Essays vs Stories: Plot Twists and Shock Endings.
Is there a fundamental difference in the best ways to structure factual essays and fictional stories? Recently I’ve begun to wonder if they are closer than I thought.
I have a spiel I give to students. It goes like this: An essay, paper or presentation is not like a story or a novel. You are not spoiling it for me if you start by telling me how it ends. I do not want to be surprised by your conclusions. Instead, I want to know where you’re going right from the first paragraph.
We’ve all heard the saying “tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you’ve told them.” But what are you supposed to tell them? A lot of students lapse into vague generality; “I’m going to talk about such and such” or “I’m interested in this and that.” But the most important part of a paper isn’t the theme, it’s the idea – in the same way that the most important part of a story is not the genre but, well, the story! If you aren’t telling me the story, or your idea, then why am I reading your paper?
So the first thing I want to hear is your idea. The introductory few lines of a paper should include a thesis “I think X” followed swiftly by a hypothesis “because of Y and Z”, both because they are the most important parts, but also because if the reader doesn’t get these things first then they become quickly lost. It is hard to understand a paper if you don’t know what point they are trying to make.
For example, it is weak to start with “In this paper I’m going to talk about bitcoins and depositor protection, and how this relates to systemic risk and consumer confidence”, because although you sound like you know what you’re talking about it doesn’t really tell us what you think. Better is “I’m going to show that bitcoin should be required to provide depositor protection. This will reduce systemic risk and increase consumer confidence, both improving the profitability of bitcoin and reducing the social harm in the event of collapse.”
Ok, so you may not know what depositor protection or systemic risk means, but you do know the writer thinks the first one is good and the second one is bad. This gives you a route through the information to come. They still have to explain, and they still have to provide evidence that they are right. But starting with what they think sets you the reader up so that you can test the idea against the content.
The good academic writer will now roadmap the rest of the paper, telling you how they will demonstrate their ideas and in what order. However, if they haven’t set out their thesis and hypothesis right from the outset the roadmap doesn’t help. The best case scenario is you get confused because you don’t know why the writer is telling you these things. The worst is that you make up your own mind, then the writer pulls his surprise ending and you are disappointed that their answer is different from your own.
Now I started off by saying that this was spiel about essays and stories may be wrong. Not wrong about the merits of front loading your academic article. But wrong about essays and stories being different. A recent event made me consider that I needed to front load both.
What happened is a couple of weeks ago I gave a story to two readers. The story revolved around a central character who is insane, who the reader does not know is insane, and whose understanding of events proves in the final paragraph to be deeply flawed. Not an inherently flawed idea in itself, but my two brave readers responded in the same way as I do when my students try to make their academic conclusion a plot twist: the first was confused because they didn’t follow the story, and the second disappointed because the twist wasn’t the one they expected.
I am reminded of Checkov’s gun; the dramatic principle of necessity. A gun mentioned in the first act must be fired in a later act, otherwise you are making promises you will not keep, which annoys the audience. What my readers have shown me is that this works the other way around as well. If a gunshot is a crucial part of the final art, I’d better make sure I show them the gun somewhere beforehand.
Now there’s lots of space for subtlety here, or at least I hope there is, but in my story of the crazy narrator a coherent internal narrative (ie. It all made sense if you read it a second time), was not enough to make the surprise satisfying. I needed to make sure the reader could tell the direction of the story right from the first paragraph the first time through. And it can’t just be a thematic wave of the stick. For that story to work, my crazy narrator needed to be getting something wrong right there in the first paragraph, so that my satisfied reader could enjoy the twist at the end but also say “of course he was bonkers, because you told me in the first paragraph.”
I’m not saying rub it in their faces. Don’t open by saying “Fred was insane and often got things wrong.” Although now that I think about it I quite like that line! The writing needs to develop beyond the initial idea, to substantiate and fulfil the initial idea, but that idea needs to be present from the beginning. The more I look at it, and the more I look back at problems with my stories, the more I think they would have been helped if I made sure to show the reader my most important point in the first couple of lines. Don’t let the desire to surprise defeat the necessity of making sure your reader understands where you are going.