Hunger Mountain - Vermont College Journal of the arts

On Essays: How Structure Creates Movement

A Craft Short


Allison Vrbova


How Structure Creates a Sense of Movement in Non-Narrative Essays

When reading the best non-narrative personal essays, my understanding is often first an emotional one, much like when I read poetry. Unlike most modern poets, however, an essayist must generally keep her reader engaged for pages at a time. How does she do it? Without a strong narrative arc, what carries the reader through the piece? How is a sense of movement conveyed?

In order to understand movement in non-narrative essays, it’s useful to first look at the narrative essay, which follows a horizontal, time-driven trajectory but also includes a second direction of movement that Eileen Pollack calls the central question:

As the writer holds up his question to the narrative while moving along in time, the friction between the question and the scene (or even a single detail) throws up meditative sparks.

Throughout most of a narrative essay, this central question is a hidden undercurrent pulsing just below the surface. Only periodically does the narrative diverge from its horizontal path to plunge vertically toward this undercurrent. With each successive plunge, the central question is tested and revised. The narrative line works in sync with the undercurrent, propelling the central question further along. For a good example, read Jenny Browne’s “The World’s Most Dangerous Road (A Bolivian Detour).”

In terms of the way in which they create movement, non-narrative essays can be divided into two categories: meditative and lyric. Each relies on image, as opposed to narrative action, to propel it forward.

In the meditative essay, a certain level of linear narrative often exists, but only insofar as it serves as a springboard from which the piece dives over and over again into an image or idea. The shape of its movement is in many ways like witnessing the writer’s thought process on the page: she delves successively deeper into the image, following what often seems to be a winding, associative path as the image takes on new and unexpected meanings. The essential movement lies in the interplay between the initial image and the web of associations uncovered beneath it. For a good example, read Annie Dillard’s “Living Like Weasels.”

The lyric essay contains very little, if any, narrative. Characterized by fragments that often leave much unsaid, it relies on the accumulation and juxtaposition of often-disparate images to impart its sense of movement. A single image in the essay might be poignant in and of itself, but it isn’t until all of the images are gathered that they truly shine. Each image echoes not only off every other image, but also off the body of accumulated images. This form requires its readers to become engaged in a sort of treasure hunt. The essay reveals itself in small kernels, requiring readers to collect and divine the fragments for themselves. For a good example, read Eula Biss’ “The Pain Scale.”

Essay structures are as varied as their subject matter; rarely does one fall strictly into the category of narrative, meditative, or lyric. The important thing to remember is that, regardless of its form, the power of an essay lies in its ability to converse with itself, and move within itself, in ways that make it come alive. It’s during these moments that the real magic happens.


Biss, Eula. “The Pain Scale.” Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary
Creative Nonfiction
. New York: Touchstone, 2007.

Browne, Jenny. ”The World’s Most Dangerous Road (A Bolivian
Detour).” Fourth Genre 7.2 (2005).

Dillard, Annie. “Living Like Weasels.” Teaching a Stone to Talk. New
York: Harper, 1982.

Pollack, Eileen. “The Interplay of Form and Content in Creative
Nonfiction.” The Writer’s Chronicle March-April 2007.


Allison Vrbova is a nonfiction writer with a soft spot for the personal essay. Her work can be found in the current issue of Green Mountains Review. She is a graduate of VCFA and lives near Seattle.

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