Once you’ve come up with a great thesis for your essay, you need to give it credibility by supporting it thoroughly with-
You see, it won’t matter much that you’ve got a fantastic thesis if you’ve got lousy support for it in the form of thinly developed stories, weakly described examples, and faulty reasoning. If that’s the case, then you’ll be lucky to get a grade of C on your essay!
Let’s talk about stories, and what makes good story support for your essays. To help us, we’ll use the memorable story of Archimedes in Isaac Asimov’s lively essay, “The Eureka Phenomenon,” as our example (to access Asimov’s essay, type “The Eureka Phenomenon” at Google Search).
“The Eureka Phenomenon”
Before we start, let’s review the beginning of the historically real story about Archimedes in Asimov’s essay.
Archimedes lives in the city of Sparta, Greece, circa 250 B.C. His cousin, Hieron, is the king of Sparta. Now, Hieron has given a goldsmith a certain amount of gold to make a beautiful new crown, and the goldsmith returned a beautiful golden crown to him, which the king loved. But Hieron doesn’t trust the goldsmith, thinking the artist may have pocketed some of the gold and substituted another element into the crown so it weighs the same as if all the gold were there. He calls for Archimedes and asks him to determine whether the beautiful crown is, in fact, pure gold.
Now, Archimedes makes a statement about what is already familiar to scientists, that is, that the crown would have to be melted down to get Hieron’s answer. But the king doesn’t want to destroy his beautiful new crown, so he provides the old view strong value statement when he orders Archimedes to solve ‘The Problem‘ without melting down his new crown:
Archimedes would have had to say, “There is no known way, sire, to carry through a nondestructive determination of volume.” “Then think of one,” said Hieron testily.
Archimedes then worked hard on The Problem until he was “worn out with thinking.”
Now let’s get into our discussion on how to use stories to support your essay’s thesis.
There are three must-have qualities for good stories used in essays:
- STRUCTURE: beginning, middle, ending
- PROGRESS: from old view to new view
- IMAGE: vivid, emotional, memorable, symbolic
STRUCTURE-Beginning, middle, ending
To be a quality story, a story must have, like the Archimedes story, a clear structure of:
- a beginning,
- a middle, and
- an ending
Beginning-The beginning of a story sets up an old view strong value statement either by, about, or relating directly to, the main character.
Middle-The middle of a good story changes scene and connects the old view value statement with some sort of action to the new view reverse at the ending.
In the Archimedes story, the middle scene has changed to Sparta’s public baths, which is just a temporary resting place so Archimedes can take up The Problem again with more energy, after bathing and relaxing. In Asimov’s version of this historical story, Archimedes settles down into a bathtub, splashing around a bit. Eventually, he notices that the attendant is pouring water into his bathtub and that when he submerges his foot and leg, water slops out of the bathtub.
Ending-The ending of a good story changes scene from the middle and completes the search or quest involving the old view strong value statement by supplying a new view reverse.
In this story, Archimedes jumps up out of his bathtub and runs naked through the streets, excitedly yelling, “Eureka! Eureka!” (“I’ve got it! I’ve got it!”). He has reversed the old view problem introduced at the beginning, “no known way… think of one” by finding the answer.
Archimedes’s excitement and running also reverse the negative old view value of the king’s testiness and even of Archimedes being worn out at the beginning.
PROGRESS: from an old view to a new view.
The Archimedes story shows-
- changes of the action from an old view to a new view
All the action of the beginning, middle, and ending scenes are related directly or indirectly to one thing in this story: solving The Problem that has been worrying King Hieron. The Problem, of course, has the closely associated old view that there is “no known” solution to it and that the king feels strongly, testy, about getting the kind of solution he wants, that is, without melting down his beautiful new crown.
Note the progression in relation to The Oldview Problem:
FROM serious about & “worn out” on The Old View Problem
TO relaxing to renew energy to work again on The Old View Problem
TO excited about having solved/reversed The Old View Problem
What started as a hard, worrisome, work-til-you’re-worn-out old view kind of value and problem ends as an easy new view solution, arrived at by the easy, involuntary method of relaxed thinking-Asimov’s new view reverse-not by the old view method of hard, rigorous, continuous thinking.
IMAGE: vivid, emotional, memorable, symbolic.
The Archimedes story also provides a-
- vivid, emotional, memorable, and symbolic image
Vivid-Definitions of vivid use the words very, lively, strong, sharp, intense. So a vivid image would have details that embody or show liveliness, strength, sharpness, intensity-in short, an extremity. For instance, Asimov might have described Archimedes as “running swift as a deer in his excitement, bounding lightly and very easily over stone benches and other obstacles in his way, seemingly inexhaustible as he ran all the way back home to King Hieron with the good news.”
That would have been vivid, yes-but Asimov doesn’t do that, does he?
Asimov actually gives no description at all of Archimedes running naked through the streets of the city, yelling, “Eureka! Eureka!” Here’s all Asimov says about that extreme, striking image of Archimedes:
Jumping out of the bath, he proceeded to run home at top speed through the streets of Syracuse. He did not bother to put on his clothes… And as he ran, Archimedes shouted over and over, “I’ve got it! I’ve got it!”
What are some familiar things that most people in our culture are familiar with that you can merely name and they’ll have a vivid mental image? Here’s a short list, and I’m sure you can improve on it for possible readers in the groups you belong to, such as your school, family, friends, clubs, organizations, and work:
- McDonalds (golden double arches; Ronald McDonald)
- 7-11 stores (slushy machines; hamburger & hot dog counter)
- Washington Monument (500′ high obelisk in Washington D.C.)
- Michael Jackson (moonwalk; silver glove)
- our national flag (red, white, and blue)
So you can describe an image with hardly any details if you merely suggest something your readers are very familiar with-in this case, being naked and running and shouting-and couple it with a context of excitement and emotion, as Asimov did.
Emotional-When people think of Asimov’s essay, that image-with no details supplied by Asimov, mind you-springs to mind and it’s coupled with a feeling, an emotion.
Why? Because running through the streets naked in our culture would be embarrassing, and we feel at least a little of that embarrassment as we read the story, as if we were there, watching Archimedes run naked through the streets. As if we were there, emotionally interacting-that’s the key.
Readers can’t help but identify emotionally with the people, the actions, and the things you present in writing, even in an essay. So when you’re describing something, use words that suggest or even directly describe emotions. Just because you’re writing an essay doesn’t mean you have to leave emotions out of it-that’s a mistake.
Memorable-That embarrassment I mentioned also carries with it amusement, which makes the image even more lively and intense, and therefore memorable.
Using a few well-chosen, emotionally laden words increases the likelihood that your readers will interact with your words, ideas, thoughts, reasoning. And through interacting, they will remember.
Since the reader is a learner, then you want them to remember the main points of what you say in your essay, right? Then use a few-not a lot, mind you-emotionally laden words in the mini-stories within your essays that get your readers to interact emotionally and therefore help them more easily remember your ideas.
Those three features-
- describing lively, strong images or suggesting familiar images that encourage your readers to supply the intense details,
- attaching or suggesting an emotion of some kind along with it,
- provoking the reader’s mental interaction with the image in some way to make it memorable
-are the key ingredients for a successful image, whether it’s in a story or not. When you get the reader’s mind involved with lively, familiar images and stimulate emotional feeling as well and provoke interaction that makes remembering it easy, then you are truly helping readers to learn and remember the new view you are sharing with them.
Symbolic-Even more than all the above, though, the “Eureka!” image represents and symbolizesthe new view reverse of the essay, in this way-
The old view was the tedious plodding of scientific voluntary thought, with its meticulous working out of consequences from assumptions- it was the mostly unstated, implied ‘restrictive clothing’ of thought.
That plodding, scientific old view is reversed by the new view symbol of Archimedes as the swift, smooth running of involuntary thought without the restrictions of the ‘clothing’ of methodical scientific thought.
That’s the power of a great image-you can use it in an essay to capture a new view vividly, emotionally, memorably, and symbolically.
The stories you use in your essays won’t be as long as Asimov’s story about Archimedes. They will be much shorter, but they still should have the same qualities of Structure, Progress, and Image that Asimov gave his story.
You can see a much shorter story with all those qualities in Carl Sagan’s fascinating essay, The Abstraction of Beasts (to access it, type “The Abstraction of Beasts” at Google Search). Look for the three short paragraphs and just fourteen sentences that he uses to tell a very brief, but very good, story about Helen Keller.
You won’t be able to forget the image he shares. Why? Because Sagan follows all the rules I’ve shared with you here about Structure, Progress, and Image.
This article was written by Bill Drew, a writing expert who specializes in teaching writing [http://newviewoptions.com], both theory and practice, especially writing essays — with unique emphasis on writing about literature, as well as writing advertising and other business writing. You might say he is a one-man, one-stop writing center [http://newviewoptions.com]!
He has authored and published The Secret DNA of Writing Essays-And Everything Else, The Secret DNA of Topic Sentences That Entice Readers, The Secret DNA of Analyzing Short Stories and The Secret DNA of Analyzing Published Essays. The four books plus software for the first book are available at his website, at Amazon dot com, and at ThoughtOffice dot com.
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