Sunday just before midnight, I drove home through the desert under a full moon rising, past the mountain silhouettes. I jabbed the seek button on my radio to find some sound and then waited in silence, save for the hum of the engine. The radio skipped over all the channels from 88.0 to 107.9 and then looped through them again, and again, like a roulette wheel not yet come to rest. And then, a clear voice, female, accented. On the empty freeway by my childhood favorite Zzyzx Road, the BBC burst into my car. The topic: Why Do We Tell Stories?" I wondered about the odds, but only briefly. After a few minutes of listening to screenwriter John Yorke describe his new book "Into the Woods," I realized I had won radio roulette. As it turns out, the "woods" occupy a central location in every story.

Before We Depart, a Word

Before we set off into the woods, let me clarify my goal. It's not to give you useless theory. It's to help you construct an appealing essay.

A good essay is like a good chair. A good chair unites function and style. Folding metal chairs excel in functionality, but there's a reason you won't find them at anyone's dining room table. Except mine, where they slide nicely beneath their cousin, the Costco folding table. A throne bejeweled and bedazzled is, arguably, stylish, though cordoned off behind the museum ropes and cautionary signs also, arguably, useless.

Your essay should be less like a folding metal chair or a throne and more like a La-Z-Boy recliner. Functional with a little style. Not too much, though.

Story Tools

When you sit down to build your La-Z-Boy essay, you'll need some tools. One of those tools is a little knowledge about what makes a story a story. That brings me back to what I heard on my desert drive on Sunday.

Yorke contends that every story consists of three parts:

  1. Home. "I exist." I start at home.
  2. Woods. "I confront my opposite." Something "explodes," and I venture into the woods, where I discover something.
  3. Return. "I assimilate my opposite and am changed." I bring my discovery home.

He also draws a distinction between 2-dimensional stories and 3-dimensional stories:

2-D Story: Hero pursues a goal and doesn't change. For example, James Bond. 3-D Story: Hero pursues a goal, discovers (in the woods) that the initial goal is wrong, and then changes. What the hero wants is replaced by what the hero needs.

Um...So How Do I Use These Tools?

Good! Let's get to the important part: figuring out how to apply this information to your essay. When you're outlining your essay or even a paragraph of your essay, consider the following structure:

  1. Home. Your ordinary world.
  2. Explosion! The event that changes everything.
  3. Want. The desire or goal you have right after the explosion.
  4. Woods. Internal or external obstacles.
  5. Need. "That's when I realized..." You discovery that what you wanted was all wrong. What you really needed was...
  6. Return Home. After your new insight, you came home, and your actions and attitudes shifted.

This structure is not "The Secret" or "The Template" or "The Formula" or The Anything. It's one tool to give your essay some pizzazz. Don't make the admission officer sit in another metal folding chair. Better a La-Z-Boy.


Jon Perkins holds a B.A. in English from Stanford University and a J.D. from Harvard Law School. He helps students with their college, law school, and medical school applications.