Creating Mystery in your Papers — On Introductions

One problem typical to many student papers is that they don’t announce the thesis soon enough or in enough detail. Possible reasons could be that the student has been trained in another language where papers don’t begin with a thesis but rather, as in French, with a problematique–a guiding question or problem that the essay will seek to respond to. Another reason is that the student thinks that declaring a thesis at the beginning is like putting all your cards on the table in the first round–why keep playing the game if you already know who has the winning hand? My answer is that it’s enjoyable to see how the winning hand will or will not be played. Even if you know who has the cards at the beginning, there’s still a question about whether or not they know how to play the game.

My thesis for this workshop is that the opening paragraph for a good academic essay–in virtually any discipline–will do the same work as the opening to a mystery novel. You set the scene, give us something to care about, and sometimes you even tell us–from the get-go!–how the story ends.

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. (Marquez 1)

Perhaps one of the best opening lines ever written, this line from Gabriel García Marquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude tells us –from the start–how at least one of the stories in the book will end. Rather than spoiling the story, this technique creates mystery.

The same thing happens here, in the opening to the 1950 film Sunset Boulevard:

If you watch the opening scene to the Netflix series Bloodline, you’ll see the same thing; if you watch the opening of The Affair, likewise. The storytellers begin with the ending. The mystery, for the reader or viewer, is how will we get there? In the moment before the firing squad, we have a whole life time to cover–from the early moment when the child goes to see ice, right up to the very moment before his death.

But how does that relate to the Introduction and Thesis Statement?

A good introduction and a good thesis statement will give us this. It will set the scene. We’ll know, by the end of an introduction, things like: What time period are we in? Who are the key figures? What policies or theories will be discussed? What country are we in? And, crucially, it will tell us where we’re going to end up. We want to see the body floating in the pool by the end of that first paragraph. Your thesis sentence is that body. Without that, we won’t know why we’re reading the paper. The thesis answers questions like: “What’s at stake here? Why should we care about this?” And, it’ll give us some signposts or a roadmap so that we have a sense of how we’ll get to the end.  Here are some clear tips about writing the thesis sentence.


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