Warm-Up for Narrative Arguments
In 2014, actress Emma Watson spoke to the United Nations in support of gender equality. Her speech touched on a number of contentious issues—patriarchy, feminism, gender roles—but to illustrate her points, she also got personal, weaving in stories about her own experiences. Here's a portion of her speech:
I started questioning gender-based assumptions when at eight I was confused at being called “bossy,” because I wanted to direct the plays we would put on for our parents—but the boys were not.
When at 14 I started being sexualized by certain elements of the press.
When at 15 my girlfriends started dropping out of their sports teams because they didn’t want to appear “muscly.”
When at 18 my male friends were unable to express their feelings.
I decided I was a feminist and this seemed uncomplicated to me. But my recent research has shown me that feminism has become an unpopular word.
Apparently I am among the ranks of women whose expressions are seen as too strong, too aggressive, isolating, anti-men, and unattractive.
Why is the word such an uncomfortable one?
I am from Britain and think it is right that as a woman I am paid the same as my male counterparts. I think it is right that I should be able to make decisions about my own body. I think it is right that women be involved on my behalf in the policies and decision-making of my country. I think it is right that socially I am afforded the same respect as men. But sadly I can say that there is no one country in the world where all women can expect to receive these rights.
No country in the world can yet say they have achieved gender equality.
So why did Watson include her own experiences with gender inequality? After all, she could have made a similar argument with statistics about the gender-wage gap or explanations of discriminatory practices. Instead, she chose personal stories, and they made all the difference. Her stories give her argument a persuasive appeal that logic alone rarely achieves—a human emotional connection. Each one of Watson's personal connections invites listeners to invest in a larger narrative about gender inequality. In other words, they put a face on a complex, widespread issue.
Personal stories strengthen Watson's argument, just as they can strengthen arguments about issues that matter to you. This unit will show you how to combine argumentation and narration into a compelling and convincing essay.
What Is a Narrative Argument?
Listen to “What Is a Narrative Argument?”
A narrative argument dissolves the boundaries between logical argumentation and storytelling, combining elements of both genres to express an engaging and persuasive position about a controversial topic.
To write a narrative argument, you learn as much as you can about a controversial issue and identify how the issue impacts a particular person. That person could be yourself, someone you know, or someone you have read about. Then you develop two separate pieces of writing. One is an argument essay—with a position statement, supporting reasons and evidence, and responses to opposition. The other is a short narrative about the person impacted by the issue. Finally, you combine the two into a single essay. The lessons in this unit will help interweave your argument and narrative in a way that will make a strong impression on readers.
You can warm up your thinking by connecting anecdotes with persuasive claims.
Connecting Claims and Anecdotes
Writers often grapple with how to generate interest in topics that readers don't care about, know little about, or dislike. One handy writing tool for fixing such problems is an illuminating anecdote. Anecdotes are brief stories used to illustrate a main idea or claim. Anecdotes draw readers' interests for several reasons:
- They tell stories, and people are naturally drawn to stories. As Thomas Newkirk argues, human minds are made for storytelling, since stories help us make sense of the world.
- They orient readers to foreign topics or concepts. As Roy Peter Clark states, authors need to "construct a world that the reader can enter, and then report or comment on that world."
- They introduce characters and conflict, two key aspects of any great story.
- They demonstrate the human impact of a topic or concept.
Here is an example of how an anecdote can lead up to a larger argument or claim.
Anecdote Last September a muscular fellow swaggered onto the set of a sports debate show airing on a multi-billion dollar media network dedicated to sports and entertainment. Trailing him sheepishly were two young basketball players who also happened to be the man’s sons, one who had just turned pro and the other who was still in high school. All three guests were immediately recognizable to sports fans, as was the show’s host and interviewer, a sports celebrity in his own right. The distance between the two athletes and their bloviating father foreshadowed the direction of the interview, as the hoopers were regulated to background set pieces while their father shouted back and forth with the interviewer about issues only tangentially related to tossing a ball into a hoop.
Transition to Argument Society’s penchant for celebrity, debate, and controversy were on full display during the interview, but the scene begs the question: Do the games even matter anymore, or has a media-sports complex swallowed up the drama, competition, and spectacle of actual sporting events? Claim For the future of professional sports in America, it is time re-prioritize how we watch and discuss sports.
This example starts with a brief anecdote, but other persuasive pieces use extended narratives to argue for a position. For example, this poignant opinion column from the Chicago Tribune uses a longer anecdote to urge the arts community in Chicago to do more to combat violence in the city.
Connect anecdotes and claims.
Work with a partner to create a claim based on the anecdote in item 1 below. Then create a believable anecdote that could support one of the claims in item 2. Make a copy of this Google doc or download a Word template.
- Write a claim about football that could connect with the following anecdote. (You may need to write a transitional sentence or two after the anecdote to lead up to your claim.)
For the second time in two months, Michael Lewis was seeing stars. The throbbing stadium lights swirled above as he lay motionless on the cold, hard field turf of Harrison High School Football Stadium. The last thing he remembered was running toward the end zone and seeing the raging linebacker out of the corner of his eye. Now, as his vision straightened and teammates shouted, "Michael, speak to me! Are you okay?" two conflicting thoughts entered his cloudy mind:
This can't be good for my brain.
I have to get back in this game.
- Choose one of the following claims, or create a claim of your own. Then write an anecdote that could be used to introduce it. Do your best to make it as realistic as possible. Ideally, you should base your anecdote on real experiences of real people, but for this activity you can create an imaginary scenario.
- We must pass sensible gun-control laws.
- A border wall is a necessary solution for combating illegal immigration.
- Schools should address rising anxiety and depression among teenagers.
- Clearly, our school needs to overhaul its curriculum.
- Teenagers are doing more good in the community than people realize.
(Answers will vary.)
Encourage students to use this exercise as a jumping-off point for supporting arguments with stories. Tell them to scan recent opinion articles or political speeches to identify other examples of anecdotes.