10 Plot, Character, Scene

Dr. Todd Nelson


Presentation Materials

10.1 Lesson Plan

“Keep Your Reader Awake and Interested: Using Basic Literary Elements to Engage the Reader of Your College App Essay”

10.1.1 Learning objective

Students will be able to use the literary elements of plot, character, conflict, scene, and concision to make their essays interesting to readers.

10.1.2 Introduction and overview

Hook: Scene–apartment on college campus, 11:00 pm, Red Bull cans and Starbucks mugs cover the coffee table; two 25-year-old admissions staff stare bleary-eyed at their laptop screens. Kevin turns to Karen, “I can tell from the first two sentences if this is an essay I can skim or one I want to read. And I’m skimming a bunch to meet my 40-essays-per-day requirement.” Consider your audience!

Introduce & overview what will be covered in the two sessions and why they’re important: plot, character, scene, concision, and “Show, don’t tell.”

Each of these elements is essential to crafting a college application essay that keeps your reader awake, interested, and wanting to read your essay.

10.1.3 Plot, character, and scene

Provide examples and walk students through how to develop plot, character, conflict, and scene in their own writing.

Allow time to revisit their brainstorming and first draft ideas for their essays.

10.1.4 Concision

Present the importance of concision in writing and the need to avoid passive, weak, rambling language. “Make every word count.”

Provide examples and tips for revising for clarity and concision.

10.1.5 Wrap-up and homework

Summarize briefly. “You use these elements to keep poor Kevin awake and interested in you.” Encourage students to continue working on their narrative drafts with Kevin in mind.

Assign homework that involves revising their writing based on these literary elements.

10.2 Example Essays

10.2.1 Example essay 1

I had never even seen a whole sole before, and there were bones where bones just did not seem to belong. The Charbonneaus (that’s what I’ll call them) were obviously treating my first night with them as a special occasion—the tablecloth showed fresh creases, there was too much silverware, and the candles that had just been lit were tall and smooth. The only problem was that I really didn’t like fish, and the knowledge of how to filet them was not a standard part of the education of a New Jersey girl. But Monsieur and Madame smiled indulgently at me, he with yellow teeth and she with a gold one; I couldn’t tell if they meant it or were only making up for Catherine, their daughter, who looked my way as if she might spit. The candlelight was nice but I wished they had turned the lights on, because romantic semi-darkness and first-time fish fileting were not a good mix.

All three of them effortlessly lifted the flesh in one piece off the bone, but I couldn’t figure out where to put my fork. And then I realized that I was supposed to use my knife. After I’d broken its back and embedded tiny pieces of bone into the flesh—mine and the fish’s—I saw I was losing the battle. So did Catherine, who finally had something to smile about—entertainment tonight, guest starring the American and a badly mauled fish.

Unfortunately I wasn’t feeling very funny. I was trying too hard not to seem like another provincial American. Disregarding my first impulse—to deposit my mouthful into the napkin—and my second—to cry—I followed my third instinct and went to the bathroom, trying to make as little fuss as possible.

The night before I left for the Experiment in International Living, my parents had taken me to see E.T. As I cried in the backseat on the way home they were quick to say “Don’t worry, Niki. If it’s really bad you can come home.” It was nice of them to say it, but none of us believed it for a minute.

When I was in third grade the same two people had made me stick it out at Camp Waziyatah (which, I still remind my parents with satisfaction, folded the next year). I guess some of my tears were for Elliot, the boy in the movie, who had to manage alone in the end. But at least he got to stay home.

Growing up in Tenafly, New Jersey, means that Harold the mailman calls my mother by her first name and all of Bob’s Taxi drivers know who lives at 124 Churchill Road; and yes, the sole all comes boneless from the market. Which is to say Tenafly is sheltered, and there isn’t much room for developing either independence or filetmanship. A feeling of security is what you do develop in Tenafly and that feeling comes from living in the comfort of a stable cocoon of familiarity.

I didn’t feel secure in front of Catherine, or even in front of something as harmless as a fish. In fact I felt like an extraterrestrial and I wanted to go home. But gradually, picking bones out of my teeth in the bathroom, I looked at the big picture. I realized I was not here to learn to debone a fish; Julia Child could have taught me that in my Tenafly living room. Of course, I wasn’t sure what I was here to do, if anything, but I knew this was part of it.

When I emerged, I saw my dinner lying as I had left it, unromantically half-clawed in the candlelight, and for a moment my resolution shook like a weak muscle; I had a quick idea of running out the door and back to the train and the plane and New Jersey. M. Charbonneau seemed a little puzzled but not especially interested in whatever dilemma I was having. But his wife looked up sympathetically as I neared the table. “Ça va?” she said.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Catherine smirk again. I sat down. I put a piece of sole on my fork. “Ça va,” I said. “Passez du vin, s’il vous plait.”

10.2.2 Example essay 2

The soft ray of sun shone through the car window as I glanced at the foreign landscape—quiet, vast, the field blanketed with dandelion flowers. I searched for any sense of familiarity and found a reprieve in the communist-style block housing. [City name, foreign spelling.] I tested out the foreign name on my tongue, attempting to flick my r’s like I heard the locals do at the airport.

When my family and I moved halfway across the world to ______, I thought that this capital city would offer me a glimpse into a new lifestyle and a change of scenery. Never did I think that it would become the central force that grounds my life.

The gentle cruise of the car came to a stop as we neared our home. With a click of a button, our garage door rolled open, lazily, slowly—too slowly. As we waited to descend into the underground garage that would become very familiar in the years ahead, I peaked at the few pedestrians on the street. A typical Wednesday morning, some had just returned from a grocery trip, with bags of produce and a fresh baguette poking out of the bag. Others seemed to be out for no reason but to enjoy the warmth of the spring sun that had just begun to melt away the snow and frost of winter. It was a striking contrast to the busyness of the bustling metropolis I had come from where the many people on the streets scurried from one location to another, where cars slowed to a crawl during the morning commute despite the five-lane boulevard.

As an avid history enthusiast, I’ve heard it said many times that the land shapes the person. I have always thought it to be an expression of the past, referring to how resources shape the culture and customs of the people. But over the next seven years in ________, I found the country shaping me. I found myself growing accustomed to and adopting the slow, laid-back ways of the people. I grew to enjoy the silence that fell upon the city by ten at night, a silence that left me alone with my thoughts to reflect on the day. I grew to savor the stillness that fell upon the city on heavy snow days, a stillness I could internalize, spending the day reading next to the radiator or sprawled on the floor working on my newest Lego set.

Now in high school, I find myself back in the bustling metropolis that I once came from. Lights line the city from twilight to dawn. There is a constant flurry of cars, and an occasional traffic jam at midnight if we’re unlucky. A city of tech giants and immigrants, Shenzhen is built upon a limitless well of energy. In the past, the fast pace of Shenzhen pushed me to take on projects, even at the expense of quality over quantity. Seven years later, the same fast-paced atmosphere no longer affects me the same way it did before. It energizes and motivates me, but I remain grounded by the calmness _______ instilled in me.

In doing so, I not only find peace of mind but an abundance of details I would have otherwise missed. The names and thorough descriptions of indigenous enslaved people in the Americas I encountered as a researcher for ___________, the mystery surrounding the sinking of the cruise ship I covered as a writer for the _______ History Museum are fascinating details that color the back ink on paper a vibrant hue, painting historical accounts into brilliant narratives that enthrall and capture my curiosity. Beyond history, conversations with my Chinese students on their keenness towards rabbits yet dislike of similarly fluffy, white owls offer insight into the nuances of their personalities, painting them as more than just an ever-growing statistic of migrant children in China.

The foreign field of dandelions has granted me the greatest gift of all: the ability to slow down, and in doing so, take in the details to admire the world in all its vibrancy.