Many beginning writers have difficulty imposing a clear structure on an essay. They aren't sure how to begin, what to do next, or how to end. While there is no single way to write an essay, setting up a clear introduction, body, and conclusion is often a good idea.
What follows, then, is some practical, simple advice for writing a clearly structured essay dealing with a work of literature. Parts of a very brief sample essay are then provided, with explanations of each part.
GENERAL ADVICE ON WRITING
AN INTRODUCTORY PARAGRAPH
Begin by stating some basic information (author, title, genre [e.g., "short story"]) and indicate the identities, relationships, and roles of the characters.
Announce your theme (or thesis). Your theme is the basic idea you are trying to communicate, the fundamental argument you are trying to make. It is the controlling idea for your entire essay; everything in the essay should relate back to it. One crude (but effective) way to generate a theme about a short story, for instance, is to ask yourself: what is the "point" of this story? What is the essential meaning of this story? Does this story illustrate or relate to any important idea? Or you might choose some aspect of the story itself as your theme -- for instance, the use of setting in the story. Remember that your theme will usually be an assertion or an argument and should be stated as such.
Break the theme down into some specific topics. At this stage, ask yourself: how will I develop my theme? how will I support my argument? What kinds of evidence can I mention in order to convince the reader of the basic point I want to make? Clearly indicate these topics to the reader in the opening paragraph, and make sure that you link the topics clearly and logically to your theme.
Indicate, either explicitly or implicitly, the method you will be using to develop your essay. For instance, if you plan to compare or contrast certain elements of a story, don't force your reader to guess this or to discover it haphazardly. Indicate that method clearly in the opening paragraph.
Give some brief plot summary so that even a reader who has not read the story you are writing about will be able to follow your basic argument. Do not get bogged down in plot summary; do not let the plot of the story impose its structure on your essay. Your obligation is to impose a structure of your own, which is why emphasizing your theme, topics, and method in the first paragraph is so important. Remember to stress your theme, so that there will be no question about the point you are trying to make. State the theme clearly at the beginning of the paragraph, emphasize it throughout, and return to it one last time at the end of the paragraph, where you may want to develop its larger implications. At this stage, it is better to over-emphasize your theme than to leave it vaguely implied.
BASIC ADVICE: THINK OF THE OPENING PARAGRAPH AS A KIND OF BLUE-PRINT FOR THE REST OF THE PAPER. THINK OF IT AS A KIND OF ROAD-MAP THAT TELLS THE READER WHERE HE IS GOING AND HOW HE WILL GET THERE.
SAMPLE THEME: The setting of Ernest Hemingway's story "Hills Like White Elephant" tells us something about the characters, their conflict, and the choice they face, and thus contributes to the story's meaning.
SHORT SAMPLE ESSAY
SAMPLE OPENING PARAGRAPH: (1) In his short story "Hills Like White Elephants," Ernest Hemingway uses setting subtly but effectively to emphasize the tension-filled, life-or-death decision facing a couple who disagree about whether the woman should have an abortion. (2) The story's two main characters, a girl named Jig and her older American lover, sit at a train station in a Spanish valley, sipping drinks and discussing uneasily -- sometimes angrily -- whether they should proceed by rail to Barcelona in order to abort their unborn baby. (3) Jig opposes the plan, although she refuses to say so openly. (4) The American, on the other hand, sees it as a solution to their problems, and tries to convince Jig that it is the right thing to do. (5) Hemingway stresses three elements of the story's setting -- the line of rails, the oppressive heat, and the contrasting sides of the valley -- to indicate the nature of the couple's conflict and the difficulties of resolving it.
- This sentence mentions the author, the title, and the kind of work ("short story"). It also gives a very brief summary of the story's plot. Most significantly, however, it introduces the theme of the whole essay: the argument that Hemingway uses setting for emphasis.
- This sentence offers more plot summary by explaining who the identities and relationship of the "couple" mentioned in the first sentence. Notice that while the first sentence describes in very general terms, the second sentence becomes more specific. This movement from general to specific is often a good way to arrange the order of your sentences.
- This sentence provides a bit more plot summary and becomes even more specific in its focus. The focus of the first two sentences had been on the couple. The focus of sentence 3 is on the woman.
- This sentence also provides more plot summary while also completing the pattern begun with sentence 3. Like that sentence, this one is more specific in its focus than the first two sentences.
- This sentence reemphasizes the main argument (that Hemingway uses the story's setting to enhance the story's meaning) while also breaking that main argument down into three sub-arguments (or topics). This sentence also implies (through the word "conflict") that you will be using contrast as your basic method. Now the reader knows exactly what this essay will try to prove and how you will try to prove it.
Notice, by the way, that this paragraph resembles a capital
in structure. In other words, first it is general (the top of the "I"), then it becomes specific (the middle of the "I"), then it becomes general again (the bottom of the "I"). If you keep this structure in the back of your mind as you write each paragraph, you're likely to be much less nervous about "what comes next."
ADVICE ON WRITING SUPPORTING PARAGRAPHS
The purpose of these middle paragraphs is to develop your theme (or main argument) by dealing with the topics (or supporting arguments) indicated in your opening. Each of these topics should be clearly related or linked to your theme, and the connection should probably be made clear immediately, in the very first sentence. Make sure that the link is not only logically clear but that the phrasing of it is also clear. State each topic in general terms at the beginning of each paragraph, then break the general topic down into specific examples and deal with each of them in turn (just as you earlier broke the general theme of the whole essay down into the particular topics of each paragraph). Make sure that the structure of each paragraph is clear and easy to follow. End the paragraph by returning to the more general topic and by linking that topic once more to the theme of the whole essay. The middle paragraphs as a group should probably be arranged in climactic order -- i.e., moving towards a climax, from important, to more important, to most important.
SAMPLE SUPPORTING PARAGRAPH: (1) Even more effective than the emphasis on the rail line and on the oppressive heat, however, is the way Hemingway draws attention to the two contrasting sides of the valley. (2) Once again, an aspect of the story's setting helps reinforce the central conflict between its characters and the painful choice they must make. (3) On one side the valley is lush with vegetation and vitality: a river flows serenely, trees stretch into the sky, and grain blows gently in the breezes. (4) This side obviously symbolizes life; it seems associated with Jig, and Hemingway seems to link it with her desires to have the baby and settle down in a permanent, loving relationship. (5) The other side of the valley, however, is just the opposite. (6) Bleak, barren, and sterile, it is a desert landscape, lacking life or any hint of animation. (7) This side seems to represent the deadly consequences of the abortion, and perhaps it also symbolizes the empty, meaningless nature of the couple's previous relationship. (8) It is as if Hemingway places these two characters right in the middle of a landscape that exemplifies not only the decision they face but also the stark differences that separate them as people. (9) Subtly yet deftly, Hemingway uses one more aspect of the story's setting to indicate something significant about its meaning.
- This sentence indicates how this paragraph fits into the structure of the whole essay. Clearly this is the third supporting paragraph (the fourth paragraph [because of the introduction] of the essay as a whole). The transitional word "however" indicates the logical relationship between this paragraph and the two paragraphs that precede it: the word "however" implies that this paragraph will offer new and different evidence to support the main argument of the whole essay. This sentence also looks back to sentence 5 of the opening paragraph, thereby reminding the reader that you are now about to fulfill the last of the three promises you made in that sentence.
- This sentence restates the main argument of the entire essay, once again reminding the reader of the basic point you are trying to prove.
- This sentence follows the pattern (already mentioned above) of moving from general to specific: here you are offering specific evidence to support the general argument of this paragraph. (In other words, you are moving from the top of the capital "I" to the middle.) Notice that this sentence itself moves from general to specific: before the colon you make a general claim; after the colon you offer specific evidence to support that claim.
- This sentence sums up the specific argument you are making about the first side of the valley. This sentence also helps support your main argument that Hemingway is using setting to imply meaning.
- This sentence shifts the focus of the paragraph from one side of the valley to the other. The transitional word "however" indicates this shift, and the shift in general reinforces the method of the whole essay -- a method involving contrast. Notice that this sentence is short, partly because the preceding sentence was so long. Variety in the length of sentences is one way to avoid monotony.
- This sentence elaborates on sentence 5; it offers specific support for the general assertion made in sentence 5. In other words, sentences 5 and 6 together do for the second half of the paragraph what sentence 3 alone had done for the first half. Notice, by the way, the unusual structure of this sentence: because the adjectives come first, they get more emphasis.
- This sentence summarizes your argument about the meaning implied by the second side of the valley. It helps do for the second half of the paragraph what sentence 4 had done for the first half.
- This sentence elaborates on the argument introduced in sentence 7. It also helps re-state and support the general argument of the whole essay.
- This sentence sums up the argument of the entire essay.
ADVICE ON WRITING CONCLUDING PARAGRAPHS
The concluding paragraph gives you a chance briefly to review the argument you have been making, perhaps by mentioning the particular topics again and by linking them again to your theme. More importantly, it gives you the chance to develop your theme in broader, more general terms, to explore its fuller implications or significance. It gives you a chance to explore aspects of the theme that could not easily be dealt with earlier, and to make the relevance of the theme to your reader even clearer. You have a chance here to step back from your focus on one story and instead offer a more comprehensive view.
SAMPLE CONCLUDING PARAGRAPH: (1) Although Hemingway does not over-emphasize the setting of his story, his references to it are nearly always significant. (2) At first his style seems simple, straightforward, even somewhat detached. (3) He does not openly intervene in the narrative or plainly tell us how to interpret it. (4) As we think about his descriptions of the setting, however, and ask ourselves why he chose to describe it as he did, the deeper meaning of his writing becomes clearer. (5) The heat that contributes to the couple's tension and that suggests their anger; the thin line of rails that represents the decision the, must make; the starkly contrasting sides of the valley -- all these details are rich in symbolism; all contribute powerfully to the story's impact and effectiveness. (6) Hemingway is famous for his crisp, bare-bones style, for his refusal simply to tell the reader how to react to his stories' characters and events. (7) Nevertheless, as his use of setting in "Hills Like White Elephants" indicates, he was fully capable of exploiting the symbolic dimensions of language to make his stories richer and to point to their deeper meanings. (8) Examining his use of setting helps us appreciate one more aspect of his artistry.
This sentence restates the main argument of the whole paper. (Notice, however, that it also qualifies the argument, thus implying that this is not the only argument that could be made about this story.
This sentence elaborates on the first half of the first sentence.
This sentence further develops the point made in sentence 2.
This sentence returns us to the main argument of the whole paper. It develops the point made in the second half of the first sentence. Notice how this sentence (and the one before it) tries to take for granted the agreement of the reader by referring to "we"
This sentence moves from the general argument of sentence 4 to very specific evidence supporting that argument. Notice that this sentence also reminds the reader of the structure of the whole paper by reviewing the topics treated in paragraphs 2, 3, and 4. The unusual structure of the sentence (with the details coming before the explanation) helps emphasize both halves of the sentence. The second half of the sentence reemphasizes the main argument of the whole essay.
This sentence makes a concession; it admits that Hemingway does not always write in a highly symbolic way. Note that this sentence also begins to move the essay towards a general conclusion (a conclusion not just about this story but about Hemingway's over-all craft as a writer).
This sentence pulls back from the concession made in sentence 6 and restates (while broadening) the argument of the whole essay.
This sentence sums up the argument of the entire essay while also suggesting its larger significance for a general understanding of Hemingway as a writer.
(c) 1998 by R.C. Evans
Please feel free to duplicate for private study or classroom use.
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