06 August 2008

Finding a Thesis in Fiction

According to Essentials of Writing to the Point by Allan Metcalf and William Kerrigan, the first step in writing effectively is to develop a strong thesis statement. A thesis is a one-sentence summary of your piece that requires further explanation. Kerrigan's guidelines for a basic thesis statement (called a Step 1 sentence in the book) are:

  1. The Step 1 sentence should be opinion or judgement, not simple fact.
  2. The Step 1 sentence should require further explanation, prompting the reader to ask why or how it is true.
  1. The Step 1 sentence should be specific and focused, not general, so it is clear what kind of explanation will be required.
  2. The Step 1 sentence should avoid mere description, narration, or statement of a process.
  3. The Step 1 sentence should avoid statements of personal preference, which also usually do not call for further explanation.
  4. The Step 1 sentence should be a declarative sentence, making a statement rather than asking a question or giving a command.
  5. For now, the Step 1 sentence should be short and simple.
  6. For now, the Step 1 sentence should make one statement, not more.
  7. For now, the Step 1 sentence should avoid "should"--that is, it should avoid sermons about what should be and tell what is.
  8. For now, the Step 1 sentence should avoid comparison and contrast, because these require concentrating on several things at once.
A thesis statement is what drives a piece because it ties everything together. It gives the reader an idea of what the piece is about, and helps keep the writer focused on the topic at hand.

Though Essentials of Writing to the Point is used to teach (college) students to write a basic five-paragraph essay, it's important to remember that fiction, too, needs a "thesis," some thread that ties the piece together. It may not be a sentence, but could be a theme, motif, character, or something else. In A. S. Byatt's Matisse Stories, for example, each of the stories in the collection contains a different painting by Henri Matisse.

Without a "thesis," your piece may not flow as well as it should, or be "choppy," making it difficult to follow for readers. You need to find (or create) something that can be a thread throughout the piece, holding it together, as well as giving readers a reference point within the story. It's that cohesiveness that will help draw readers into the story. Otherwise, all you'll have is a collection of scenes centering around a set of characters.

One of the troubles I was having with my coffee house story previously was that there was nothing to tie the piece together and drive it forward. I needed something to point to as a thesis. Once I found that connective thread, I've found the writing has come quite a bit easier. I think the story flows considerably better, as well.

As you're writing, think about elements that tie the story together. Think about things that appear throughout the story that emerge as motifs or themes. You may, after all, already have a thesis! If you find a connectivity, make sure it's strong enough to tie the story together, but you must also find a balance between finding a tie that connects your story and beating your readers over the head with the theme, which can be a bit frustrating, speaking as a reader.

Though you may learn about writing theses for non-fiction, remember that much of what you learn for non-fiction can be carried over to fiction writing. And a thesis is one of those things.

Happy scribbling!

1 comment:

  1. Yikes! As an editor I would tell this author to use Step 1 a little less. Makes it tough to read. I wrote an article about writing an essay for school purposes in which I gave my theory for good thesis statements. I'll have to check out this book, I haven't seen it.


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