During the month of June, I thought I might share some insights from my nine years of teaching writing to college students of all levels–from freshmen to graduates. These are some of the most common errors of omission and commission that I encounter on a regular basis. What has this to do with writing fiction, you ask? Fiction let’s us play around intentionally with many of the rules that non-fiction authors must live by. Of course, the first necessary step to intelligently breaking a rule is to know what it means to begin with. So, I will open with a discussion of the problem, explain what the rule should look like in normal prose, and then close with some ideas on how this can help your fiction. I might even give a few ideas as to how you can even thumb your nose at it!
Remember a time when you invested in something only to find that it was pointless? You feel cheated. You wish that there was some way to get those minutes (or hours) back and spend them on something else. This feeling gets stronger the older you get, the more you begin to realize how precious and irretrievable each moment is. I could have spent that time with my family, writing, exercising, working outside, or just resting! I encounter that feeling all too often: when I’m grading papers without a thesis or even rudimentary organization. (Of course for me, all is not lost. Perhaps my time is still well-spent…if my feedback can teach its the perpetrator how not to do it again.)
For formal communication, a thesis is the absolutely indispensable linchpin to your effort–whether that is a paper, an article, a chapter, or a book. It is more than just a topic sentence, as so many seem to think. It is a clear, provable point that your reader will, at the end of it all, be able to say they believe or disbelieve based on your evidence. It forms the most basic (and most important) way to measure your success as an author of formal prose. If you prove your thesis to your reader, your paper does its job; if you do not, you fail, no matter what else you do.
Surprisingly, even people who think themselves “good” writers seem to know very little about writing a good thesis. Consider the difference between the two following examples:
- Bad: “This paper is about Henry V at Agincourt.”–So what? How do you “prove” that? How does it show what you have to say? How can I know when you’ve succeeded in making your point? How do I even know you have a point?
- Good: “Henry V’s strong leadership at Agincourt turned disaster into victory.” Here, I can see clearly what you intend to say and I know what standard to hold you against. At the end, I will be able to either say that I believe you are right or wrong, and you now have a chance to convince me.
I tell my students that at the end of their research, before they start writing, they should tell me what they learned about their topic, boiled down into a single sentence. That sentence becomes the thesis statement. The rest of the paper unfolds from there. What are the main points that I need to know in order to believe that your thesis is true and accurate? Those become the supporting points of your paper. What must I know in order to understand each supporting point? That information becomes a sub point. Each level should clearly relate to the one above it–sub-point to supporting point to thesis.*
In a very real way, your thesis becomes your guide for what to include and what to exclude from your paper. As the rule of thumb goes, no more than 10% of your research can make it into your final product.** How can you tell what to leave aside? If it doesn’t support your thesis, it’s right out. What if other evidence is stronger? Then you make that call based on how much room you have.
Relating this to fiction, I find that understanding the “thesis” is just as important, though its implementation is far less formulaic. In my own humble opinion, if you are writing a coherent, intelligent story (the kind of thing I like to read), you must keep your ultimate goals in mind when you are proceeding. You don’t need to summarize it all in a single thesis statement or chart out your prose on a point-by-point basis. Still, the fact remains that if you don’t know where your story is going, your readers certainly won’t be able to figure it out either. They’ll be doomed to wander the wasteland that is your story until they finally tire of it and put you down in favor of someone or something that actually has a purpose and seems to matter.
To that end, while you should still maintain plenty of flexibility, it is also a good idea to have at least the basic points of your story mapped out ahead of time. You may choose to keep them in your head, but I find that it’s useful to put them to paper–I often come back later and am amazed at some of my own thoughts, long forgotten. It also helps you see how things relate in ways that you might otherwise miss.
Ironically, while there may be times that you want it to appear that you have no point, in reality this is one of those truisms that cannot be denied. You will always have a point. You will always mean to say something–even if your point is to say that there is no meaning! To deny it usually degenerates into mock-worthy nonsense and pseudo-intellectual attempts at profundity. Therefore, I would argue that if we must have a point, let’s do it right.
Next Week: Forgetting your place–the author as first person
*Incidentally, your title should clearly point us to your thesis. Your thesis then becomes the reader’s key to the rest of your paper.
**If you can put all of your research into the final paper, you haven’t done enough research!
More in the How NOT to Write series: