This is an essay about stories. They are central to what historians do. The so-called "Father of History," Herodotus started us on this path in the fifth century BCE with his exploration of the past, recounting in his Histories many, many stories about Egyptians, Persians, and Greeks. Historia means "inquiries," however, and historians incorporate stories into their writing for a purpose: to develop an argument or support a thesis or interpretation. Ultimately, Herodotus used many stories to explain how a small collection of independent Greek city-states were able to defend themselves and prevail against the invading Persian empire.
It is the USE of stories—narrative prose—to illustrate a point or provide some background to a historical problem that is really essential to the work of history—not stories for stories' sake. In other words, when writing history, historians weave together stories (narrative) as part of their examination of a topic (analysis). It is this beneficial symbiosis of narrative and analysis that is at the heart of history and that properly constitutes an analytical essay. Successful practitioners of this form of writing are those able to find a balance between narrative and analysis, skillfully weaving them into a coherent essay. As history students are asked routinely to write analytical essays—on exams, book reviews, film critiques, term papers, and research projects—honing one's skills in this type of writing is crucial to overall success in the discipline; fortunately, doing so is not overly difficult: the key is to INTEGRATE the two, allowing narrative to serve the more important business of analyzing information to draw conclusions. To do this, organize your essay well, lead with analytical statements, and connect your narrative (stories) to your analysis.
How does one manage this balance of narrative and analysis? As in most writing, there is no one magic formula (or this job would be much easier), but the best essays are those that put analysis first. After setting up the essay with a strong introduction—one that conveys a clear thesis and a list of the essay's main points—and then crafting effective topic sentences for subsequent paragraphs to stress both the point at hand and the overall argument of the essay, the writer will have a clear framework or organization that highlights the argument. (See Prof. Vivian's Writing Corner "Essays and Grocery Lists: A Note About Organization". )
Once the writer has a strong framework and a clear argument, the task is to develop the argument, to support or illustrate it. This is where narrative may be used effectively, as sharing stories with one's reader not only brings a topic to life, but also helps make one's argument more comprehensible and thus generally more compelling.
What does this look like? To illustrate, let's use Roman history. Julius Caesar is a popular figure from Rome's past, and there are many stories about him available, as two of our most important sources for Roman history wrote biographies of him. Suetonius and Plutarch were in fact more storytellers than historians, more interested in chronicling his life than concerned with conveying an overall interpretation of Caesar. Their stories of Caesar inspired William Shakespeare, and they continue to feed the popular imagination, as well as Hollywood. It's not that these stories are false, or that they have no use; it's that they rely on historians to infuse them with meaning. Yes, it is the historian who gives meaning to those stories, episodes, or events from the past.
In a sixth-grade report, a student might begin with the basics, and then proceed chronologically to detail the life of Caesar:
Julius Caesar was born on July 13, 100 BCE. He was born into a prominent Roman family, but one that had not achieved much fame for some time. Caesar grew up when the Roman Republic was having some problems. When Caesar was twelve, a general named Sulla marched his army on Rome. He drove out his political enemies, and took the title "dictator." This may have impressed Caesar. He forged a friendship with two important men in Rome, Pompey and Crassus, and the three men worked together to advance their political careers. Caesar was given a command in Gaul in 59 BCE, and he spent the next ten years there conquering the territory for Rome. This made him popular with many people in Rome, but senators thought he was gaining too much power. When in 49 BCE Caesar moved into Italy with his troops, heading for Rome, his former friend, Pompey, led Roman troops against him. Caesar won, but had to keep fighting off his enemies for some time. In February 44 BCE, Caesar was declared "dictator for life." This angered many nobles, and they stabbed Caesar to death on the Ides of March 44 BCE.
That report, though made short for our purposes here, captures many important details about Caesar's life. It is, however, pretty strictly a chronological narrative without any real attempt at analyzing these events to say something meaningful. How might this look different in an essay that uses narrative to serve analysis—i.e., in an analytical essay?
First, of course, there must be a thesis and main points. Using the information above, we can argue this: "Caesar was an ambitious man who grew up in the Late Republic, a time when many nobles were putting their own careers ahead of the needs of the state. The intense rivalries that resulted from these men's ambitions led to a split in the once-cohesive senatorial class, creating factions whose conflicts led to violence, civil war, and ultimately the end of the Republic. Caesar was a key player in these developments."
Next, main points must follow to signal to the reader what points will be discussed in the essay to bear out the thesis. In this case, the following will suffice: Caesar came to political maturity in an era when men such as Sulla used violence to attain their ends; Caesar successfully used a marriage of convenience with two powerful Roman politicians to advance his own career, solidifying his reputation through successful campaigns in Gaul; and Caesar's rivals refused to allow him to garner so much power for himself, leaving them playing second fiddle.
Now, each one of these main points can be articulated as a topic sentence for a discussion that INCORPORATES narrative as a means of support for the point the paragraph seeks to make—not just information disconnected from analysis. Here is just one example:
Born in 100 BCE into an era that was part of a period historians refer to as the "Roman Revolution," Julius Caesar developed his political instincts during major political turmoil in Rome. It was a time when many nobles were ignoring the Republic's motto, "The Senate and the Roman People" (SPQR), in favor of climbing the ladder of political success, no matter what it took. A twelve-year-old boy on the cusp of maturity in Roman society in 88 BCE, Caesar witnessed the March on Rome by Sulla, who had turned around the armies he was leading to Asia and commanded them back into the city to oust his enemies. Cicero later wrote that the mindset of those who witnessed this was, "Sulla could do it; why can't I?" Certainly Caesar seems to have absorbed this lesson for success. Other ambitious men, such as Marius, broke traditional rules as well: not only did Marius run and gain election to the consulship seven times, five of them consecutively—unprecedented in a system with many men seeking only two such offices each year—but he also ignored the land qualification in order to recruit soldiers to fill the ranks of Rome's armies, somewhat depleted after so many long wars. The behavior of such men no doubt contributed to Caesar's political formation and taught him that ambitious men sometimes break the rules. He probably even convinced himself that those actions were in the best interest of a Republic that no longer seemed to work by following the rules, and he began to collaborate with others who shared this view.
This is only one example, but clearly there are no stand-alone sentences that do not serve an important point the essay seeks to make—no single sentence such as this: Julius Caesar was born in 100 BCE. So, integration is the key, even WITHIN sentences. Thus, for a successful analytical essay, always seek to make the narrative serve the analysis and connect it directly to the points of your essay.
The reverse issue -- all analysis and no narrative -- is also to be avoided because without discussing information about the past (e.g., the actions of individuals, our knowledge of important documents, events large and small), one's essay is neither interesting nor compelling, as in this example:
The Roman Empire fell because it was unable to deal with its many problems. There were political, military, and economic problems that were insurmountable for the Romans. It seemed like every time they turned to tackle one problem, other problems arose elsewhere in the empire, a territory so vast that ruling over it was practically impossible because of all the problems their leaders faced. The demise of this huge empire was thus inevitable.
First, nothing in history is inevitable but, more important, this essay offers only generalizations—no substance with which to support them. It reminds us that balance is essential, even in writing, and that striking a good one between narrative and analysis is key to a successful analytical essay in history.