Category Archives: thesis

Does a narrative have a thesis?

Does a narrative have a thesis?

Yes, though it’s not called a thesis.  It’s called a story arc.  Think of some of the best-selling novels or movies you’ve read or seen.  Do they contain a story arc?












How about Gone with the Wind?  The story starts with flirty Miss Scarlett surrounded by young men, all madly in love with her.  The story moves upstairs at the Wilkes’ mansion where the girls are reclining—all but Scarlet who slips downstairs, draws Ashley Wilkes into the library, and declares her love for him.  He politely says no, but  Scarlett won’t accept his refusal.  When Ashley leaves, Scarlet throws china at the fireplace.  An amused Rhett Butler, who has overheard everything, is aroused.  Scarlet wants Ashley and will do what it takes to get him.  And Rhett wants Scarlett.

How about Anna Karenina?  In the opening pages, Mrs. Karenina visits her brother who has recently had an affair.  She meets a military officer and by her return home a few days later, she is in love, as is Count Vronsky.   Anna Karenina wants Count Vronsky and flaunts society to live as his mistress.

As Huckleberry Finn begins, Huck tries repeatedly to get away from the Widow Douglas who represents rules and civilized behavior–anathema to Huck. Pretty soon he does slip away, finding a raft and floating down the Mississippi with Jim, an escaped slave.  Huckleberry Finn rides the Mississippi in order to experience freedom.

How about Casablanca?  Rick, a stoic bar owner, lives without love until his old flame and her husband appear in his bar.  He must choose:  keep Elsa for himself and be safe or help her husband and her to escape the Nazis and become a wanted man.  Rick wrestles with emotions he thought were dead to make his choice.

Agatha Christie wrote dozens of murder mysteries all with the same story arc:  Who done it?  You know when you start to read one of her books that someone will die, and eventually, someone will be exposed as the killer.  Person A kills person B and either Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple solves the crime.

Have you ever read a story lacking a story arc?  I have started several, but if I can’t figure out where the story is going early on, I don’t continue.  So a story arc is like a thesis in that it tells readers what they can expect to learn from the story.  A story arc is usually stated more obliquely than a thesis, but it must be present for the story to be satisfying.

Coherence, the most important element in writing

Writing well requires following certain steps in sequence:

  • Narrowing your topic
  • Organizing your information, including writing an overarching topic sentence or thesis and subtopic sentences or plot lines
  • Writing a first draft
  • Revising, revising, revising
  • Editing

Once your first draft is complete, revising becomes most important.  So many tasks comprise revising—checking for complete sentences, tightening wordiness, analyzing ideas for logic, honing vocabulary, fixing grammar errors, adding figures of speech and style.  Students wonder where to begin.

Begin with coherence, the most important element of writing.  Coherence means making sure all your sentences make sense and flow from one to another.  Coherence means making sure your readers understand what you mean—easily, at first read, without an interpreter.

How do you do that?  Some ways include:

  • Make sure every sentence in the body paragraphs supports the thesis. If you use an anecdote, make sure it is an example of the ideas in the thesis.  If you use a simile or metaphor, make sure it fits with the topic.  If the topic is igneous rock, for example, the simile “as hot as the steam from a steam boat” is off topic, whereas “as hot as a lava lake” is on topic.
  • If you use numbers (three kinds of rocks, five members of my family, one favorite memory), check that you have named all the numbers and no more.
  • Use logical transitions. “Because” means something causes something else.  Make sure you have named a cause and an effect if you use “because.”  “Finally” means the last one in a series or the last point.  If you have only two or three points, you shouldn’t use “finally.” You should use “secondly,” or “next,” or “third.”
  • If you use a pronoun, make sure you have named the noun the pronoun refers back to. And make sure you have named that noun before you use the pronoun (not “When she fell, Mary broke her arm,” but “When Mary fell, she broke her arm.”  If you use “this,” make sure your reader can know in a word or phrase what “this” refers to.  If “this” is vague or complicated, add a noun after “this” (this situation, this erosion, this loss of interest).  If you have two women talking, make sure if you use “she,” the reader knows which one you are referring to.  Otherwise, use her name or title or position.
  • Check that your sentences are complete thoughts–not fragments or run-ons.  Make sure your complex sentences contain no more than two dependent clauses so readers needn’t hold multiple ideas in their minds at once.  Check that your sentences vary in length, with most more than ten and fewer than 20 words.
  • Change your weak, vapid verbs to active, dynamic verbs.  Eliminate the verb “to be” and passive voice verbs.

If what you write lacks coherence, no matter how specific the vocabulary, no matter how beautiful the description, no matter how lofty your aim, your writing will flop.  Your writing must make sense to a reader without you standing at her elbow explaining, “Well, what I mean is. . .”

State your main idea explicitly in nonfiction

My friend handed me a book of nonfiction her uncle had written and asked me for my opinion.  I scanned through the first few pages and handed it back.  “He doesn’t say what the book is about.  I have no way to evaluate the book without knowing what his point is.”

adult couple in discussionThe author of this book made a mistake that many young writers make, namely, not stating explicitly what their thesis is.  Without knowing the thesis, readers can’t judge whether a book does what it says it will do because it never says what it will do.  It’s like giving a person a car but not giving any directions.  Where should the car go?  Should the car pick up passengers?  What is the purpose of the trip?

If you are writing a nonfiction book, essay, chapter or news story, you should alert the reader to your purpose.  You can do that several ways.

One way is to write a headline or title which encompasses the main idea.  “Twenty dead in tornado” and “Biden wins Pennsylvania’s electoral college votes” clearly state the main details of the article to follow.

Another way is to state in the first paragraph (or rarely, in the last, if you are leading up to your main point) the thesis of your writing.  A classic example is the following:  “Oppressed people deal with their oppression in three characteristic ways.” –The first sentence from “The Ways of Meeting Oppression” by Martin Luther King, Jr.  The rest of his essay identifies those three ways and explains why one is best.

If you are writing a book, use your introduction to explain to your readers what the purpose of your book is and what they should learn.  “You’re reading this book because you want your business to grow. I’m going to show you a proven system for making all this happen.  –The Snowball System by Mo Bunnell

If your readers need to infer the main idea, they might stop reading.  Too much work.  So make sure you state early on what your point is.

Ten ways to know if a “thesis” is really a thesis?

A thesis is a declarative sentence, never a question.  “Who was the best US President?” is not a thesis because it is a question.  “Washington was the best US President” is a thesis providing the word “best” is precisely defined.  If “best” is not precisely defined, then this is not a thesis because “best” is vague.

Detective with a magnifying glass inspecting a newspaper.A thesis states an opinion which can be defended or countered. “Laws should prevent children younger than 18 from marrying.”  This is a thesis.  It is an opinion which can be supported by evidence.  It can be objected to with other evidence.

A thesis is not a statement of facts which can be verified.  “Washington is the only President to be elected unanimously” is not a thesis because research shows this is a factual statement.

A thesis is not an opinion of personal taste.  “I need to attend college” is not a thesis.  It cannot be researched scientifically.

A thesis is stated positively, not negatively.  “Washington was not the best US President” is not a thesis.

A thesis does not use biased or untruthful language.  “Dangerous hand guns should not be sold” is not a thesis.  “Dangerous” is a biased word.

A thesis uses precise language.  “Some amphibians should be put on the endangered species list” is not a thesis.  “Some” is not precise.

A thesis is about one idea, but that one idea can be subdivided.  “The US Civil War had two causes:  slavery and states’ rights” is a thesis.  This thesis is about the causes of the Civil War (one idea).  “Roses are easier to grow than irises but harder to grow than day lilies” is not a thesis.  It contains two separate ideas.

A thesis is researchable using scientific evidence or the scientific method. “Nothing escapes black holes” is not a thesis.  Scientific research has proven this statement to be false.  “More two-year-olds today are fat than in Boston in 1776” is not a thesis because it is impossible to research how many two-year-olds were fat in Boston in 1776.

A thesis deals with real, not conditional or hypothetical information. “If Elvis were alive today he would be a billionaire” is not a thesis because Elvis is not alive today.

Where should a student start an essay?

If you are teaching children essay writing, at which point do you tell students to begin their writing?  With the hook?  With the introduction?  With the thesis?  Somewhere else?

Lately when my students start to write essays, I tell them to skip over the introduction completely for now except for its last sentence, the thesis.  That is where I tell them to begin.

Then I tell them to write the topic sentences of the body paragraphs.  After that, I tell them to fill in the body paragraphs with detailed sentences.  Then, after the student knows the contents of the body, I tell students to write their introductions at the top of one page and their conclusions at the bottom of that page, so the students can see them both together.

The first draft of an essay is put together something like this (after the student writes an organizer):

  • The thesis is written at the top of the notebook paper or computer document.
  • Under it is written the first body paragraph topic sentence. About 2/3 of the way down the notebook paper is written the second body paragraph topic sentence.  On the back top is written the third body paragraph topic sentence.  Half way down is written the fourth, if there is a fourth.  If the student is using a computer, these sentences can be written one beneath the other since inserting more material is easy.
  • At this point, I ask the students to check to see if each topic sentence supports the thesis. If not, this is the time to make it work.
  • Next, the students fill in the body paragraphs with details from their prewriting organizer, making sure that each detail supports the paragraph topic sentence.
  • Finally, on a separate notebook paper (or at the top of the essay), students compose the introduction with or without a hook.  Below it, the student composes the conclusion, trying as much as possible, to pick up some thread mentioned in the introduction.  If the student is using a computer, the student can move the conclusion to the end once he or she has compared it to the introduction.

At this point students can type a rough draft if they have worked on notebook paper, assembling the paragraphs in the correct order.  Once the essay is on computer, they can revise.

Students tell me that at school they are told to start writing essays with the hook.  I tell my students to skip right over that.  Why?  What I am looking for is not creativity but logic, the logic of topic sentences which support a thesis and paragraph details which support the topic sentences.  That is the meat of an essay, and that is what I see missing in students’ essays these days.  When that logic is established, the student can work on a creative (or not) introduction and a conclusion which dovetails with that introduction.