain town in the chaos of a messy house. Look what just happened. We just heard about Bambi's daughter taking her own life and writing the letters before she did it. Very, very generous thing for a person in that level of distress and pain to do, and now we go back to her mother, new paragraph. My mother raised three boys and a girl in a small mountain town in the chaos of a messy house, often bare cupboards, laundry piled high, until we were old enough to take care of these things ourselves, but our lives were full of love, creativity, art, sports, music, humor, gratefulness, belly laughs, and we loved in a wonderful... lived in a wonderful home. Well, you know that I would do some work on all of that, but that's for another day. In the 60s, our mother wrote a weekly column for the local newspaper titled What A Woman Thinks. I love the title of that column. The memoir about my mother is ongoing, poignant, humorous, loving, painful, all the things that make a family real, and the many encounters we experienced with celebrities we thought happened to all families in all small towns like Mammoth Lakes. I wanted to mention that because I just wanna say forget the celebrities, I'm... Who are we more interested in? What famous person Bambi met at, you know, that hotel in... What is that hotel, it's a great... Where all the western movies were filmed? I know you know it. (audience member mumbles) Yes, anyway. Well, anyway, who are we more interested in, a brief encounter with John Wayne at a diner or Bambi's life? Obviously, Bambi's life. Okay. I dance every night under the stars, rain or shine. I started doing it honor my daughter now. To honor my daughter. Now, I do it for her and my boys and daughter-in-law even though they don't know. If we just saw a scene from a movie, Bambi, she is not Edna, she's not trained as a dancer, she doesn't belong to a professional troupe, she doesn't have an audience, she's not up on stage, she is alone in the darkness, under the stars, dancing alone to honor her daughter. And I'm not gonna make you come up and do your dance, Bambi, but it is every bit as beautiful as Edna's dance, and it is concrete, it is a scene, and it is a container for an almost uncontainable amount of grief and pain. Even though they don't know. If anyone every looked through my fences, yikes. My life is underscored... This is a new topic, but I wanted to mention this one too. My life is underscored by Beatle lyrics. They are officially listed as my religion at Kaiser. Don't you love this woman? (laughing) I am a polyana by nature. The first album I bought was the soundtrack to the Unsinkable Molly Brown. I remember that too, Debbie Reynolds. Then Meet The Beatles, and this lifelong part of me struggles daily with the new part of me that will forever live with a mother's broken heart. There's a lot in here, and obviously, there's too much for one personal essay, but in a way, it can almost all be there. So, we've got happy home. One of the rarest things to find in a memoir workshop, may I add, a happy childhood, and optimistic nature and unsinkable. How many people have seen Unsinkable Molly Brown? It is the quintessential optimist's movie. Sing me a couple of bars of one of those songs. ♪ Belly up to the bar, boys ♪ ♪ Only drink when you're all alone or with some ♪ I can't say the rest of that line. Okay, belly up to... (laughing) Perfect, perfect, and Molly Brown had plenty of challenges, but she didn't let them get her down. Does that sound like anybody we have here before us in this room? I am going to... You know, sometimes you have really good stories that don't belong in your story. Witness Dianne's, what Dianne wrote about Mutual of Omaha Wild Kingdom and how angry she was at Jerry Lewis for preempting her animal show. Great story that didn't belong there. Listing The Beatles as her religion? Great, but not for today. For today, it's Unsinkable Molly Brown. So, we get a picture, pretty clearly, of a woman who grows up in a small town. House is messy, cupboards were bare, but does anybody feel sorry for her about her childhood? I want that childhood, that sounds just great. Optimistic nature, we can always over... Incidentally, how old were you? I'm guessing we're about the same age. How old were you when Unsinkable Molly Brown came out? Do you remember seeing that movie? I think I was 12. Did it come to Lone Pine or... It came to Bishop. To Bishop, okay. We had to drive a long way. Okay, so you drove to see that, and in the same way that I wanted to hear how Edna encountered hula, I might want... When you dance out alone under the stars, do you sing as well? In my head. Sometimes I take music out there and do, but I just usually sing in my head. You take music, like you take a portable stereo or something? I used to, but then I was afraid the neighbors would look through to see what was going on. But you have done that. You have actually brought a boombox out there. (mumbling) This is why I love memoir, you know? We can't... I'm a fiction writer, I've got a good imagination, but I cannot invent scenes better than your lives. And you were sitting there thinking that you had to tell us about the celebrities you met? You know, who among them has done this? Okay, so this is who... This is our curtain goes up person, and her whole history of what a family was was happy, things go well. You don't have money, you don't have some other stuff, but it's okay. And you have how many children? Three. Three, and your daughter was where in the order? She was second. Second, and can you tell us her name? Kenna. Kenna. Would you... Would you have known from Kenna's childhood that this... Could you ever have imagined that Kenna would take her life? No. No. Before the incident that caused it, it was unthinkable for her, for any of us. It was something we all thought, like many people, that it was cowardly, that it's something you would never do. Did you know anybody who ever took their life? No. No. You lived in a small town happy world, and the big dramas were like shoot 'em up in the movies or.. Yeah. Yeah, and may I ask you what changed? She was gang raped when she was 17 by four men that came to our house, and she lived until she was 30. She was very independent, always worked, always took care of herself, but things had greatly changed after that, and she, you know, she had a lot of counseling and a lot of help, but and then she also became sick and couldn't take care of herself, couldn't work the last year. Sick, mentally ill sick? And that changed for her. Physically, she became sick, and when she couldn't work and be independent, things changed for her, and that's part of the letter writing. Okay, this is a lot for one essay, but I'm maybe gonna surprise you and say that I actually think you can tell these. There is life before. When there is life before things, before the terrible event that changed Kenna's life. So, then there's life when you were the daughter and the happy family, and then there's the life of you as the mother of a happy family, right? Married to her father or not? We were divorced, but we still raised our kids together. But even all those things... My parents got divorced too, but still, my unsinkable... I call those get-overables. Get-overables, okay. Those are all things you can get over. This is an example of the kind of thing I would write on the whiteboard. Get-overables, I love that. Those are all get-overables, Kenna is not. You know, you move beyond. She's never gonna be a get-overable. I wanna hear that word, get-overable, early on because I'm gonna hear it at the end as the thing that is, the first... Was anything ever a not get-overable before? I lost my eyesight in my right eye when I was 12, also about that same time of Unsinkable Molly Brown, but the way my mom handled it and the way my family handled it, it was a get-overable. That actually does belong because that's an early experience of a loss, only that was a get-overable loss. Loss of sight in one eye, a get overable. Okay, so then you marry, the divorce, get-overable. Definitely. (laughing) Get-overable. Yeah, I mean, your parents' divorce and then your divorce, and then there is the rape. You know, I haven't talked much about proportion, but we do not need to give equal or huge proportion to all of these things. We can actually quite, in the same way that, I'll go back again to Johnathan Lethan, half a sentence, seizures, diagnosis, unsuccessful surgeries. We can jump pretty quickly to she was not okay again. She was really never okay again, and we probably need just a very couple of, a very few images, three. Kenna, at 18, she.. Or maybe she was okay for a while and then less okay, but maybe three images, and then she took her life. Now... And it is the not get-overable, but it is also true... Remember I said early on, it's not necessarily a happy ending, but I look always for redemption, and actually, it's not hard to find it with you, Bambi. She dances, and that's the redemption that she carries on, that she was not destroyed by it. Bambi dances, and I... I, more and more in my writing, I do not feel a need to offer any big conclusive sentences, but I choose very carefully what the image is that I wanna leave you with, and the image I want you to leave me with, and I actually don't think this is manipulating the truth, I think this is your truth, is you... Yes, it is a not get-overable.. No, you will never, your heart will never be the same again, but you still dance, and it's Bambi under the stars with her boombox. Well, and part of that is because Kenna asked us not to let her life become our life, and to honor that, we have to do that because one thing I took from that was that she always tried to make everyone happy and she always wanted us to be happy, and why wouldn't she still want that? Yes. And that's a... That was a big moment for me when I finally got that. Why wouldn't she still want that? And now I'm gonna tell you one thing I don't want you to do. I love it, I love it that Kenna wrote those letters. You are not allowed... What am I gonna do, I'm not gonna be able to stop you, but I don't want your essay to be Kenna's three letters. Those were Kenna's voice and they were Kenna's voice talking to you, and you are talking to us. And you're maybe coincidentally, and I'm sure John can tell you more about this, talking to other parents who have lost a child. So, Kenna's voice was for you. That's her gift to you, and this story is your gift to us, and it'll be a gift to you to write it, too, but you cannot seed the floor to Kenna. It is your story, and it is a gorgeous story, and I don't know if... I don't ever wanna create false bookends if they aren't, but whatever the piece of music It]s, if it happens that you dance to Unsinkable Molly Brown, great, but what do you dance to? It's different every time. Sometimes it's her songs, sometimes it's a Beatles song, sometimes it's Eric Clapton. Great, and actually I love that better because it's not as neat, it's not as perfect. And sometimes it's Bob Dylan It's everything. Yeah, it is (laughs). That's great, and I want you to be very specific. I want you to name three songs. It might be, you know, sometimes it's this, sometimes it's this, sometimes it's this, and sometimes I don't even play any music 'cause I don't want the neighbors to hear, but the songs are going on in my head, and that's... You've got... And that, actually, she can do all of that in 1700 words, possibly less.

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Ratings and reviews, a creativelive student.

Wonderful high points from this class for me: - Very generous analysis of one critical scene in At Home in the World - super gripping and a good scaffolding of how the scene works - Lovely and generous live critiques of her students’ work - first sentences shown on a projected screen. Maynard does a great job procuring from the students why the information is important, what the material means, how they can stretch themselves as writers. - Helping the students to identify a theme that runs throughout their stories is very actionable and is certainly something I took away from this class as I could see how one susses it out from an ordinary paragraph full of sequential events and other information. - The way Maynard shows how she categorized themes for her memoir The Best of Us was an excellent tactical show-and-tell. The pricepoint for the class, roughly $150, seems more than fair given the material, the rare and intimate looks Maynard offers on her own writing and the coaching she does for several writers in various stages of memoir writing. The course contains 25 live lessons — that’s just over $5/lesson with a master teacher. The added benefit of being able to rewatch the videos makes CreativeLive such an excellent venue and I am considering purchasing Maynard’s Personal Essay course next.

This was an excellent course on so many levels. Joyce's way of imparting her knowledge with such verve and humor really captivated all of us. Ii was so thrilled to work with her one-on-one and the way she helped me develop my story via her whiteboard really helped me see how I can get started on it. She is truly inspiring and I loved her insights and guidelines.

Anne Caverhill

Highly recommend this class, not only for the insights about writing and some of the technical information as to why something does or doesn’t work—but I would recommend this for anyone who loves stories. There was so much depth to the participants stories and I loved how Joyce M gently takes them apart and asks probing questions, almost like a good therapist. Well. Maybe that is what good writing is all about anyway. Facing and getting at and then writing those emotional truths as she puts it. Joyce Maynard is the queen of making that happen. Take this course.

Student Work

Related classes, wired for story: how to become a story genius, writing your story, how to write a personal essay, related articles.

How to Compare Two Stories

How to Compare Two Stories Video

Do you have two stories and don’t understand how they work together?

Welcome to this Mometrix lesson on comparing two stories!

To compare two stories, we need to consider their similarities and differences pertaining to main ideas , themes , tone , characters , greater contributions, inspirations, opinions, etc. This is an important skill to have when reading because it stretches your thinking and your brain’s ability to remember key points of one story and assess how those points may be similar in a different context. Practicing this skill is actually really fun and helps to bring reading to life. It allows for your readings, or interpretations, of different texts to go beyond just one, uncovering multiple levels hidden in each text.

If you’ve watched our video on how to compare and contrast , then you know that a great way to compare two things is to create a list. The first side of the list should consist of key things you noticed in the first story, and the second side of the list should consist of how the second story lines up with what you noticed in the first.

Comparison #1

Let’s look at an off-the-wall but simple example first. Let’s compare Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland with Harry Potter . For the first side of our list, we’ll look at Alice in Wonderland :

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland The story centers around a young child It deals with magical elements There are darker themes at play in the novel Heavy themes of loss of innocence and coming of age Many fantastical features and animated creatures The child is not being led by an adult, rather by her imagination and by trial and error Focus on an alternate reality

  For the second side of our list, we’ll look at Harry Potter :

Harry Potter The story also centers around a young child, really, young children There is a heavy influence of sorcery throughout the novels It also deals with darker themes, loss of innocence, and coming of age Many fantastical creatures Kids are being led Focus on an alternate reality

Comparison #2

A more complex example might be if you wanted to compare Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass with Emily Dickinson’s poem “#1400 – What Mystery Pervades a Well!”

To do this comparison you might note what Whitman uses:

Leaves of Grass Nature Grass Man’s curiosity Man’s divine connection with nature

  On the other side of your list, you might note about Dickinson’s poem:

“#1400 – What Mystery Pervades a Well!” She also uses nature Personification of grass and of a well Themes concerning the divinity of man and nature You might also note her inclination towards man’s disconnect with nature

  Again, this is a little more complex of an example, but even without knowing the references, you can still see that there are clear similarities between the two texts. With this list of information, you could easily write multiple pages for an essay comparing these two texts.

With either of the examples presented, you could write a well-informed essay, if you needed to, comparing and contrasting two stories. Even if not for writing an essay, comparing two stories, no matter how seemingly unrelated like in our first example, is great practice for stretching your mind to see similarities that might otherwise be overlooked.

Thanks for joining us, today. Until next time!

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by Mometrix Test Preparation | This Page Last Updated: July 26, 2023

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Humanities LibreTexts

4.1: Introduction to Comparison and Contrast Essay

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The key to a good compare-and-contrast essay is to choose two or more subjects that connect in a meaningful way. Comparison and contrast is simply telling how two things are alike or different. The compare-and-contrast essay starts with a thesis that clearly states the two subjects that are to be compared, contrasted, or both. The thesis should focus on comparing, contrasting, or both.

Key Elements of the Compare and Contrast:

  • A compare-and-contrast essay analyzes two subjects by either comparing them, contrasting them, or both.
  • The purpose of writing a comparison or contrast essay is not to state the obvious but rather to illuminate subtle differences or unexpected similarities between two subjects.
  • The thesis should clearly state the subjects that are to be compared, contrasted, or both, and it should state what is to be learned from doing so.
  • Organize by the subjects themselves, one then the other.
  • Organize by individual points, in which you discuss each subject in relation to each point.
  • Use phrases of comparison or phrases of contrast to signal to readers how exactly the two subjects are being analyzed.

Objectives: By the end of this unit, you will be able to

  • Identify compare & contrast relationships in model essays
  • Construct clearly formulated thesis statements that show compare & contrast relationships
  • Use pre-writing techniques to brainstorm and organize ideas showing a comparison and/or contrast
  • Construct an outline for a five-paragraph compare & contrast essay
  • Write a five-paragraph compare & contrast essay
  • Use a variety of vocabulary and language structures that express compare & contrast essay relationships

Example Thesis: Organic vegetables may cost more than those that are conventionally grown, but when put to the test, they are definitely worth every extra penny.

Graphic Showing Organization for Comparison Contrast Essay

Sample Paragraph:

Organic grown tomatoes purchased at the farmers’ market are very different from tomatoes that are grown conventionally. To begin with, although tomatoes from both sources will mostly be red, the tomatoes at the farmers’ market are a brighter red than those at a grocery store. That doesn’t mean they are shinier—in fact, grocery store tomatoes are often shinier since they have been waxed. You are likely to see great size variation in tomatoes at the farmers’ market, with tomatoes ranging from only a couple of inches across to eight inches across. By contrast, the tomatoes in a grocery store will be fairly uniform in size. All the visual differences are interesting, but the most important difference is the taste. The farmers’ market tomatoes will be bursting with flavor from ripening on the vine in their own time. However, the grocery store tomatoes are often close to being flavorless. In conclusion, the differences in organic and conventionally grown tomatoes are obvious in color, size and taste.

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4.4 COMPOSITION: The Three-Story Thesis

Another way to improve your academic writing is to write a better thesis statement. You already know that a strong thesis statement is more than just naming the topic. It includes some sort of claim, or what the author (in this case, you!) wants to say about the topic. If you can do that, then you are ready to take it a step further by exploring the ideas below.

What makes a good thesis in college?

how to write an essay about two stories

  • A good thesis is arguable.  This means that it’s worth questioning or debating: it’s something with which a reasonable person might disagree. A thesis like “sustainability is important” isn’t at all difficult to argue for, and the reader would have little motivation to read the rest of the paper. However, an arguable thesis like “sustainability policies will fail if they do not include social justice,” brings up some interesting questions. Thus, the arguable thesis makes the reader want to keep reading.
  • A good thesis is specific.  Don’t just say that a particular policy is effective or fair; say what makes it so.
  • A good thesis includes implications.  In other words, why does it matter? What are the consequences? Why do you care? And why should the reader care?
There are one-story intellects, two-story intellects, and three-story intellects with skylights. All fact collectors who have no aim beyond their facts are one-story men. Two-story men compare, reason, generalize using the labor of fact collectors as their own. Three-story men idealize, imagine, predict—their best illumination comes from above the skylight. — Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.   One way to strengthen your thesis statement is to write it as a three-story thesis. Here, when we talk about “story,” we mean “level” or “floor” (like a three-story building). Each “story” builds upon the previous one to make a strong structure. You can think of it this way:
  • One-story theses state inarguable facts. What’s the background?
  • Two-story theses bring in an arguable (interpretive or analytical) point.  What’s your main idea?
  • Three-story theses place that point within its larger, compelling implications. Why does it matter?

For example, imagine you have been assigned a paper about the impact of online learning in higher education. To outline this example:

  • First story:  Online learning is becoming more common and takes many different forms.
  • Second story:  While most people see it as a transformation of higher education, it is better to think of online learning as an extension of higher education because it reaches learners who do not want to participate —  or cannot participate —  in traditional campus-based education.
  • Third story:  Online learning appears to be one way to better integrate higher education with other institutions in society since online learners integrate their educational experiences with other parts of their life, promoting a better flow of ideas between college and the rest of society.
  • Final thesis (all three stories combined):  Online  learning is becoming more common and takes many different forms. While most people see it as a transformation of higher education, it is better to think of online learning as an extension of higher education because it reaches learners who do not want to participate — or cannot participate —  in traditional campus-based education. Online learning appears to be one way to better integrate higher education with other institutions in society since online learners integrate their educational experiences with other parts of their life, promoting a better flow of ideas between college and the rest of society.

Here’s another example of a three-story thesis:

  • First story:  Edith Wharton did not consider herself a modernist writer, and she did not write like her peers.
  • Second story:  However, in her work we can see her thinking about both the questions and forms that fascinated modernist writers of her time. While not a modernist herself, she did engage with modernist themes and questions.
  • Third story:  Thus, it is more revealing to think of modernism as a conversation rather than a category or practice.
  • Final thesis (all three stories combined):  Edith Wharton did not consider herself a modernist writer, and she did not write like her peers. However, in her work we can see her thinking about both the questions and forms that fascinated modernist writers of her time. While not a modernist herself, she did engage with modernist themes and questions. Thus, it is more revealing to think of modernism as a conversation rather than a category or practice.

Use the following exercise to review what you’ve learned. You can complete this exercise as many times as you want; it is not graded.

Let’s try writing a three-story thesis. Here is a list of one-story theses. Choose one to rewrite. Make it a full three-story thesis (in other words, it should have three sentences).

  • Television programming includes content that some find objectionable.
  • The percent of children and youth who are overweight or obese has risen in recent decades.
  • First-year college students must learn how to independently manage their time.
  • The things we surround ourselves with symbolize who we are.

Text adapted from: Guptill, Amy. Writing in College: From Competence to Excellence . 2022. Open SUNY Textbooks, 2016, . Accessed 16 Jan. 2022. CC BY-NC-SA

Image adapted from Tampa, Florida Code of Ordinances .

Synthesis Copyright © 2022 by Timothy Krause is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

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Telling the Story of Yourself: 6 Steps to Writing Personal Narratives

Jennifer Xue

Jennifer Xue

writing personal narratives

Table of Contents

Why do we write personal narratives, 6 guidelines for writing personal narrative essays, inspiring personal narratives, examples of personal narrative essays, tell your story.

First off, you might be wondering: what is a personal narrative? In short, personal narratives are stories we tell about ourselves that focus on our growth, lessons learned, and reflections on our experiences.

From stories about inspirational figures we heard as children to any essay, article, or exercise where we're asked to express opinions on a situation, thing, or individual—personal narratives are everywhere.

According to Psychology Today, personal narratives allow authors to feel and release pains, while savouring moments of strength and resilience. Such emotions provide an avenue for both authors and readers to connect while supporting healing in the process.

That all sounds great. But when it comes to putting the words down on paper, we often end up with a list of experiences and no real structure to tie them together.

In this article, we'll discuss what a personal narrative essay is further, learn the 6 steps to writing one, and look at some examples of great personal narratives.

As readers, we're fascinated by memoirs, autobiographies, and long-form personal narrative articles, as they provide a glimpse into the authors' thought processes, ideas, and feelings. But you don't have to be writing your whole life story to create a personal narrative.

You might be a student writing an admissions essay , or be trying to tell your professional story in a cover letter. Regardless of your purpose, your narrative will focus on personal growth, reflections, and lessons.

Personal narratives help us connect with other people's stories due to their easy-to-digest format and because humans are empathising creatures.

We can better understand how others feel and think when we were told stories that allow us to see the world from their perspectives. The author's "I think" and "I feel" instantaneously become ours, as the brain doesn't know whether what we read is real or imaginary.

In her best-selling book Wired for Story, Lisa Cron explains that the human brain craves tales as it's hard-wired through evolution to learn what happens next. Since the brain doesn't know whether what you are reading is actual or not, we can register the moral of the story cognitively and affectively.

In academia, a narrative essay tells a story which is experiential, anecdotal, or personal. It allows the author to creatively express their thoughts, feelings, ideas, and opinions. Its length can be anywhere from a few paragraphs to hundreds of pages.

Outside of academia, personal narratives are known as a form of journalism or non-fiction works called "narrative journalism." Even highly prestigious publications like the New York Times and Time magazine have sections dedicated to personal narratives. The New Yorke is a magazine dedicated solely to this genre.

The New York Times holds personal narrative essay contests. The winners are selected because they:

had a clear narrative arc with a conflict and a main character who changed in some way. They artfully balanced the action of the story with reflection on what it meant to the writer. They took risks, like including dialogue or playing with punctuation, sentence structure and word choice to develop a strong voice. And, perhaps most important, they focused on a specific moment or theme – a conversation, a trip to the mall, a speech tournament, a hospital visit – instead of trying to sum up the writer’s life in 600 words.

In a nutshell, a personal narrative can cover any reflective and contemplative subject with a strong voice and a unique perspective, including uncommon private values. It's written in first person and the story encompasses a specific moment in time worthy of a discussion.

Writing a personal narrative essay involves both objectivity and subjectivity. You'll need to be objective enough to recognise the importance of an event or a situation to explore and write about. On the other hand, you must be subjective enough to inject private thoughts and feelings to make your point.

With personal narratives, you are both the muse and the creator – you have control over how your story is told. However, like any other type of writing, it comes with guidelines.

1. Write Your Personal Narrative as a Story

As a story, it must include an introduction, characters, plot, setting, climax, anti-climax (if any), and conclusion. Another way to approach it is by structuring it with an introduction, body, and conclusion. The introduction should set the tone, while the body should focus on the key point(s) you want to get across. The conclusion can tell the reader what lessons you have learned from the story you've just told.

2. Give Your Personal Narrative a Clear Purpose

Your narrative essay should reflect your unique perspective on life. This is a lot harder than it sounds. You need to establish your perspective, the key things you want your reader to take away, and your tone of voice. It's a good idea to have a set purpose in mind for the narrative before you start writing.

Let's say you want to write about how you manage depression without taking any medicine. This could go in any number of ways, but isolating a purpose will help you focus your writing and choose which stories to tell. Are you advocating for a holistic approach, or do you want to describe your emotional experience for people thinking of trying it?

Having this focus will allow you to put your own unique take on what you did (and didn't do, if applicable), what changed you, and the lessons learned along the way.

3. Show, Don't Tell

It's a narration, so the narrative should show readers what happened, instead of telling them. As well as being a storyteller, the author should take part as one of the characters. Keep this in mind when writing, as the way you shape your perspective can have a big impact on how your reader sees your overarching plot. Don't slip into just explaining everything that happened because it happened to you. Show your reader with action.

dialogue tags

You can check for instances of telling rather than showing with ProWritingAid. For example, instead of:

"You never let me do anything!" I cried disdainfully.
"You never let me do anything!" To this day, my mother swears that the glare I levelled at her as I spat those words out could have soured milk.

Using ProWritingAid will help you find these instances in your manuscript and edit them without spending hours trawling through your work yourself.

4. Use "I," But Don't Overuse It

You, the author, take ownership of the story, so the first person pronoun "I" is used throughout. However, you shouldn't overuse it, as it'd make it sound too self-centred and redundant.

ProWritingAid can also help you here – the Style Report will tell you if you've started too many sentences with "I", and show you how to introduce more variation in your writing.

5. Pay Attention to Tenses

Tense is key to understanding. Personal narratives mostly tell the story of events that happened in the past, so many authors choose to use the past tense. This helps separate out your current, narrating voice and your past self who you are narrating. If you're writing in the present tense, make sure that you keep it consistent throughout.

tenses in narratives

6. Make Your Conclusion Satisfying

Satisfy your readers by giving them an unforgettable closing scene. The body of the narration should build up the plot to climax. This doesn't have to be something incredible or shocking, just something that helps give an interesting take on your story.

The takeaways or the lessons learned should be written without lecturing. Whenever possible, continue to show rather than tell. Don't say what you learned, narrate what you do differently now. This will help the moral of your story shine through without being too preachy.

GoodReads is a great starting point for selecting read-worthy personal narrative books. Here are five of my favourites.

Owl Moon by Jane Yolen

Jane Yolen, the author of 386 books, wrote this poetic story about a daughter and her father who went owling. Instead of learning about owls, Yolen invites readers to contemplate the meaning of gentleness and hope.

Night by Elie Wiesel

Elie Wiesel was a teenager when he and his family were sent to Auschwitz concentration camp in 1944. This Holocaust memoir has a strong message that such horrific events should never be repeated.

The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank

This classic is a must-read by young and old alike. It's a remarkable diary by a 13-year-old Jewish girl who hid inside a secret annexe of an old building during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands in 1942.

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

This is a personal narrative written by a brave author renowned for her clarity, passion, and honesty. Didion shares how in December 2003, she lost her husband of 40 years to a massive heart attack and dealt with the acute illness of her only daughter. She speaks about grief, memories, illness, and hope.

Educated by Tara Westover

Author Tara Westover was raised by survivalist parents. She didn't go to school until 17 years of age, which later took her to Harvard and Cambridge. It's a story about the struggle for quest for knowledge and self-reinvention.

Narrative and personal narrative journalism are gaining more popularity these days. You can find distinguished personal narratives all over the web.

Curating the best of the best of personal narratives and narrative essays from all over the web. Some are award-winning articles.


Long-form writing to celebrate humanity through storytelling. It publishes personal narrative essays written to provoke, inspire, and reflect, touching lesser-known and overlooked subjects.

Narrative Magazine

It publishes non,fiction narratives, poetry, and fiction. Among its contributors is Frank Conroy, the author of Stop-Time , a memoir that has never been out of print since 1967.

Thought Catalog

Aimed at Generation Z, it publishes personal narrative essays on self-improvement, family, friendship, romance, and others.

Personal narratives will continue to be popular as our brains are wired for stories. We love reading about others and telling stories of ourselves, as they bring satisfaction and a better understanding of the world around us.

Personal narratives make us better humans. Enjoy telling yours!

how to write an essay about two stories

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Love writing? ProWritingAid will help you improve the style, strength, and clarity of your stories.

Jennifer Xue is an award-winning e-book author with 2,500+ articles and 100+ e-books/reports published under her belt. She also taught 50+ college-level essay and paper writing classes. Her byline has appeared in Forbes, Fortune, Cosmopolitan, Esquire,, Business2Community, Addicted2Success, Good Men Project, and others. Her blog is Follow her on Twitter @jenxuewrites].

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How To Introduce Two Stories In An Essay

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how to write an essay about two stories

Writing Two Stories In An Essay Introduction

Writing an introduction of your essay is like drawing a map to give direction of where you want to be. Introduction provides a guide for your reader, as it expresses what the reader is going to get in the context of your essay . The title keeps your essay title on the same track. Before you start, take note of key words which will always make you on  focus. Analyze and understand the two texts well before you start writing, how successful your essay will be depends on the way you display your knowledge and opinions in a clear. Have confidence as you make comments on any similarities and differences as you make links between the texts.

  • Carefully look at the question before you begin to write your essay within the essay title. Analyze different responses that you get and decide on your thesis statement; your thesis should bring out the main argument that you will adopt throughout your essay. Ensure that it covers the requirements of the title as well as providing analysis of both texts that you discussing.
  • Using your thesis statement, create an outline that you follow regarding the essay question and explains how you intend to answer. State your point of view and explain the focus of your argument. Remember to write as you refer to the titles and authors of the stories you will be discussing.
  • Write as if you are having talking directly with someone who has no idea of the story introducing them as two tales in the introduction paragraph. Do not put more concentration on the plot rather on the themes of the tales. Identify the main issue that both stories have and is a bit similar as well as the difference.
  • Write an overview of the texts that you have Using the similarities and differences that you have identified as you link them to the question. Don’t concentrate on small details of the text. Make comments that are strong, comparing and contrasting them with content, style and structure of the texts that you are discussing.
  •  Highlight issues you will discuss and you give comparison of the theme that you are working on in more detail in the essay. Use your skills and knowledge and confidence to create a strong argument. Have evidence from the text that can support your opinion.
  • Work with key point of your argument to briefly explain how it helps answer the essay question. This will be the point that will conclude your introduction paragraph as you  write two stories in the introduction

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Two Short Stories


This essay seeks to compare and contrast two short stories with regard to the plot, content, and use of literary terms as portrayed by their respective authors. White angel by Michael Cunningham, has its setting in the early sixties, and introduces us to a time when music was the highly praised and valued for its relaxing nature. It depicts the fascinations of a young teen and his indulgence in drugs leading to his demise. Temporary Matter deals with a temporary state of tension brought about by a long kept grudge between a man and his wife. The plots unfold as we learn the source of the problems in each story. They are both told around a family setting, and are both centered on the idea of loses that come with the death of a family member.

The writer of ‘White Angel’ tells us the story of two brothers, Carlton, aged sixteen and bobby, aged nine, who both secretly decide to indulge in drugs on a regular basis. The setting is put in the sixties where, as the author puts it, music played sang of love. The characters are often seen indulging in some form of musical entertainment at different instances within the plot, like when the father is in his workshop playing his clarinet or as Isabel cooks dinner. The author also lets us in on a regularly occurring party in which music is played to set the mood. As such we can say that the author specifically chose the sixties period with the intention of setting a calmly subtle mood. Attention is drawn to the venue where the boys hide their bottle of alcohol.

A cherub placed in the cemetery guards this secret meeting place where the boys usually hide themselves during the day as their parents work. Carlton is the more influential brother being a teenager, and he encourages his younger brother to take drugs which he said would set them free from worrying. Carlton even emphasizes that the acid tablets he takes were for clarity of vision as Vicks was for decongestion of the nose. In the plot, the parents are merely lenient; they don’t seem to offer a strict hand or some form of discipline for Carlton. His mother, Isabel, is said to bear a grudge towards the menacing boy for doing drugs and roaming every so often without saying where he goes when he goes. Carlton’s drug indulgence is astonishing to say the least, and his friends come across as drug users too. This is brought out at the party before the tragic death that haunts this family as the teens walk into the house in a cloud of dope smoke and half-mast eyes. The story comes to a close with the horrible death of Carlton in their living room as the party goes on.

The suspicion is that Carlton had sneaked into the cemetery momentarily to do drugs while the party was outside on their backyard unraveling the mystery of a flying saucer. He is said to have come running from the direction of the cemetery and runs into the glass door smashing it into many pieces, at which point one piece of glass drives into his neck eventually killing him. The family gets crashed by this tragedy, leaving the family distraught as the mother withdraws and keeps away from the rest of the family.

The author uses a first person narration where Bobby is seen to be telling the story at different times. This can be seen at different instances where Bobby comes across something he sees that he does not understand and his perception is what the reader gets to experience. The author uses onomatopoeia in describing some of the different sounds, such as the hum of the music, and the door thumping.  There is some alluding to the use of fantasy, where we are shown the two brothers in the cemetery after the drugs they take, have taken effect and they are fantasizing about flying to New York and living the good life in their future.

The short story ‘A Temporary Matter’ by Jumpha Lahiri starts ordinarily, where Shoba, is opening received electricity notice saying electricity would be interrupted from eight to nine o’clock in the evening so as to allow for some maintenance to be carried out. This is the temporary matter depicted as the title of the story. The setting of the story is based in their lavish apartment where Shukumar, is seen to be the one cooking dinner, while the wife engages more in her vocation. The plot slowly unfolds bringing the idea that all is not well in this family of two. This is seen when Shukumar’s thoughts are brought into the story. He is seen to look at his wife and judge her appearance as she was in the present, and compare it to how she looked some few months back. The writer uses dialogue between the two characters to bring out conflict. They set their individual spaces within the house where each goes to carry on their vocational activities separately.

Shakumar is the one who finally brings out the reason behind the conflict. He takes the reader back to six months before the present time and tells of the events that occurred, which lead to the tension that is between the couple.  While away at a conference, his wife goes into early labor and ends up losing their child. Since that incident, the relationship between the two had changed drastically with Shoba working more hours at work. The first day the lights go off, the couple is forced to have their dinner together, unlike other nights when they eat separately, over the light of candles. The darkness somehow makes it easier for them to communicate as Shoba suddenly suggests they play a game, where they share secrets they had kept from each other. The same ritual continues for four nights and it is on this last night, the couple is seen to share a bed for the first time in months. On the fifth night they share their final confessions where Shoba tells Shukumar that she had been looking for an apartment and would be moving out at any time. Shukumar is shocked and this is when he tells her that he had flown back from the conference earlier than he had said and had had the privilege of holding their baby boy before he had been cremated. The couple had decided not to know the sex of the baby until it was born, and so this confession is a huge shock for Shoba, but in a way, also brings them together. The story ends with the couple being seen to be brought together by the confessions they had both shared as they are seen weeping together, because of all that they now knew.

The writer uses a sequence of related events to generate the plot in each story. Conflict is used is ‘A Temporary Matter’ to foreshadow the strange turn of events. It is the intention of the writer to involve the reader emotionally as the plot unfolds, generating suspense and climax  (Microsoft Corporation). In Jhumpa’s story, Shoba has held a grudge for a long time since losing her child. She sets the stage for communication before breaking the ice. Shukumar responds in kind when she suggests she is leaving him. This is brought to an anticlimax when the couple learns the shocking truth from their confessions. Their indifferences ironically bring them together as the story comes to a conclusion.

We can see the authors’ literary genius throughout the short story. Firstly, she develops characters with their descriptions creating human attributes in the mind of the reader and showing us their surrounding by the setting used by the author. A Temporary Matter is for instance set in a quite neighborhood that one can only imagine to be a suburb. The evening walks are characteristic of suburbs and rich neighborhoods with neatly manicured lawns and street walks. The extravagant nature of Shoba at the start of their relationship also goes to support this argument. We feel a change of moods as the writer narrates of a time when Shoba would neatly arrange their pantry and store food, utility items and money for emergencies. It in some way foreshadows her plan to live a separate life. Her loss of focus and devotion as Shukumar’s wife also foreshadows their breakup.

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How to Write a College Essay | A Complete Guide & Examples

The college essay can make or break your application. It’s your chance to provide personal context, communicate your values and qualities, and set yourself apart from other students.

A standout essay has a few key ingredients:

  • A unique, personal topic
  • A compelling, well-structured narrative
  • A clear, creative writing style
  • Evidence of self-reflection and insight

To achieve this, it’s crucial to give yourself enough time for brainstorming, writing, revision, and feedback.

In this comprehensive guide, we walk you through every step in the process of writing a college admissions essay.

Table of contents

Why do you need a standout essay, start organizing early, choose a unique topic, outline your essay, start with a memorable introduction, write like an artist, craft a strong conclusion, revise and receive feedback, frequently asked questions.

While most of your application lists your academic achievements, your college admissions essay is your opportunity to share who you are and why you’d be a good addition to the university.

Your college admissions essay accounts for about 25% of your application’s total weight一and may account for even more with some colleges making the SAT and ACT tests optional. The college admissions essay may be the deciding factor in your application, especially for competitive schools where most applicants have exceptional grades, test scores, and extracurriculars.

What do colleges look for in an essay?

Admissions officers want to understand your background, personality, and values to get a fuller picture of you beyond your test scores and grades. Here’s what colleges look for in an essay :

  • Demonstrated values and qualities
  • Vulnerability and authenticity
  • Self-reflection and insight
  • Creative, clear, and concise writing skills

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It’s a good idea to start organizing your college application timeline in the summer of your junior year to make your application process easier. This will give you ample time for essay brainstorming, writing, revision, and feedback.

While timelines will vary for each student, aim to spend at least 1–3 weeks brainstorming and writing your first draft and at least 2–4 weeks revising across multiple drafts. Remember to leave enough time for breaks in between each writing and editing stage.

Create an essay tracker sheet

If you’re applying to multiple schools, you will have to juggle writing several essays for each one. We recommend using an essay tracker spreadsheet to help you visualize and organize the following:

  • Deadlines and number of essays needed
  • Prompt overlap, allowing you to write one essay for similar prompts

You can build your own essay tracker using our free Google Sheets template.

College essay tracker template

Ideally, you should start brainstorming college essay topics the summer before your senior year. Keep in mind that it’s easier to write a standout essay with a unique topic.

If you want to write about a common essay topic, such as a sports injury or volunteer work overseas, think carefully about how you can make it unique and personal. You’ll need to demonstrate deep insight and write your story in an original way to differentiate it from similar essays.

What makes a good topic?

  • Meaningful and personal to you
  • Uncommon or has an unusual angle
  • Reveals something different from the rest of your application

Brainstorming questions

You should do a comprehensive brainstorm before choosing your topic. Here are a few questions to get started:

  • What are your top five values? What lived experiences demonstrate these values?
  • What adjectives would your friends and family use to describe you?
  • What challenges or failures have you faced and overcome? What lessons did you learn from them?
  • What makes you different from your classmates?
  • What are some objects that represent your identity, your community, your relationships, your passions, or your goals?
  • Whom do you admire most? Why?
  • What three people have significantly impacted your life? How did they influence you?

How to identify your topic

Here are two strategies for identifying a topic that demonstrates your values:

  • Start with your qualities : First, identify positive qualities about yourself; then, brainstorm stories that demonstrate these qualities.
  • Start with a story : Brainstorm a list of memorable life moments; then, identify a value shown in each story.

After choosing your topic, organize your ideas in an essay outline , which will help keep you focused while writing. Unlike a five-paragraph academic essay, there’s no set structure for a college admissions essay. You can take a more creative approach, using storytelling techniques to shape your essay.

Two common approaches are to structure your essay as a series of vignettes or as a single narrative.

Vignettes structure

The vignette, or montage, structure weaves together several stories united by a common theme. Each story should demonstrate one of your values or qualities and conclude with an insight or future outlook.

This structure gives the admissions officer glimpses into your personality, background, and identity, and shows how your qualities appear in different areas of your life.

Topic: Museum with a “five senses” exhibit of my experiences

  • Introduction: Tour guide introduces my museum and my “Making Sense of My Heritage” exhibit
  • Story: Racial discrimination with my eyes
  • Lesson: Using my writing to document truth
  • Story: Broadway musical interests
  • Lesson: Finding my voice
  • Story: Smells from family dinner table
  • Lesson: Appreciating home and family
  • Story: Washing dishes
  • Lesson: Finding moments of peace in busy schedule
  • Story: Biking with Ava
  • Lesson: Finding pleasure in job well done
  • Conclusion: Tour guide concludes tour, invites guest to come back for “fall College Collection,” featuring my search for identity and learning.

Single story structure

The single story, or narrative, structure uses a chronological narrative to show a student’s character development over time. Some narrative essays detail moments in a relatively brief event, while others narrate a longer journey spanning months or years.

Single story essays are effective if you have overcome a significant challenge or want to demonstrate personal development.

Topic: Sports injury helps me learn to be a better student and person

  • Situation: Football injury
  • Challenge: Friends distant, teachers don’t know how to help, football is gone for me
  • Turning point: Starting to like learning in Ms. Brady’s history class; meeting Christina and her friends
  • My reactions: Reading poetry; finding shared interest in poetry with Christina; spending more time studying and with people different from me
  • Insight: They taught me compassion and opened my eyes to a different lifestyle; even though I still can’t play football, I’m starting a new game

Brainstorm creative insights or story arcs

Regardless of your essay’s structure, try to craft a surprising story arc or original insights, especially if you’re writing about a common topic.

Never exaggerate or fabricate facts about yourself to seem interesting. However, try finding connections in your life that deviate from cliché storylines and lessons.

Admissions officers read thousands of essays each year, and they typically spend only a few minutes reading each one. To get your message across, your introduction , or hook, needs to grab the reader’s attention and compel them to read more..

Avoid starting your introduction with a famous quote, cliché, or reference to the essay itself (“While I sat down to write this essay…”).

While you can sometimes use dialogue or a meaningful quotation from a close family member or friend, make sure it encapsulates your essay’s overall theme.

Find an original, creative way of starting your essay using the following two methods.

Option 1: Start with an intriguing hook

Begin your essay with an unexpected statement to pique the reader’s curiosity and compel them to carefully read your essay. A mysterious introduction disarms the reader’s expectations and introduces questions that can only be answered by reading more.

Option 2: Start with vivid imagery

Illustrate a clear, detailed image to immediately transport your reader into your memory. You can start in the middle of an important scene or describe an object that conveys your essay’s theme.

A college application essay allows you to be creative in your style and tone. As you draft your essay, try to use interesting language to enliven your story and stand out .

Show, don’t tell

“Tell” in writing means to simply state a fact: “I am a basketball player.” “ Show ” in writing means to use details, examples, and vivid imagery to help the reader easily visualize your memory: “My heart races as I set up to shoot一two seconds, one second一and score a three-pointer!”

First, reflect on every detail of a specific image or scene to recall the most memorable aspects.

  • What are the most prominent images?
  • Are there any particular sounds, smells, or tastes associated with this memory?
  • What emotion or physical feeling did you have at that time?

Be vulnerable to create an emotional response

You don’t have to share a huge secret or traumatic story, but you should dig deep to express your honest feelings, thoughts, and experiences to evoke an emotional response. Showing vulnerability demonstrates humility and maturity. However, don’t exaggerate to gain sympathy.

Use appropriate style and tone

Make sure your essay has the right style and tone by following these guidelines:

  • Use a conversational yet respectful tone: less formal than academic writing, but more formal than texting your friends.
  • Prioritize using “I” statements to highlight your perspective.
  • Write within your vocabulary range to maintain an authentic voice.
  • Write concisely, and use the active voice to keep a fast pace.
  • Follow grammar rules (unless you have valid stylistic reasons for breaking them).

You should end your college essay with a deep insight or creative ending to leave the reader with a strong final impression. Your college admissions essay should avoid the following:

  • Summarizing what you already wrote
  • Stating your hope of being accepted to the school
  • Mentioning character traits that should have been illustrated in the essay, such as “I’m a hard worker”

Here are two strategies to craft a strong conclusion.

Option 1: Full circle, sandwich structure

The full circle, or sandwich, structure concludes the essay with an image, idea, or story mentioned in the introduction. This strategy gives the reader a strong sense of closure.

In the example below, the essay concludes by returning to the “museum” metaphor that the writer opened with.

Option 2: Revealing your insight

You can use the conclusion to show the insight you gained as a result of the experiences you’ve described. Revealing your main message at the end creates suspense and keeps the takeaway at the forefront of your reader’s mind.

Revise your essay before submitting it to check its content, style, and grammar. Get feedback from no more than two or three people.

It’s normal to go through several rounds of revision, but take breaks between each editing stage.

Also check out our college essay examples to see what does and doesn’t work in an essay and the kinds of changes you can make to improve yours.

Respect the word count

Most schools specify a word count for each essay , and you should stay within 10% of the upper limit.

Remain under the specified word count limit to show you can write concisely and follow directions. However, don’t write too little, which may imply that you are unwilling or unable to write a thoughtful and developed essay.

Check your content, style, and grammar

  • First, check big-picture issues of message, flow, and clarity.
  • Then, check for style and tone issues.
  • Finally, focus on eliminating grammar and punctuation errors.

Get feedback

Get feedback from 2–3 people who know you well, have good writing skills, and are familiar with college essays.

  • Teachers and guidance counselors can help you check your content, language, and tone.
  • Friends and family can check for authenticity.
  • An essay coach or editor has specialized knowledge of college admissions essays and can give objective expert feedback.

The checklist below helps you make sure your essay ticks all the boxes.

College admissions essay checklist

I’ve organized my essay prompts and created an essay writing schedule.

I’ve done a comprehensive brainstorm for essay topics.

I’ve selected a topic that’s meaningful to me and reveals something different from the rest of my application.

I’ve created an outline to guide my structure.

I’ve crafted an introduction containing vivid imagery or an intriguing hook that grabs the reader’s attention.

I’ve written my essay in a way that shows instead of telling.

I’ve shown positive traits and values in my essay.

I’ve demonstrated self-reflection and insight in my essay.

I’ve used appropriate style and tone .

I’ve concluded with an insight or a creative ending.

I’ve revised my essay , checking my overall message, flow, clarity, and grammar.

I’ve respected the word count , remaining within 10% of the upper word limit.


It looks like your essay ticks all the boxes. A second pair of eyes can help you take it to the next level – Scribbr's essay coaches can help.

Colleges want to be able to differentiate students who seem similar on paper. In the college application essay , they’re looking for a way to understand each applicant’s unique personality and experiences.

Your college essay accounts for about 25% of your application’s weight. It may be the deciding factor in whether you’re accepted, especially for competitive schools where most applicants have exceptional grades, test scores, and extracurricular track records.

A standout college essay has several key ingredients:

  • A unique, personally meaningful topic
  • A memorable introduction with vivid imagery or an intriguing hook
  • Specific stories and language that show instead of telling
  • Vulnerability that’s authentic but not aimed at soliciting sympathy
  • Clear writing in an appropriate style and tone
  • A conclusion that offers deep insight or a creative ending

While timelines will differ depending on the student, plan on spending at least 1–3 weeks brainstorming and writing the first draft of your college admissions essay , and at least 2–4 weeks revising across multiple drafts. Don’t forget to save enough time for breaks between each writing and editing stage.

You should already begin thinking about your essay the summer before your senior year so that you have plenty of time to try out different topics and get feedback on what works.

Most college application portals specify a word count range for your essay, and you should stay within 10% of the upper limit to write a developed and thoughtful essay.

You should aim to stay under the specified word count limit to show you can follow directions and write concisely. However, don’t write too little, as it may seem like you are unwilling or unable to write a detailed and insightful narrative about yourself.

If no word count is specified, we advise keeping your essay between 400 and 600 words.

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Chapter 7: Making Your Own Argument

Building an Initial Two-Storey Thesis for Your Own Argument

Now that you have gathered evidence, you have built the foundation for the first storey of your complex argument. That first storey will look a lot like the first storey you built for your close readings: you are pointing to the best one or two pieces of evidence on which you are going to base your argument.

Obviously, you can’t discuss everything in your central document, so you need narrow your focus, like you did with your close readings, to the two best pieces of evidence. You can do this by looking at the list of evidence you gathered when close reading your central document and asking:

  • Which pieces of evidence are the most interesting?
  • Which pieces of evidence are the most important?
  • Do your pieces of evidence address both the content and the medium of your central document?
  • Are there two pieces of evidence that are similar and might combine to make an effective argument?
  • Does each piece of evidence add something different to your potential argument? (You do not want two pieces of evidence repeating the same idea.)

For example, look through your list of evidence from Occupy Wall St.’s Facebook page. After thinking through all of the questions above, you may chose to focus on the comments on one post and from there, focus in on the repetition of commenters linking to their own local projects as the first piece of evidence and the repetition of commenters mentioning their local cities in their posts. Therefore, your first storey might look something like this:

Occupy Wall Street’s Facebook page showcases that users of the page have a difficult and often frustrating time linking global events to local events and concerns that are more personal to them. This is demonstrated by the comments under the post “From #Ferguson to #Gaza #BLM,” wherein discussion of the event leads to participants calling each other names like “idiots” and angry confusion over how the Black Lives Matter is related to the Middle East (ex. The post “What the hell does BLM have to do with geopolitics in the Middle East?”).

As you can see, not only do we state our two selected pieces of evidence, we also identify the central document (The Occupy Wall Street Facebook page) and the specific aspects of the central document we will be examining (a post and its comments thread).

Now we are ready to move onto the second storey. This is where we begin making your argument about our central document. We want to remain focused just on our central document for now. For example, our second storey, using the example from the Occupy Wall Street Facebook page, would be about only the specific page, or perhaps Facebook groups and pages used for protest movements, but not Facebook as a whole. Remember too that an argument is a statement that can be agreed or disagreed with. Therefore, look at your two pieces of evidence and ask:

  • What is the significance of the evidence that you have chosen?
  • What argument about the specific document can you make based on the evidence you have chosen? (Remember to stay focused at this point and not expand beyond that central document.)
  • In what ways do the pieces of evidence overlap? What argument might be derived from that overlap?
  • What are the benefits for the user/reader arise when interacting with your central document and how do those benefits relate to the evidence you’ve chosen?
  • What problems for the user/reader arise when interacting with your central document and how do those problems relate to the evidence you’ve chosen?

As you move into your second storey and begin making your argument, answering these questions will help you connect your argument to the evidence you’ve chosen.

how to write an essay about two stories

Do not be too precise in drafting your thesis at this point. Try to make it specific and complex but don’t limit yourself by thinking that you have to get it exactly right at this stage. You will be doing more research and revising, so your thesis will change and sharpen over the process of writing your essay. At this stage, aim for one or two sentences that make an argument about your central document using the evidence you’ve selected.

Write Here, Right Now: An Interactive Introduction to Academic Writing and Research Copyright © 2018 by Ryerson University is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

how to write an essay about two stories

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Steps to writing an essay: the complete guide, sponsored post.

  • February 22, 2024

Starting an essay writing journey may look scary at first, but don’t worry! When approached correctly and following a clear map, anyone can come up with a strong essay. This guide will help you to understand how to write an essay by breaking down the steps for writing an essay, and thus you will have a complete comprehension of the whole process. No matter if you are working on argumentative, persuasive, informative, or narrative essays, these steps on writing an essay will act as a good set of instructions to show you the way through the world of essay writing.

First 5 steps of writing an essay

1. Understanding the essay type: To begin the writing process, first, you will have to identify the type of an essay you are working on. What is its type? There are specific features and demands for each type. For instance, an argumentative essay needs a clear standpoint on a particular issue, while narrative essay comprises story telling. Spend some time musing over the core of your essay so that you will have an easier time writing.

2. Brainstorming and research: Once you have determined the essay type you are expected to write, make sure you do proper brainstorming and get all the necessary data. Put down the main arguments and explanations you wish to include in your essay. Do thorough research to guarantee the information is based on reliable sources. If you struggle to research information, ask for help at EssayHave. It’s an essay writing service which can help you with research.

3. Creating an outline: A good essay should be supported by a proper outline. Break down your essay into three main parts: The introduction, body, and conclusion. The introduction lists the main points, the body paragraphs are subtitled with the main arguments and the conclusion summarizes the main arguments and leaves a lasting impression. An outline makes your essay coherent and arranged in a certain chain of sequence.

4. Crafting a strong introduction: The introductory paragraph of your essay is its voice and it is what attracts the reader. First of all include a hook – interesting fact, challenging question, or good quote. Ensure that your thesis is clearly defined in your essay; it should lay down the central idea. Briefly introduce what readers will get and see to it that your intro is not long but still creative.

5. Developing the body: The body of your essay is the major component where you put forth and support your key issues in English studies. Every paragraph must have a main idea and certain. Lay out your arguments in simple and plain language, the connecting between paragraphs is also needed to be smooth. If you are writing an argumentative essay, one thing to think about is the counterarguments to build your position.

Tips on how to make an outstanding essay

Now that we’ve covered the initial steps to writing an essay, let’s explore some tips to elevate your essay writing skills:

  • Be clear and concise: Eliminate extraneous complexity from your writing. Your ideas, thus, argue eloquently. Make every word matter, and cut out any extraneous details that don’t support your essay’s main point.
  • Tailor your writing style to the essay type: Different kinds of essays demand different writing approaches. The tone of an argumentative essay must be strong and assertive whereas a narrative essay is more open and personal. Your writing style should conform to the objective of your essay.
  • Create a captivating thesis statement: Your thesis should capture your essay’s main idea in no more than one sentence. This is your reader’s compass as it points them to the central argument of your paper. Formalize a thesis statement which is precise, not too long, and impressive.
  • Revise and edit: Revise and edit your essay when you are done with the first draft. Check for grammatical errors, clarity of expression, and overall coherence. Think of asking fellow students or professors for their useful suggestions in the refinement process.

Refining your writing with style and clarity

An ideal essay is not just a matter of following the steps asked but is about having your own voice in the piece of writing and making it appeal to your reader with ease. Here’s how you can refine your essay to make it truly stand out:It is predicted.


Final essay writing steps

6. Writing an engaging conclusion: Here the conclusion is the final chance to make a deep impact in the minds of the readers. In conclusion, and synthesis of the central idea of discussion, the thesis should be restated in a new light. Do not introduce some new information in the conclusion and let your readers think about it.

7. Proofreading: Before you hand in your essay, make a complete proofreading. Check for spelling and grammar mistakes, make your writing style consistent, and make sure that you have followed your teacher’s instructions. A well-reflected essay is a sign of your commitment to quality research.

8. Seeking feedback: In the essay writing steps, try to ask for feedback in the form of your peers, friends, and teachers. New angles can provide a different viewpoint and identify areas of deficiency. Criticism is supposed to help a writer grow and develop, and that is an integral aspect of the writing process.

Summing up!

Having mastered the segments of writing a great essay is an invaluable ability that sets the course open for competent communication and self-expression. No matter what type of essay you have to write, whether argumentative, persuasive, informative, or narrative, if you follow these steps of writing an essay and apply the tips provided, you will get a good essay. Practice makes perfect, so you should not be afraid of trying different types of essays and developing your techniques with time. Happy writing!

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The Day I Put $50,000 in a Shoe Box and Handed It to a Stranger

I never thought i was the kind of person to fall for a scam..

Portrait of Charlotte Cowles

On a Tuesday evening this past October, I put $50,000 in cash in a shoe box, taped it shut as instructed, and carried it to the sidewalk in front of my apartment, my phone clasped to my ear. “Don’t let anyone hurt me,” I told the man on the line, feeling pathetic.

“You won’t be hurt,” he answered. “Just keep doing exactly as I say.”

Three minutes later, a white Mercedes SUV pulled up to the curb. “The back window will open,” said the man on the phone. “Do not look at the driver or talk to him. Put the box through the window, say ‘thank you,’ and go back inside.”

The man on the phone knew my home address, my Social Security number, the names of my family members, and that my 2-year-old son was playing in our living room. He told me my home was being watched, my laptop had been hacked, and we were in imminent danger. “I can help you, but only if you cooperate,” he said. His first orders: I could not tell anyone about our conversation, not even my spouse, or talk to the police or a lawyer.

Now I know this was all a scam — a cruel and violating one but painfully obvious in retrospect. Here’s what I can’t figure out: Why didn’t I just hang up and call 911? Why didn’t I text my husband, or my brother (a lawyer), or my best friend (also a lawyer), or my parents, or one of the many other people who would have helped me? Why did I hand over all that money — the contents of my savings account, strictly for emergencies — without a bigger fight?

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When I’ve told people this story, most of them say the same thing: You don’t seem like the type of person this would happen to. What they mean is that I’m not senile, or hysterical, or a rube. But these stereotypes are actually false. Younger adults — Gen Z, millennials, and Gen X — are 34 percent more likely to report losing money to fraud compared with those over 60, according to a recent report from the Federal Trade Commission. Another study found that well-educated people or those with good jobs were just as vulnerable to scams as everyone else.

Still, how could I have been such easy prey? Scam victims tend to be single, lonely, and economically insecure with low financial literacy. I am none of those things. I’m closer to the opposite. I’m a journalist who had a weekly column in the “Business” section of the New York Times. I’ve written a personal-finance column for this magazine for the past seven years. I interview money experts all the time and take their advice seriously. I’m married and talk to my friends, family, and colleagues every day.

And while this is harder to quantify — how do I even put it? — I’m not someone who loses her head. My mother-in-law has described me as even-keeled; my own mom has called me “maddeningly rational.” I am listed as an emergency contact for several friends — and their kids. I vote, floss, cook, and exercise. In other words, I’m not a person who panics under pressure and falls for a conspiracy involving drug smuggling, money laundering, and CIA officers at my door. Until, suddenly, I was.

That morning — it was October 31 — I dressed my toddler in a pizza costume for Halloween and kissed him good-bye before school. I wrote some work emails. At about 12:30 p.m., my phone buzzed. The caller ID said it was Amazon. I answered. A polite woman with a vague accent told me she was calling from Amazon customer service to check some unusual activity on my account. The call was being recorded for quality assurance. Had I recently spent $8,000 on MacBooks and iPads?

I had not. I checked my Amazon account. My order history showed diapers and groceries, no iPads. The woman, who said her name was Krista, told me the purchases had been made under my business account. “I don’t have a business account,” I said. “Hmm,” she said. “Our system shows that you have two.”

Krista and I concurred that I was the victim of identity theft, and she said she would flag the fraudulent accounts and freeze their activity. She provided me with a case-ID number for future reference and recommended that I check my credit cards. I did, and everything looked normal. I thanked her for her help.

Then Krista explained that Amazon had been having a lot of problems with identity theft and false accounts lately. It had become so pervasive that the company was working with a liaison at the Federal Trade Commission and was referring defrauded customers to him. Could she connect me?

“Um, sure?” I said.

Krista transferred the call to a man who identified himself as Calvin Mitchell. He said he was an investigator with the FTC, gave me his badge number, and had me write down his direct phone line in case I needed to contact him again. He also told me our call was being recorded. He asked me to verify the spelling of my name. Then he read me the last four digits of my Social Security number, my home address, and my date of birth to confirm that they were correct. The fact that he had my Social Security number threw me. I was getting nervous.

“I’m glad we’re speaking,” said Calvin. “Your personal information is linked to a case that we’ve been working on for a while now, and it’s quite serious.”

He told me that 22 bank accounts, nine vehicles, and four properties were registered to my name. The bank accounts had wired more than $3 million overseas, mostly to Jamaica and Iraq. Did I know anything about this? “No,” I said. Did I know someone named Stella Suk-Yee Kwong? “I don’t think so,” I said. He texted me a photo of her ID, which he claimed had been found in a car rented under my name that was abandoned on the southern border of Texas with blood and drugs in the trunk. A home in New Mexico affiliated with the car rental had subsequently been raided, he added, and authorities found more drugs, cash, and bank statements registered to my name and Social Security number. He texted me a drug-bust photo of bags of pills and money stacked on a table. He told me that there were warrants out for my arrest in Maryland and Texas and that I was being charged with cybercrimes, money laundering, and drug trafficking.

My head swam. I Googled my name along with “warrant” and “money laundering,” but nothing came up. Were arrest warrants public? I wasn’t sure. Google led me to, which asked for my credit-card information — nope. “I’m in deep shit,” I texted my husband. “My identity was stolen and it seems really bad.”

Calvin wanted to know if I knew anyone who might be the culprit or if I had any connections to Iraq or Jamaica. “No,” I said. “This is the first I’m hearing about any of this, and it’s a lot to take in.” He asked if I had ever used public or unsecured Wi-Fi. “I don’t know. Maybe?” I said. “I used the airport Wi-Fi recently.”

“Ah,” he said. “That’s unfortunate. It’s how many of these breaches start.” I was embarrassed, like I’d left my fly unzipped. How could I have been so thoughtless? But also — didn’t everyone use the airport Wi-Fi?

Calvin told me to listen carefully. “The first thing you must do is not tell anyone what is going on. Everyone around you is a suspect.”

I almost laughed. I told him I was quite sure that my husband, who works for an affordable-housing nonprofit and makes meticulous spreadsheets for our child-care expenses, was not a secret drug smuggler. “I believe you, but even so, your communications are probably under surveillance,” Calvin said. “You cannot talk to him about this.” I quickly deleted the text messages I had sent my husband a few minutes earlier. “These are sophisticated criminals with a lot of money at stake,” he continued. “You should assume you are in danger and being watched. You cannot take any chances.”

I felt suspended between two worlds — the one I knew and the one this man was describing. If I had nothing to do with any of these allegations, how much could they truly affect me? I thought of an old This American Life episode about a woman whose Social Security card was stolen. No matter how many times she closed her bank accounts and opened new ones, her identity thief kept draining them, destroying her credit and her sanity. (It turned out to be her boyfriend.) I remembered another story about a man who got stuck on a no-fly list after his personal information was used by a terrorist group. It dawned on me that being connected to major federal offenses, even falsely, could really fuck up my life.

Calvin wanted to know how much money I currently had in my bank accounts. I told him that I had two — checking and savings — with a combined balance of a little over $80,000. As a freelancer in a volatile industry, I keep a sizable emergency fund, and I also set aside cash to pay my taxes at the end of the year, since they aren’t withheld from my paychecks.

His voice took on a more urgent tone. “You must have worked very hard to save all that money,” he said. “Do not share your bank-account information with anyone. I am going to help you keep your money safe.” He said that he would transfer me to his colleague at the CIA who was the lead investigator on my case and gave me a nine-digit case number for my records. (I Googled the number. Nothing.) He said the CIA agent would tell me what to do next, and he wished me luck.

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If it was a scam , I couldn’t see the angle. It had occurred to me that the whole story might be made up or an elaborate mistake. But no one had asked me for money or told me to buy crypto; they’d only encouraged me not to share my banking information. They hadn’t asked for my personal details; they already knew them. I hadn’t been told to click on anything.

Still, I had not seen a shred of evidence. I checked my bank accounts, credit cards, and credit score; nothing looked out of the ordinary. I knew I should probably talk to a lawyer or maybe call the police, though I was doubtful that they would help. What was I going to say — “My identity was stolen, and I think I’m somehow in danger”? I had no proof. I was also annoyed that my workday had been hijacked. It was 2 p.m., and I had already pushed back one deadline and postponed two work calls. I had to get myself out of this.

The next man who got on the line had a deeper voice and a slight British accent flecked with something I couldn’t identify. He told me his name was Michael Sarano and that he worked for the CIA on cases involving the FTC. He gave me his badge number. “I’m going to need more than that,” I said. “I have no reason to believe that any of what you’re saying is real.”

“I completely understand,” he said calmly. He told me to go to the FTC home page and look up the main phone number. “Now hang up the phone, and I will call you from that number right now.” I did as he said. The FTC number flashed on my screen, and I picked up. “How do I know you’re not just spoofing this?” I asked.

“It’s a government number,” he said, almost indignant. “It cannot be spoofed.” I wasn’t sure if this was true and tried Googling it, but Michael was already onto his next point. He told me the call was being recorded, so I put him on speaker and began recording on my end, too. He wanted to know if I had told anyone what was going on.

I admitted that I had texted my husband. “You must reassure him that everything is fine,” Michael said. “In many cases like this, we have to investigate the spouse as well, and the less he knows, the less he is implicated. From now on, you have to follow protocol if you want us to help you.”

“I don’t think I should lie to my husband,” I said, feeling stupid.

“You are being investigated for major federal crimes,” he said. “By keeping your husband out of this, you are protecting him.” He then repeated the point Calvin had made about my phone and computer being hacked and monitored by the criminals who had stolen my identity.

By that point, my husband had sent me a series of concerned texts. “Don’t worry. It will be okay,” I wrote back. It felt gross to imagine a third party reading along.

Michael snowed me with the same stories Calvin had. They were consistent: the car on the Texas border, the property in New Mexico, the drugs, the bank accounts. He asked if I shared my residence with anyone besides my husband and son. Then he asked more questions about my family members, including my parents, my brother, and my sister-in-law. He knew their names and where they lived. I told him they had nothing to do with this. In fact, I was now sure I wanted to consult a lawyer.

“If you talk to an attorney, I cannot help you anymore,” Michael said sternly. “You will be considered noncooperative. Your home will be raided, and your assets will be seized. You may be arrested. It’s your choice.” This seemed ludicrous. I pictured officers tramping in, taking my laptop, going through our bookshelves, questioning our neighbors, scaring my son. It was a nonstarter.

“Can I just come to your office and sort this out in person?” I said. “It’s getting late, and I need to take my son trick-or-treating soon.”

“My office is in Langley,” he said. “We don’t have enough time. We need to act immediately. I’m going to talk you through the process. It’s going to sound crazy, but we must follow protocol if we’re going to catch the people behind this.”

He explained that the CIA would need to freeze all the assets in my name, including my actual bank accounts. In the eyes of the law, there was no difference between the “real” and the fraudulent ones, he said. They would also deactivate my compromised Social Security number and get me a new one. Then, by monitoring any activity under my old Social Security number and accounts, they would catch the criminals who were using my identity and I would get my life back. But until then, I would need to use only cash for my day-to-day expenses.

It was far-fetched. Ridiculous. But also not completely out of the realm of possibility. “Do I have any other options?” I asked.

“Unfortunately, no,” he said. “You must follow my directions very carefully. We do not have much time.”

He asked me how much cash I thought I would need to support myself for a year if necessary. My assets could be frozen for up to two years if the investigation dragged on, he added. There could be a trial; I might need to testify. These things take time. “I don’t know, $50,000?” I said. I wondered how I would receive paychecks without a bank account. Would I have to take time off from work? I did some mental calculations of how much my husband could float us and for how long.

“Okay,” he said. “You need to go to the bank and get that cash out now. You cannot tell them what it is for. In one of my last cases, the identity thief was someone who worked at the bank.”

Michael told me to keep the phone on speaker so we would remain in contact. “It’s important that I monitor where this money goes from now on. Remember, all of your assets are part of this investigation,” he said. Then he told me that one of his colleagues would meet me at my apartment at 5 p.m. to guide me through the next steps.

“You can’t send a complete stranger to my home,” I said, my voice rising. “My 2-year-old son will be here.”

“Let me worry about that,” he said. “It’s my job. But if you don’t cooperate, I cannot keep you safe. It is your choice.”

It’s impossible to explain why I accepted this logic. But I had been given marching orders and a deadline. My son would be home soon, and I had to fix this mess. I put on sneakers in case I needed to run. I brought a backpack for the cash. I felt both terrified and absurd.

It was jarring to see trick-or-treaters in my Brooklyn neighborhood, people going about their lives. The air was crisp, and dead leaves swirled on the ground. I was on high alert for anyone who might be following me. At one point, a man in sunglasses and a hoodie trailed me for a few blocks. At Michael’s suggestion, I ducked into a parking garage until he passed.

When I reached the bank, I told the guard I needed to make a large cash withdrawal and she sent me upstairs. Michael was on speakerphone in my pocket. I asked the teller for $50,000. The woman behind the thick glass window raised her eyebrows, disappeared into a back room, came back with a large metal box of $100 bills, and counted them out with a machine. Then she pushed the stacks of bills through the slot along with a sheet of paper warning me against scams. I thanked her and left.

Michael was bursting with praise. “You did a great job,” he said. “I have to go for a moment to see about the details of your case; I’m going to have you speak to my colleague if you have any questions.” He put a woman on the line. She was younger, with an accent I couldn’t identify. She told me to go home and await further instructions.

As I walked back to my apartment, something jolted me out of my trance, and I became furious. No government agency would establish this as “protocol.” It was preposterous. “I need to speak with Michael,” I told the woman on the phone. He got on right away. “I don’t even believe that you’re a CIA agent,” I said. “What you’re asking me to do is completely unreasonable.”

He sighed. “I’m sending you a photo of my badge right now,” he said. “I don’t know what else to tell you. You can trust me, and I will help you. Or you can hang up and put yourself and your family in danger. Do you really want to take that risk with a young child?”

My Two Cents

How to protect yourself against scams, what charlotte cowles wishes she’d known..

I waited for a stoplight at a busy intersection. I could see my apartment window from where I stood. My son was playing inside with a neighbor’s daughter and their nanny. A picture of Michael’s badge appeared on my phone. I had no way of verifying it; it could easily have been Photoshopped. “I don’t trust you at all,” I said to Michael. “But it doesn’t seem like I have any other choice.”

When I got home, Michael told me to get a box, put the cash in it, take a picture of it, then tape it shut. I found a floral-printed shoe box that had once contained a pair of slippers I’d bought for myself — a frivolous purchase that now seemed mortifying. Michael told me to label it with my name, my case number, my address, a locker number he read to me, and my signature. Then he directed me to take another picture of the labeled box and text it to him.

“My colleague will be there soon. He is an undercover CIA agent, and he will secure the money for you,” he said. What exactly would that entail? I asked. “Tonight, we will close down your Social Security number, and you will lose access to your bank accounts,” he explained. “Tomorrow, you’ll need to go to the Social Security office and get a new Social Security number. We’ll secure this money for you in a government locker and hand-deliver a Treasury check for the same amount. You can cash the check and use it for your expenses until the investigation is over.”

“Why can’t I just use this cash?” I asked. “Why do you have to take it and give me a check?”

“Because all of your assets under your current identity are part of the investigation,” he said. “You are being charged with money laundering. If we secure this cash and then issue you a government check under your new Social Security number, that will be considered clean money.”

“I’ll need to see your colleague’s badge,” I said. “I’m not just going to give $50,000 of my money to someone I don’t know.”

“Undercover agents don’t carry badges,” he said, as if I’d asked the CIA to bring me a Happy Meal. “They’re undercover. Remember, you are probably being watched. The criminals cannot know that a CIA agent is there.”

In a twisted way, this made some amount of sense to me. Or maybe I had lost my grip on reality so completely that I was willing to resign myself to this new version of it. Most important, I didn’t know what else to do. Even if Michael wasn’t working for the CIA (which struck me as more and more likely), he was sending a man to our address. I felt a sickening dread that he might ask to come inside. If giving him this money would make him go away, I was ready to do it. I’d been on the phone for nearly five hours. I wanted to take my son trick-or-treating. I was exhausted.

Michael seemed to sense that I was flagging and asked if I’d had lunch. I hadn’t. He told me to eat something but keep him on the line; his agent was on the way to my address but running late. “You can meet him outside if that would make you more comfortable,” Michael said, and I felt relieved. While I gnawed on a granola bar at my desk, he got chatty and asked about my job. I told him I was going to Washington, D.C., later that week. “Oh, great. You could come to my office in Langley,” he said. “Where are you staying?”

A little after 6 p.m., Michael told me to go downstairs. His colleague was arriving. My husband had just come home from work and was reading to our son. “What’s going on? Is everything okay?” he asked as I put my coat on. I motioned to the phone and shushed him. Then I whispered, “I have to go downstairs and meet a guy who’s helping with the identity-theft case. I’ll explain more later.” He frowned and silently mouthed, “What?” I told him I had to go.

I met the SUV at the curb and put the money in the back seat. It was 6:06 p.m. Even if I’d tried to see who was driving, the windows were tinted and it was dusk. He maybe wore a baseball cap. When I turned around, I could see the backlit faces of my husband and son watching from our apartment nine stories above.

As I walked back inside, Michael texted me a photo of a Treasury check made out to me for $50,000 and told me a hard copy would be hand-delivered to me in the morning. He was working on setting up my appointment with the Social Security office. “You will receive a confirmation text shortly,” he said. “Stay on the line until you do.” I felt oddly comforted by this. An appointment would give me something legitimate, an actual connection to a government agency.

I took my son trick-or-treating, my phone on speaker in my pocket. I felt numb, almost in a fugue state, smiling and chatting with my neighbors and their kids. At one point, I checked to see if Michael was still there; his female colleague answered and said he’d be back soon. Then, when we got home and I checked again, the line was dead. I panicked and called back. The woman answered. “Michael is busy,” she said. “He’ll call you in the morning.”

I was confused. Did this mean I didn’t have a Social Security number at all anymore? I pictured myself floating, identity-less. “Do I have an appointment at the Social Security office?” I asked.

“Michael will call you tomorrow,” she repeated. “He hasn’t been able to secure your appointment yet. The Social Security office is closed now.”

I went into my bedroom and shut the door, feeling my face grow hot. I had a physical sensation of scales falling from my eyes; the room shimmered around me, spots raining from the ceiling. I saw the whole day peel away, like the layers of an onion — Michael, the FTC officer, the Amazon call — revealing my real life, raw and exposed, at the center. “Oh my God,” I said, my hands tingling. “You are lying to me. Michael was lying. You just took my money and I’m never getting it back.” That wasn’t true, the woman said. She understood that I was upset. She was sorry. Everything would be fine. “You’re a fucking liar,” I hissed, and hung up.

Through choking sobs, I told my husband what had happened. “Why didn’t you tell me?” he asked, incredulous. “I would have stopped you.” That I’d been trying to protect him suddenly seemed so idiotic I couldn’t even say it out loud. Our son looked on, confused. “Mama’s sad,” he announced, clinging to my leg. We put him to bed and then I called my parents and my brother. At their urging, I called 911. Around 10:30 p.m., three police officers came over and took my statement. I struggled to recount what I’d done; it seemed like a bad dream. I felt like a fool.

“No government agency will ever ask you for money,” one cop informed me, as if I’d never heard it before. I wanted to scream, “I know. ” Instead, I said, “It didn’t really feel like he was asking.”

The police told me not to worry; the scammers wouldn’t be back. “They got what they wanted,” another officer said, as though it would reassure me. I gave them the photos and recordings I had. They promised to check traffic cameras for the car that had taken the money.

When I woke up the next morning, a few seconds passed before I remembered the previous day. I was my old self, in my old bed, milky dawn light on the walls. Then it all came crashing back, a fresh humiliation, and I curled into the fetal position. I felt violated, unreliable; I couldn’t trust myself. Were my tendencies toward people-pleasing, rule following, and conflict aversion far worse than I’d ever thought, even pathological? I imagined other people’s reactions. She’s always been a little careless. She seems unhinged. I considered keeping the whole thing a secret. I worried it would harm my professional reputation. I still do.

In the days that followed, I kept revisiting the fake world of that afternoon, slipping through a portal into an alternate life. I would get paranoid that someone was reading my texts, watching me as I took my son to school, or using my Social Security number to wire money and rent cars. It was a relief that I wasn’t actually in trouble with the law, but then again — I’d lost $50,000 and I wasn’t getting it back. I checked my accounts and credit cards obsessively. I called my bank. They gave me instructions to freeze my credit, file reports with the FBI and FTC, and run anti-virus software on my laptop to check for malware, which I did. I cried a lot. My husband felt helpless; he still doesn’t like to talk about it. Instead, he researched new locks for our doors and looked into security cameras. One night I shook him awake, convinced that someone was trying to break in. “It’s only the wind,” he said. “We’re safe.”

Fifty thousand dollars is a lot of money. It took me years to save, stashing away a few thousand every time I got paid for a big project. Part of it was money I had received from my grandfather, an inheritance he took great pains to set up for his grandchildren before his death. Sometimes I imagine how I would have spent it if I had to get rid of it in a day. I could have paid for over a year’s worth of child care up front. I could have put it toward the master’s degree I’ve always wanted. I could have housed multiple families for months. Perhaps, inadvertently, I am; I occasionally wonder what the scammers did with it.

Because I had set it aside for emergencies and taxes, it was money I tried to pretend I didn’t have — it wasn’t for spending. Initially, I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to afford my taxes this year, but then my accountant told me I could write off losses due to theft. So from a financial standpoint, I’ll survive, as long as I don’t have another emergency — a real one — anytime soon.

When I did tell friends what had happened, it seemed like everyone had a horror story. One friend’s dad, a criminal-defense attorney, had been scammed out of $1.2 million. Another person I know, a real-estate developer, was duped into wiring $450,000 to someone posing as one of his contractors. Someone else knew a Wall Street executive who had been conned into draining her 401(k) by some guy she met at a bar.

I felt a guilty sense of consolation whenever I heard about a scam involving someone I respected. If this could happen to them, maybe I wasn’t such a moron. As a journalist, it’s my instinct to research and talk to experts, so I dove into books and podcasts about scams, desperate to make sense of my own. I had known that fraud was on the rise but was shocked to learn the numbers — financial losses ballooned by more than 30 percent in 2022. I read that self-laceration is typical; half of victims blame themselves for being gullible, and most experience serious anxiety, depression, or other stress-related health problems afterward. I heard about victim support groups. I went to therapy.

When I discovered that Katie Gatti Tassin, a personal-finance expert who writes the popular Money With Katie newsletter, lost $8,000 five years ago to a grandmotherly-sounding woman pretending to call from Tassin’s credit union, I called her to ask how she’d coped. “Everyone was so patronizing,” she told me. “The response was basically ‘It’s your fault that this happened.’”

If I had to pinpoint a moment that made me think my scammers were legitimate, it was probably when they read me my Social Security number. Now I know that all kinds of personal information — your email address, your kids’ names and birthdays, even your pets’ names — are commonly sold on the dark web. Of course, the scammers could also have learned about my son from a 30-second perusal of my Instagram feed.

It was my brother, the lawyer, who pointed out that what I had experienced sounded a lot like a coerced confession. “I read enough transcripts of bad interrogations in law school to understand that anyone can be convinced that they have a very narrow set of terrible options,” he said. When I posed this theory to Saul Kassin, a psychology professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice who studies coerced confessions, he agreed. “If someone is trying to get you to be compliant, they do it incrementally, in a series of small steps that take you farther and farther from what you know to be true,” he said. “It’s not about breaking the will. They were altering the sense of reality.” And when you haven’t done anything wrong, the risk of cooperating feels minimal, he added. An innocent person thinks everything will get sorted out. It also mattered that I was kept on the phone for so long. People start to break down cognitively after a few hours of interrogation. “At that point, they’re not thinking straight. They feel the need to put an end to the situation at all costs,” Kassin said.

I wondered how often scammers are caught and about the guy who’d driven the car to my apartment. But when I asked experts, they doubted he’d be a meaningful lead. One pointed out that he might have been a courier who was told to come pick up a box.

I still don’t believe that what happened to me could happen to anyone, but I’m starting to realize that I’m not uniquely fallible. Several friends felt strongly that if the scammers hadn’t mentioned my son, I would never have fallen for this. They’re right that I’d be willing to do — or pay — anything to protect him. Either way, I have to accept that someone waged psychological warfare on me, and I lost. For now, I just don’t answer my phone.

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The Loss of Things I Took for Granted

Ten years into my college teaching career, students stopped being able to read effectively..

Recent years have seen successive waves of book bans in Republican-controlled states, aimed at pulling any text with “woke” themes from classrooms and library shelves. Though the results sometimes seem farcical, as with the banning of Art Spiegelman’s Maus due to its inclusion of “cuss words” and explicit rodent nudity, the book-banning agenda is no laughing matter. Motivated by bigotry, it has already done demonstrable harm and promises to do more. But at the same time, the appropriate response is, in principle, simple. Named individuals have advanced explicit policies with clear goals and outcomes, and we can replace those individuals with people who want to reverse those policies. That is already beginning to happen in many places, and I hope those successes will continue until every banned book is restored.

If and when that happens, however, we will not be able to declare victory quite yet. Defeating the open conspiracy to deprive students of physical access to books will do little to counteract the more diffuse confluence of forces that are depriving students of the skills needed to meaningfully engage with those books in the first place. As a college educator, I am confronted daily with the results of that conspiracy-without-conspirators. I have been teaching in small liberal arts colleges for over 15 years now, and in the past five years, it’s as though someone flipped a switch. For most of my career, I assigned around 30 pages of reading per class meeting as a baseline expectation—sometimes scaling up for purely expository readings or pulling back for more difficult texts. (No human being can read 30 pages of Hegel in one sitting, for example.) Now students are intimidated by anything over 10 pages and seem to walk away from readings of as little as 20 pages with no real understanding. Even smart and motivated students struggle to do more with written texts than extract decontextualized take-aways. Considerable class time is taken up simply establishing what happened in a story or the basic steps of an argument—skills I used to be able to take for granted.

Since this development very directly affects my ability to do my job as I understand it, I talk about it a lot. And when I talk about it with nonacademics, certain predictable responses inevitably arise, all questioning the reality of the trend I describe. Hasn’t every generation felt that the younger cohort is going to hell in a handbasket? Haven’t professors always complained that educators at earlier levels are not adequately equipping their students? And haven’t students from time immemorial skipped the readings?

The response of my fellow academics, however, reassures me that I’m not simply indulging in intergenerational grousing. Anecdotally, I have literally never met a professor who did not share my experience. Professors are also discussing the issue in academic trade publications , from a variety of perspectives. What we almost all seem to agree on is that we are facing new obstacles in structuring and delivering our courses, requiring us to ratchet down expectations in the face of a ratcheting down of preparation. Yes, there were always students who skipped the readings, but we are in new territory when even highly motivated honors students struggle to grasp the basic argument of a 20-page article. Yes, professors never feel satisfied that high school teachers have done enough, but not every generation of professors has had to deal with the fallout of No Child Left Behind and Common Core. Finally, yes, every generation thinks the younger generation is failing to make the grade— except for the current cohort of professors, who are by and large more invested in their students’ success and mental health and more responsive to student needs than any group of educators in human history. We are not complaining about our students. We are complaining about what has been taken from them.

If we ask what has caused this change, there are some obvious culprits. The first is the same thing that has taken away almost everyone’s ability to focus—the ubiquitous smartphone. Even as a career academic who studies the Quran in Arabic for fun, I have noticed my reading endurance flagging. I once found myself boasting at a faculty meeting that I had read through my entire hourlong train ride without looking at my phone. My colleagues agreed this was a major feat, one they had not achieved recently. Even if I rarely attain that high level of focus, though, I am able to “turn it on” when demanded, for instance to plow through a big novel during a holiday break. That’s because I was able to develop and practice those skills of extended concentration and attentive reading before the intervention of the smartphone. For children who were raised with smartphones, by contrast, that foundation is missing. It is probably no coincidence that the iPhone itself, originally released in 2007, is approaching college age, meaning that professors are increasingly dealing with students who would have become addicted to the dopamine hit of the omnipresent screen long before they were introduced to the more subtle pleasures of the page.

The second go-to explanation is the massive disruption of school closures during COVID-19. There is still some debate about the necessity of those measures, but what is not up for debate any longer is the very real learning loss that students suffered at every level. The impact will inevitably continue to be felt for the next decade or more, until the last cohort affected by the mass “pivot to online” finally graduates. I doubt that the pandemic closures were the decisive factor in themselves, however. Not only did the marked decline in reading resilience start before the pandemic, but the students I am seeing would have already been in high school during the school closures. Hence they would be better equipped to get something out of the online format and, more importantly, their basic reading competence would have already been established.

Less discussed than these broader cultural trends over which educators have little control are the major changes in reading pedagogy that have occurred in recent decades—some motivated by the ever-increasing demand to “teach to the test” and some by fads coming out of schools of education. In the latter category is the widely discussed decline in phonics education in favor of the “balanced literacy” approach advocated by education expert Lucy Calkins (who has more recently come to accept the need for more phonics instruction). I started to see the results of this ill-advised change several years ago, when students abruptly stopped attempting to sound out unfamiliar words and instead paused until they recognized the whole word as a unit. (In a recent class session, a smart, capable student was caught short by the word circumstances when reading a text out loud.) The result of this vibes-based literacy is that students never attain genuine fluency in reading. Even aside from the impact of smartphones, their experience of reading is constantly interrupted by their intentionally cultivated inability to process unfamiliar words.

For all the flaws of the balanced literacy method, it was presumably implemented by people who thought it would help. It is hard to see a similar motivation in the growing trend toward assigning students only the kind of short passages that can be included in a standardized test. Due in part to changes driven by the infamous Common Core standards , teachers now have to fight to assign their students longer readings, much less entire books, because those activities won’t feed directly into students getting higher test scores, which leads to schools getting more funding. The emphasis on standardized tests was always a distraction at best, but we have reached the point where it is actively cannibalizing students’ educational experience—an outcome no one intended or planned, and for which there is no possible justification.

We can’t go back in time and do the pandemic differently at this point, nor is there any realistic path to putting the smartphone genie back in the bottle. (Though I will note that we as a society do at least attempt to keep other addictive products out of the hands of children.) But I have to think that we can, at the very least, stop actively preventing young people from developing the ability to follow extended narratives and arguments in the classroom. Regardless of their profession or ultimate educational level, they will need those skills. The world is a complicated place. People—their histories and identities, their institutions and work processes, their fears and desires—are simply too complex to be captured in a worksheet with a paragraph and some reading comprehension questions. Large-scale prose writing is the best medium we have for capturing that complexity, and the education system should not be in the business of keeping students from learning how to engage effectively with it.

This is a matter not of snobbery, but of basic justice. I recognize that not everyone centers their lives on books as much as a humanities professor does. I think they’re missing out, but they’re adults and they can choose how to spend their time. What’s happening with the current generation is not that they are simply choosing TikTok over Jane Austen. They are being deprived of the ability to choose—for no real reason or benefit. We can and must stop perpetrating this crime on our young people.

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Illustration shows ChatGPT logo and AI Artificial Intelligence words

How to get away with AI-generated essays

Prof Paul Kleiman on putting ChatGPT to the test on his work. Plus letters from Michael Bulley and Dr Paul Flewers

No wonder Robert Topinka found himself in a quandary ( The software says my student cheated using AI. They say they’re innocent. Who do I believe?, 13 February ). To test ChatGPT’s abilities and weaknesses, I asked it to write a short essay on a particular topic that I specialised in. Before looking at what it produced, I wrote my own 100% original short essay on the same topic. I then submitted both pieces to ChatGPT and asked it to identify whether they were written by AI or a human. It immediately identified the first piece as AI-generated. But then it also said that my essay “was probably generated by AI”.

I concluded that if you write well, in logical, appropriate and grammatically correct English, then the chances are that it will be deemed to be AI-generated. To avoid detection, write badly. Prof Paul Kleiman Truro, Cornwall

Robert Topinka gets into a twist about whether his student’s essay was genuine or produced by AI. The obvious solution is for such work not to contribute to the final degree qualification. Then there would be no point in cheating.

Let there be real chat between teachers and students rather than ChatGPT , and let the degree be decided only by exams, with surprise questions, done in an exam room with pen and paper, and not a computer in sight. Michael Bulley Chalon-sur-Saône, France

Dr Robert Topinka overlooks a crucial factor with respect to student cheating – so long as a degree is a requirement to obtain a reasonable job, then chicanery is inevitable. When I left school at 16 in the early 1970s, an administrative job could be had with a few O-levels; when I finished my PhD two decades ago and was looking for that sort of job, each one required A-levels, and often a degree. I was a mature student, studying for my own edification, and so cheating was self-defeating. Cheating will stop being a major problem only when students attend university primarily to learn for the sake of learning and not as a means of gaining employment. Dr Paul Flewers London

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