I propose that the three-act narrative structure of a traditional film 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…
Act 1: Introduction/Set UP
Act 2: Complications
Complication #2, #3, etc.
Second Act Turning Point: [further complication; counter-argument]
Act 3: Conclusion
Conclusion: answer to question/solving of problem
Resolution: new normal—where this leaves us; larger implications
Critical Vision: your second essay (like every essay) will develop a vision–something that you see in the novel and want to communicate to your reader: also known as a thesis. Recall that the refined version of that vision/thesis comes with revision. For now, think hypothesis. What is your vision for this novel–what are you interested in illuminating with regard to the intertextual link you will focus on?
Such a vision is not plot, nor should it be the typical way the text might be read: think of it as complicating the plot reading–showing that there is more to the novel than a quick read (or no read–in the case of film) would suggest
Think of it as the idea (story sentence) for your version of Frankenstein–with the understanding that a film needs a surprise; a thesis is (it seems to me) much like a good turning point in a film–the surprise that sets things in motion.
Ultimately, this vision will tie in and be developed and reinforced by the focus you give to the intertextual link [will work on that in revision workshop]
Think of Victor as a bad thesis writer (not just a bad reader, as I have been saying). His thesis leading up to his wedding night is that the creature is after him; he is being stalked by an inhuman monster. It is a predictable thesis (largely repeated by the first film version)–and reinforces Victor’s misreading of the creature, to say nothing of displaying his egocentrism. Shelley’s thesis is more surprising and complicated: Victor’s real fear has something to do with his own, human power of creation and reproduction–a power also located in Elizabeth, or shared with her. Isn’t Victor afraid of the kind of reproductive power Elizabeth possesses?
to develop this thesis, one could go to lots of places in the novel. one would certainly be the reference to Adam and Eve and the apple.
We will continue with the film analogy for our writing when we get to revision workshop. For now, as we work on our critical vision, on developing a hypothesis and thesis that is strong and engaging and not predictable–think about the differences you notice between a film whose premise or idea seems predictable versus one whose idea is surprising or undpredictable, maybe even complicates the predictability of an idea or plot that is already conventional.