Narrative Arc: ‘The Ballad of Tribute Steve’

Narrative Arc: ‘The Ballad of Tribute Steve’

Do you have a story from your own life that could begin this way?

It had been an ordinary Wednesday afternoon at my rural Indiana high school until the Journey tribute band appeared. Principal Day canceled sixth period so that the entire student body could catch a preview of the group’s Friday-night concert.

That’s the first paragraph of this essay, but what happens next turns on details our narrator reveals in the next two paragraphs — that she is from a strict Calvinist household, and is struggling to fit in at a new school. That background is enough to provide the tension as we get to this moment:

The lead singer had feathered hair and crotch-hugging jeans. “Just like the real Steve Perry!” Violet squealed. The band performed a couple of lesser-known Journey songs before the keyboardist played the opening chords of the ballad “Faithfully.” Tribute Steve jogged down the stairs at the side of the stage and walked down our row. He stopped in front of me and reached out a hand. My shrieking friends forced me to take it.

Read the full essay and identify elements of the narrative arc as you go.

  • What is the basic “Somebody Wanted But So” of this story?

  • How does the writer establish and heighten the conflict via details about who she is, what she wants and how she feels? Where, specifically, does she do that?

  • What other elements of classic dramatic structure can you find? How does this writer transition between them? For instance, after the narrator walks off the stage, how does she take us forward in time? What other transitions can you identify?

  • What is the role of the final paragraph?

If you have already started working on a personal narrative essay, whether for our contest or not, what is your “Somebody Wanted But So”? That is, do you have all the elements of a complete story? If not, what are you missing? If you are doing this exercise in a classroom, you might trade essays with a partner and try to answer that question about his or her work too.

Don’t forget: Something needs to happen in a narrative essay, but that “something” can be quite small. For instance, you could imagine retelling the plot of “Desperately Seeking Christy,” an additional mentor text we recommend below, in just a couple of sentences, but what makes it a wonderful essay is how the writer fleshes it out and makes us care about the narrator and what she wants.

Finally, after you’ve been working with the concept of narrative arc a bit, you might be amused by the cartoonist Grant Snider’s “The Story Coaster,” which he originally drew for The New York Times Book Review. Do you have your own “lengthy prologue” “plot holes” or “extraneous scenery” that might disrupt the ride for those on your “story coaster”?

Drama Unfolds at My Bus Stop,” a 2013 Lives essay

The writer is just a bit player in an event that summons fire trucks, the police and ambulances.

Safe on the Southbank,” a 2014 Lives essay

A skateboarder finds a place he feels at home.

The Refugee Camp She Once Called Home,” a 2016 Lives essay

A sister returns after more than a decade.

Desperately Seeking Christy,” a 2013 essay from the Lives column

What happened when the writer “secreted” a ’90s supermodel.

  • Retell the story in just a sentence, or by identifying the elements in a “Somebody Wanted But So” framework. Now, go further and look closely at each paragraph of the essay to identify how the writer constructs a narrative arc. What do the individual paragraphs do to advance it?

  • How does the writer move the action along, yet still describe the setting and the characters, and give any background information necessary for understanding what’s happening? What lines or individual words or phrases do that especially well?