First Scene for Personal Essay


Here are the requirements for the first page/first scene of your personal essay:

 * Make sure that something happens in your scene. Show change.

*  Show yourself/your identity in action. 

*  Include dialogue.

*  Ground your reader in a specific time and place.

*  The scene must be typed and double-spaced. Use MLA formattin



An Example of a First Scene

Posted below is the first scene of a student’s personal essay about one of his identities. He includes all the required elements and avoids too much explanation. He does an excellent job of placing us in this scene and showing us an experience. Study this scene as you construct yours.

Hail Seitan: Adventures in Veganism

The mountains were large and dark. The day was cold and grey and still. It was nearly night time and bats flew from dark tree to dark tree. A thin claw of yellow moon stuck out from the forest. I was standing stupidly with my mouth agape on a small farm in backwoods Patagonia, steam coming out of my face. I was supposed to be cutting off a sheep’s head. Or so I thought. I turned around, looking for validation.

“You want… to cut?” I said, making a slicing gesture in the air and pointing toward the woolen piñata dangling in front of me.

Don Gustavo nodded. “Yes,” he said, rolling his eyes and drawing an index finger across his throat. “Cut. Cut her throat.”

There was no mistaking his intent. The group of Mapuches behind him eagerly watched me. Don Gustavo gestured and two men in jean jackets stepped forward. One was holding a glass dish.

“Don’t worry,” smiled Don Gustavo. His gold tooth glinted in the firelight. “It is an honor to do this. It is for our feast. You are a lucky gringo.”

In their defense I was just a stupid nineteen-year-old American. I was just in Chile to teach some English to school kids. Nobody mentioned animal sacrifice when I signed up for the program. Technically I knew where the “lamb” in lamb kebabs came from, but I mostly associated lamb with something clean and red and square you buy in a neat little shrink-wrapped Styrofoam dish at the supermarket.

The sheep hung in front of me was anything but clean. Its wool was matted with filth. It peed itself. It swung on a creaking rope like in the old Westerns where they string up bad guys. Yet strangely its eyes were calm—placid, even— and it made no noise. Its calmness began to unnerve me. Here was an animal about to be slaughtered, yet it showed no signs of distress. Just another day in the life of a sheep: get strung up; have your jugular perforated by a knife. No biggie. Every time it breathed a little puff of steam escaped its nostrils.

One man in a jean jacket came and held the sheep’s hind legs to keep it from flailing too much Another man came and grabbed the sheep behind its neck and placed the glass pan under the its head. I was to cut the throat. The glass pan would catch the blood. The blood would be taken to the women who would add olive oil, lemon juice and spices. Then the sheep would be skinned on the spot, butchered and barbecued on a fire. We’d eat the barbecued meat with the blood on the side as a bread dip. Then we’d drink red wine around the fire until it got cold and dark and the night dissolved into elaborate hand gestures and boozy hyperbole. I liked that part of the evening.

There was no way to put it off any longer. The two men had the sheep by the throat. I took the knife and stuck it in to the artery. The sheep tried to bleat. A gurgling sound came out and hot red life juice dripped down the blade. I froze. Blood pumped out rhythmically as the sheep’s heart still pulsed. I was ending the life of a living creature. I felt numb. How long I stood there, holding the knife I don’t know. I just remember that Don Gustavo came and placed his hands over mine. He pulled the blade across the sheep’s throat. There was a tearing sound. I felt sick. The gurgling slowed down to a trickle and then stopped. A final white puff of sheep’s breath escaped the severed artery and the beast‘s eyes rolled back. A man in a jean jacket placed the glass pan under the sheep and collected the blood.

Don Gustavo clapped me on the back. “Now you are a man,” he laughed. Other Mapuche men came and clapped me on the back. They handed me a glass of wine. I felt sick but I tried to smile.


Offering Analysis and Reflection After Scene

“You know the great thing, though, is that change can be so constant you don’t even feel the difference until there is one. It can be so slow that you don’t even notice that your life is better or worse, until it is. Or it can just blow you away, make you something different in an instant.” — Life as a House

Please read this quote and see if this applies to the content you are including in your essay. Consider the different ways one can experience change and how you have experienced change throughout your life.

Consider how and why your identity has led to change and what different qualities have been instilled in you because of your experiences with this specific identity.

I will reiterate here that you should avoid too much explanation in scene. Scenes are designed to SHOW yourself to your reader. After you have ended any given scene, you should offer analysis of that scene. You can reflect on what happened in the scene by answering why you felt the way you did or explaining certain actions. Analysis is answering how and why throughout and explaining the significance of any passage. For instance, you can explain to your reader why this experience was so important in your life, what change it led to.

There is not one right way to structure your essay, but there should be a balance of scene and analysis.

If you are including multiple scenes that show you living in your identity at different points in time your essay might look like this:




If you want to just focus on one significant event, like David Sedaris did in “Me Talk Pretty One Day,” then you might want to see the story through until the end and then offer analysis. If so, your essay might look like this:


(Whatever you do, just make sure there is a balance and that we receive scene and analysis throughout the entire essay.)

When you are finished with one passage of analysis, you should transition us to a new scene in which we see you in action after change has occurred. As we move through the essay, we should see what qualities you have acquired in different scenes. When moving through time and beginning a new scene, always remember to ground your reader in time and place as soon as possible.

*Think of analysis as a studying of your life. This essay should be written in past tense, but you are providing explanation in the present, after some time has passed.

Below is the analysis that followed the first scene of the student essay on being a vegan. Again, this serves as a strong example of how reflection/analysis is offered after a scene:

People ask me why I’m a vegan. I usually don’t like to get into it. It’s a personal conviction for me and I‘ve always been wary of people who try to push their personal convictions on others. But if pressed I can list a dozen good reasons for my choice to spend my life munching quinoa in world full of delicious pork products. For example, my father died from complications due to a lifelong struggle with diabetes. My mother died of cancer. I want to eat as carefully as I can in order to avoid serious disease, especially since I’m probably genetically predisposed to these potentially-terminal illnesses.

Food for me has always been a complicated issue. I think it’s a complicated issue for most people. Diet is rarely as simple a thing as putting food into your body. It’s a complicated grab bag of emotions, cultural norms, and body image. There’s also the politics behind Veganism: the economic toll of monocultures and feedlots, the exploitation of minorities. The world’s resources are limited and some experts say that we’ll have no choice but to switch to a plant-based diet in the future, just as certainly as cars that run on fossil fuels will someday become a thing of the past.

But part of me thinks that my true origin as a vegan goes back to that dark day in southern Chile. The day that I killed another living creature. That incident has never sat right with me. I can assuage my conscience to an extent. I can justify my actions. The Mapuches would of course use all parts of the animal. They’d use the wool to make sweaters, they’d use the blood to make blood sausages, they’d use the bones to make tools. They’d eat all the meat. Their killing of the sheep was a time-honored tradition, something that meant a lot to them as a people.

Sometimes I wish my conscience wasn’t so easily troubled. Sometimes I’d like to be normal. I want to be able to go out for brunch and order anything off the menu without having to hassle the server over whether or not the pancakes are emulsified with eggs. I’d die sometimes to eat a fine cheese with a glass of beer.

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