Narrative Writing

Good narrative writing often opens with a small but revealing story.  Sometimes called a “narrative vignette,” these openings typically try to capture a decisive and dramatic moment in the story as way to engage and focus readers.  Then narrative historians step back, and provide context and analysis to transform storytelling into a powerful platform for historical thinking.  An outline for a good narrative history paper might look like this (with specific connections to the constitutional narrative in italics):

I.  Introduction (2-3 pages)

  • Narrative vignette
  • Thesis statement paragraph (Here is where you must make sure to connect your smaller narrative to larger narrative of constitutional change)

II.  Background (5-7 pages)

  • Useful context that helps set the stage for the full narrative (Here is where you can rely most heavily on secondary and even reference sources; your most important objective in this section is to be concise)

III.  Full narrative (5-7 pages)

  • Detailed chronological account that uses both primary & secondary sources (Here is where you really want to demonstrate the ability to seamlessly integrate a wide variety of sources into an engaging story)

IV.  Analysis (5-7 pages)

  • Thoughtful consideration of significance and consequences (Here is where you are most likely to engage in deeper historiographical analysis, situating your narrative in a larger scholarly debate about this particular episode of constitutional change)

V.  Conclusion (2-3 pages)

  • Explanation of thesis applied to full details of narrative (Make sure to fully explain the significance of this episode in the context of American constitutional history)
  • Final narrative details to help return story to opening moment

There are many, many other ways, however, to organize a historical narrative.  Consider the wisdom of this piece, for example, by historian Adam Arenson, who claims that papers should resemble a CSI episode.  The point is to use historical thinking to engage an audience in a significant story.


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