Updated: Oct 4, 2022
In his book on writing, Daemon Voices, Philip Pullman says that a quest (your main goal or problem) should be three things:
hard for the character to do
easy for the reader to understand
important for the character
1. Hard for the character to do
I'm not just talking about lifting a heavy rock!
If you want your essay to emphasize your confidence,
the main goal or problem should require confidence to accomplish or solve
it needs to be clear that you lack confidence in the beginning
that way, it's implied that you've gained confidence by the end (because you're successful)
This turns confidence into a thematic character trait (or you could just say "theme.")
I'd recommend picking an interpersonal skill as your thematic character trait.
2. Easy for the reader to understand
This is the hardest one. I came up with the term measurability for this: how can we measure how close or far the character is from success or failure?
You can do this numerically or through parallel action.
Note: Measurability is NOT interesting enough on its own to replace the thematic character trait. This is a secondary component of your story.
This is simple to set up but less effective if the stakes (see #3) aren't clear. A countdown or count-up. can help us track progress through the story. This can be time, distance, money, grade—anything you can think of!
Example countdown: "I had six days to prepare for my presentation."
This makes time passing dramatic for the story: the closer to the deadline, the more dramatic.
Example count up: "Our team needed to raise $1,000 so that we could..." or "I needed to raise my grade to a 70% so that..."
Example of combining types: "I needed to raise $1,000 in seven days so that..."
Note: If you use numerical measurability, do NOT progress linearly.
Example of linear progression: "I had seven days until my presentation."
"On day one..."
"On day two..."
"On day three..."
Example of nonlinear progression: "I had seven days until my presentation."
"On day one..."
"On day three..."
"On day six..."
"With just hours to go before my presentation..."
It's usually more engaging to see you try a parallel task repeatedly and do better each time. Readers will inevitably contrast your performance each time. This contrast helps us understand your progress (or lack of progress).
This synthesizes well with the Mulan 3-Part Growth model.
Example: Your thematic trait is confidence. Your goal is to deliver a good presentation.
Practice presentation 1: You're nervous and stutter a lot.
Practice presentation 2: You do better, but there's still no way you'll be good enough in time.
Real presentation: Because of a key realization in your process of preparing, you do much better than you could have expected.
3. Important to the character
This is another way of saying "stakes." Your intro should answer one (or both) of these questions:
What are the consequences for success?
What are the consequences for failure?
Note: Clarity is more important than intensity. Your life doesn't have to be at stake. A reader's emotional investment comes from their understanding (and therefore ability to form expectations) about the plot.
Hopefully Pullman doesn't mind me using his rules as parameters for admissions essays! If you liked this guide and are interested in writing fiction, you should definitely check out his book.