Three-Act Thesis

An analogy from film for writing an argument and developing a stronger thesis…

As a way to rethink the definition of a strong thesis in academic writing, I propose we consider the structure of another genre of writing, another writing machine: film writing. In film or screenwriting, the “thesis” is known as the turning point or premise or conflict or (sometimes) the hook of the film; it is the central problem or conflict that sets the action in motion and needs to be resolved by the end, also known as the climax of the film.

Link here for more on the basics of three-act film structure.

Wizard of OZ movie poster

Wizard of OZ movie poster (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The basic three-act structure of most films looks something like this [with The Wizard of Oz as a guide]:

  • Act 1: The Set Up
    • Normality (the given, normal, conventional life of the protagonist)
      • Dorothy’s bleak life in Kansas, desire to run away
    • Disturbance/Problem: something that disrupts the given/normal.
    • The tornado; knocked out; not in Kansas anymore
    • Turning point/hook (central problem plus surprise; a real but unusual conflict or problem that follows from the initial disturbance and needs to be solved or answered by the end of the film)
    • Welcome to Oz—must find the Wizard for help to get home.
    • (The resolution of this problem will be the climax of the movie)
  • Act 2: Complications
    • Further complications/problems/obstacles the protagonist faces in trying to resolve the central problem
      • All the trials along the way getting to see Wizard; getting broomstick.
    • Second Act turning point: a further or final problem that leads in to the climax
    • Wizard refuses help.
  • Act 3:   Climax and Resolution
    • Climax: the solving or answering of the central problem
      • Wizard revealed and agrees to take Dorothy in balloon; Good Witch helps her get home (no place like home.
    • Resolution: the ending of the film; the new reality/normality we are left with
    • Dorothy wakes up; implication: never left home? Will never want to leave home again.

My proposal is that a similar three-act structure can be an effective way to think about developing the narrative as well as the logic of an academic thesis. Why? Because the basis of a thesis is: the setting up of a problem (introduction); offering a surprising or unusual or unconventional way to think about that problem (thesis statement); considering complications along the way to solving the problem (supporting examples; counter-argument); the solving of the problem (conclusion as climax); larger implications—where this new way of viewing things leaves us (conclusion as resolution). I suggest that the following structure (or in rhetorical terms, heuristic) could be helpful both at the composting stage, when you are trying to develop ideas for the argument, working toward a thesis, as well as at the revision stage, after an initial draft, when you are working on refining your thesis.

One of the key lessons from film writing I want to borrow can help us with organization: everything in the film must relate to the turning point—the second act complications as well as the climax. At each stage of developing the script, the writer should be able to answer how a particular scene relates back to the turning point. It also emphasizes that strong writing not only relates to a central idea, but moves an audience through the argument, is dynamic (hence: three acts, action). Academic narratives deal with ideas, but still need action and movement to make the ideas/argument work; like a film, critical narratives need an audience engaged.

Another lesson can help us rethink the way a thesis needs to be imaginative, but not necessarily “original”—if by original we take that to mean an idea that no one else has thought or said before. In fact, a good premise or turning point in a film is not entirely new: it takes the old, the familiar, and provides a surprise, an unusual way of thinking about the old. The effect of the turning point in The Wizard of Oz is not Oz by itself, but Oz in relation to Kansas, the technicolor imagination of Oz rethinking the grey familiarity of home. This is also what we do with academic arguments: rethink conventional ways of thinking about various ideas, arguments, texts, problems.

  • Act 1: Introduction/set up
    • Given: normal or conventional view; the context of your focus; where things stand right now with the issue you are taking up
      • Frankenstein, both novel and film, has long been viewed by many in terms of the horror genre. Critics…
    • Problem: a disturbance to the conventional; some initial problems with things that perhaps have emerged more recently (other critics starting to take up); or contradiction/flaw in the conventional view that have been forgotten, neglected
    • However, as suggested by more recent films (or more recent criticism), Frankenstein for some is more in the science fiction genre and not about horror…
    • Thesis: your premise or turning point, a real but unusual or surprising way of thinking about the problem and setting out to solve it.
    • What if Frankenstein were to be viewed not in terms or horror or science but in terms of romance, something few would associate with the title? While I would agree there are important elements of both horror and science in the novel and its film adaptations, I would argue, instead, that the story is at heart a love story. Shelley’s real concern, it seems to me, is with the monstrosity of the human heart, the dangers not of science but of falling in love. In particular…
  • Act 2: Complications
    • First main example or complication directly relating to (and elaborating) the thesis/turning point
      • The danger of falling in love is perhaps first evident when…
    • Second example
    • This particular danger of love [discussed in last paragraph] becomes even more problematic when we see…
    • Second Act turning point: a further complication or even challenge for your thesis; counter-argument
    • However, there are good reasons to think of this work not as a love story; clearly there are key elements critics have rightly discussed in terms of horror and science. For example…While I don’t disagree with the sentiment (or critical point), it also seems to me that the very example she/he addresses has more to do with love than horror…
  • Act 3: Conclusion
    • Climax: how the problem of your thesis is finally solved/answered
      • The horror of science in this story is in fact made horrific by love, not the reverse. It is love that gets in the way of science and love that leads to the tragedy…
    • Resolution: where this leaves us—a reminder that a conclusion should not merely re-state what was given in the introduction; it should provide a more conclusive answer to the various complications (second act) as well as point the reader out to thinking about implications for other or related text. Thinking: what’s next?
    • Speculation on how this rethinking of Frankenstein as love story might be taken up in future film versions; or why the novel has not been traditionally viewed this way—why love has been neglected—and how it might lead to larger implications for rethinking the gothic/horror genre…


You can use this to compost ideas for a draft; might also use this as a revision strategy, to re-outline your argument–test for the thesis thread–after you have a draft.

Act 1: Introduction/Set UP



Thesis/Turning Point:

Act 2: Complications

Complication #1:

Complication #2, #3, etc.

Second Act Turning Point: [further complication; counter-argument]

Act 3: Conclusion

Climax: answer to question/solving of problem

Resolution: new normal—where this leaves us; larger implications

Birkerts: coda, critical application

Sven Birkerts concludes The Gutenberg Elegies by focusing on an opposition between “the solitary self” and “the collective.” For Birkerts, a true self is solitary and a true sense of self exists only in solitude; this condition of selfhood is cultivated best through the pages and linear lines of books. Birkerts sets against this condition of solitary selfhood the “condition of connectedness” that he associates with what he terms “the ever-expanding electronic web.” “They are not only extensions of the senses,” he argues about the technological improvements of the electronic age in his “Coda,” “they are extensions of the senses that put us in touch with the extended senses of others.”  In other words, the problem is not so much that we are, in the age of overwhelming information, overloading our senses by extending their range and reach; more troubling for Birkerts, we are extending ourselves and our senses into and among the extended senses of others. “Others” is the real pejorative term here (224). Birkerts fears contamination through connection.

This is where I disagree most strongly with Birkerts’ understanding of the “amniotic environment of impulses,” to use his telling metaphor of the web. I think Birkerts aptly characterizes the effect of this environment of impulses. He gets the technology right; the uncited echo of Marshall McLuhan’s defintion of technology as the “extensions of man” brings that home. We have, as McLuhan shows, always used technology to extend our senses–long before the age of electronic communication. Birkerts could be more precise in recognizing that such “extensions” would include the technologies of writing and print and bookmaking that informs the books that thus inform the selfhood he fears we are loosing. Books are part of an earlier hive of information and communication network. But no matter; he elsewhere in this book admits that his beloved book is, of course, a form of technology–even if that view is kept to a minimum. Birkerts gets not the technology wrong nor its implications (the extension of senses); he misses the point in fearing the connection to others. That is to say, I am troubled most by the “condition of connectedness” that Birkerts, it seems, forbids the act of reading. Why is connectedness the problem and solitariness the goal of our selfhood or of the creativity of reading and writing that informs it? Why must we think of creation in solitude?

Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl, like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein before it, indicates that Birkerts’ problem is in seeing connection as the problem. Rather, in connecting to others, literary texts connect readers to writers and written words they create. And, when we consider an electronic text, we find in many cases, the connections are even stronger.

This is not to say that there aren’t problems lurking in connectivitiy. I would agree with Birkerts to the extent that he worries about…. However, I think he goes too far in arguing that….In my view, creativity can only come through connection. The result, I understand, may be a literary text that undermines what we think of as a traditional novel or poem. Consider, for example, “This is Not a Poem.” That title might remind us that this re-visioning of the traditional relation between reader and writer (the reader here becomes a writer, even rewrites the writing) or between artist and viewer has been going on for some time. For further reading consider On the Virtues of Preexisting Material, by Rick Prelinger: A recent article that takes up the problem of originality in the digital age, and proposes that we think instead of collage and patchwork. He speaks of orphaned works of creation and quilts: the echoes of Frankenstein and Patchwork Girl are noticeable–as are the concerns of Plato.

[The text above is my example of a critical application of Birkerts, stitching in, through paraphrase and direct quotation, a key idea from his conclusion to then set up the focus I will use to read Patchwork Girl: in effect, using Birkerts' own terms and language (connectedness vs. solitariness) for my own thesis, though reversing his view, drawing distinctions. Also, entertaining counter-argument from Birkerts.]

Electronic Literature: polymorphous possibilities

In the electronic poem “the dreamlife of letters,” the phrase “polymorphous possibilities” floats and twirls around the screen. The poem is grouped in the Ambient text section of the archive. This type of text is described in this way:

Work that plays by itself, meant to evoke or engage intermittent attention, as a painting or scrolling feed would; in John Cayley’s words, “a dynamic linguistic wall-hanging.” Such work does not require or particularly invite a focused reading session.

I think this particular text, and this kind of text (ambient), represents something larger about electronic literature that you are likely to experience as you explore this new media type of literature this week. “Dreamlife” is interested in “letters.”  All verbal texts are, to some extent. Some texts more than others. This one takes its interest more deliberately, and perhaps (so I might argue) more fervently, than many others. When you read–or watch–this poem, you witness the polymorphous possibilities of language. The poem reminds us, it seems to me, of the fact that any poem, any text, is made of such things. And made from the possibility of making and unmaking words and combining and moving letters.

It doesn’t “invite a focused reading session.” This is true. And yet, poetry is hard for many people. Too hard, I think. Might we think of this poem reading more like a song: moving and morphing along? Does the poetry (or more broadly, the literary) reading experience need to be difficult? Must it be a focused reading session? What about, instead, an experience of reading? “Ambient” suggests that the environment and the experience of the text and its reading (its watching, its playing…) matters more than a conventional view of focusing on the meaning within a text.

Focus is a concern for Sven Birkerts; it point to a difference between linear print texts and many, if not all, of the electronic literary texts available at the archive. But what if focus implies, or derives, from participation rather than concentration? Isn’t poetry difficult, in part, when we are sitting too quietly or silently, waiting for it to speak to us? Consider some of the Oulipoems [constraint-based texts] which invite reader activity while also working something like a mad-libs game. It might surprise you, but these computer-generated texts are based on print poems from the mid-twentieth century, including the famous “Hundred Thousand Billion Poems” by Queneau. Andrew Piper refers to this group of poets in his chapter “By the Numbers.”

Can or should the experience of reading literature be something like a game? Or an algorithm? Can composing literature–poem or story or essay or argument–be processed like information, combined and re-combined like numbers or letters in a slot machine? What if it already is?

Or, perhaps hypermediacy means the hyperactivity of print culture, rather than its disappearance. Recall what Murray says–electronic text is the child of print culture. Here is one text, as sort of nightmare of digital communication: Out of Touch.

A text by Moulthorp (the hypertext author Birkerts reads in his chapter) titled Radio Silence–showing an interest in the ideas of play (rules for reading) and the interest in pattern.

A well-regarded hypertext–that emphasizes a different kind of linking nonlinearity: The Jew’s Daughter.

For links to other literary hypertexts, visit HTLit: Literary Hypertext.

Birkerts: process over product

In his chapter “Hypertext,” Birkerts continues his exploration of the differences between print and electronic texts, between words on a page and words on a screen. In “Into the Electronic Millenium,” he emphasizes the difference as one between linearity (print) and association (electronic)–earlier in the book, this opposition was described as  depth versus shallowness. Here, turning his attention to a literary hypertext created for a digital environment (Moulthorp’s Victory Garden), he continues the opposition, focusing it on a difference between process and product. As he puts it succinctly,

Writing on the computer promotes process over product and favors the whole over the execution of the part. (158)

Moving forward from page to screen, he believes, we move backwards from the book as a product to the process of writing and producing it. Along with this “profound” and “consequential” shift from literature and product to writing as process, Birkerts argues, “provisionality” is promoted and the traditional goal of the writer (he mentions the French novelist Flaubert) is lost. Attending to this loss, the reader of the book, turned into “process” at best, at worst a “sophisticated Nintendo game,” loses his or her sense of the private self (164).

These are familiar  keywords Birkerts uses in his argument: process, product, privacy, provisionality, perfection, potential. My criticism and concern for the implications of his argument might best be focused by adding another ‘p’ word to his list: pedagogy. It seems to me that in worrying about the ways that writing’s process becomes, potentially, revealed in a digital or electronic environment, Birkerts really worries the potential that anyone might become a writer. Here, my disagreement with Birkerts sharpens most into focus. In my view–recall, I am a teacher of writing, and a writer still learning my trade, as every writer does–provisionality and process are necessary ingredients for learning. One learns by learning the process; one writes by producing writing, not by having written, by having a product. The reader is always ready to turn into a writer, as Walter Benjamin put it in his essay on the “Work of Art in the Age of Technological Reproducibility.” We thus participate in writing. And participation is yet another concern, and another ‘p’ word, that Birkerts discusses. Instead of that, he wants to return to a time when the author perfected his writing by creating books that, in Birkerts’ phrasing, overpowered the reader.

Perfect, that is to say, completely finished, books might exist–though I haven’t read one. But even if they do exist, the problem becomes, for the writer, for the learner, how to get there while being imperfect? For learners, perfect books are dreamed of and always never written. Isn’t that what happened to Birkerts? These are some of the thoughts and concerns I take into the final pages of his argument and our initial exploration of electronic and hypertext writing.

I used Google Books, by the way, to do some keyword searching–for example, in Gutenberg Elegies. Here is an example (the word process appears 45 times).

As we explore more directly hypertext fiction and poetry this week, consider some basic background for hypertext fiction of the sort that Birkerts encounters. It is from that massive hypertext encyclopedia you know well, WikiPedia. Consider that as both the problem and potential of hypertext literary reading: what if novels or poems read like entires in WikiPedia: in what ways does that change literature? Here is the entry for Hypertext Fiction. We can also think back to McLuhan’s argument, one that I think Birkerts clearly has in mind, though he doesn’t directly quote from: the medium is the message; all media work us over completely. Birkerts believes that the author, not the medium, should be working the reader over. Hypertext, for him, is too much medium, not enough message. I assume he would say the same about the electronic literature archive–where the process, not the product, is on view in the ways the texts are described and categorized.

Do you agree?

For a view and vision of hypertext literature that can be said to disagree with the vision of Birkerts (and strongly) by way of agreeing, consider Shelley Jackson’s essay “Stitch Bitch.” There she argues favorably that hypertext is “what we learned to call bad writing.”

Hypertext: reading notes

Hypertext literally means “over text.” The connotation is a text that is somehow over-stimulated in being a text. In digital terms, it means an electronic text that has a linking mechanism in which a reader has some agency in going to related texts and choosing from multiple pathways through a text. The world wide web is basically a massive hypertext.

My hypertext reading notes.

Notes from the Museum (or memories, links, associations, allusions, illusions)

  • ophelia: intertextuality (hamlet, the nursery rhymes)–and the layering of texts made visible, dynamic with the mouse.
  • the ritual: this is not a poem, not a story, a ritual. What does text as ritual imply–how do we read a ritual? Note the ways the poem seems to escape control, or the way reader changes it. Material metaphor?
  • Zeus page: suggests to me that the narrative is about the differences of interpretation for what is art (of a sort found in a museum–but perhaps also for this narrative experience). So form and content merge, just as they would in museum, where ideas of art are also embodied.
  • Ages of Man (with 5 additional screens): a splintering, distraction of the narrative, or its extension?
  • Easy Choices: several stories within the story, with choices for the ending.
  • Stories: story within story again; also moving/changing text–another material metaphor: something about how stories move, or the mind, or reading. Immersion in the story process?

Jackson Pollock

Electronic Literature Collection

  • Stretchtext: Spastext[Stir Fry Text]  Material metaphor: focusing on writing, on the role of the reader.
    • Another of the Stir Fry Texts, Correspondence–identifies the real materiality of language that the writers are interested in; think Jackson Pollock with painting. What are the paintings “about”? Some art critics would say: about painting, the paint, the painter’s (and viewer’s) interaction with this medium.

Some critical links

  • Birkerts’s concern with hypertext as too much fluid process, the loss of authorial product, seems an obvious connection to most if not all of these hypertexts. Yet they also suggest to me an implication of fluid process that SB doesn’t address, one that I would consider to be a valuable and crucial aspect of literary reading, deep and otherwise: the reading is dynamic, it moves.
  • For a contrasting view of hypertext as valuable, if still messy, in its process, consider Shelley Jackson’s discussion of her own hypertext, Patchwork Girl.


Reading as Playing as Counting?

Some insights for us to forward from Murray and Piper as we consider reading, rather, or also, as playing a game or counting numbers.

A key idea from Murray’s introduction to Hamlet on the Holodeck:

The computer is not the enemy of the book. It is the child of print culture…. I find myself anticipating a new kind of storyteller, one who is half hacker, half bard” (8-9).

A key idea from Piper’s argument in “By the Numbers”:

When we read a digital text we are not reading a static object. We are reading one that has been generated through a set of procedural conditions that depend on our interaction with them. Digital texts are never just there. They are called forth through computation and interaction, whether by a human or a machine. This is what makes them dynamic, not static objects. It is this freature that marks the single strongest dividing line between the nature of books and that of their electronic counterparts. (Book Was There, 132)

Some electronic and computational or algorithmic texts to consider, in response to Janet Murray and Andrew Piper.

Piper argues that “playing with texts has always been at the heart of reading” (140).  Has playing been at the heart of some of your reading experiences? If not, could you argue that reading texts is at the heart of gaming? What does it mean to game? How is that similar to, and different from, reading or interpreting?

Is Google Making Us Stupid?

Is Google Making Us Stupid?

Image via Wikipedia

So, is Google making you stupid?

Sven Birkerts, even before Google, says yes: the web is trapping us in a world of shallowness, a web that erodes language, flattens historical perspective, and destroys privacy. I suggest Carr’s essay, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?,” offers some updating of Birkerts’ concerns, but also some possibility for counter-argument. For our purposes, I would emphasize that Carr’s rhetoric (how he writes and presents his argument) is, at any rate, stronger than Birkerts in key places. It is more effective in what it does–even as it makes a similar argument.

The scene from the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey: the one discussed in the article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” The computer HAL being dismantled by Dave.

The article also refers to Plato’s “Phaedrus,” part of the section that opens up counter-argument. It reminds us that various technological changes stretch far back–and that writing was once the “Google” of ancient Greece. You will recall that McLuhan also refers to this famous dialogue, as does Birkerts and Joseph Harris.

Does my ability, or my desire, to access these ideas from the essay–might I call them, to use a loaded term, these links–in digital form, from the same screen with which I read the essay, constitute deep or shallow reading? Perhaps the problem is we need some different terms to describe what I am doing.

Think back to The Invention of Hugo Cabret  or The Medium is the Massage and our discussion of the way that book (not digital, but print) hypermediates/remediates the traditional book.   Is this also something to fear–or does this return us to something more crucial and fantastic in storytelling or literature? Would lots more types of books like Hugo make us stupid?

Carr has recently turned his article into a book titled The Shallows. Here is a review from the NY Times.

Some additional links to consider–and return to as you develop your argument for the third writing project, The Future of Wreading:

A recent argument that cites Carr, but offers a more interested, hopeful vision for the ways digital reading is creating and influencing fragmentary readers and writers. “Fragmentary: Writing in a Digital Age”

A review of, and argument with, Carr’s book The Shallows (the book that emerges from his Google article).

A NY Times review of some new children’s books that blend print and digital; the reviewer suggests it as an updating of the Choose Your Own Adventure series.

Lanier, “Does a Digital Classroom Enfeeble the Mind”

“Inside the Google Books Algorithm”

Gibson, article in Wired on writing as cut and paste remixing.


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