Category Archives: Structure

Structure: Once upon a time….

The end of Jean Cocteau's introduction to his film version of Beauty and the Beast.
The end of Jean Cocteau’s introduction to his film version of Beauty and the Beast.

Writers of nonfiction, including the academic variety, can often learn useful lessons from the more “artful” storytelling world of novelists, playwrights and filmmakers. The phrase “Once upon a time…,” despite or perhaps because of age (it’s apparently been in use since 1380), still evokes a sense of wonder. It’s a sense that has been exploited in numerous ways over the years, including George Lucas’ “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away….” in Star Wars to the title of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West.

The introduction to the first Star Wars movie.
The introduction to the first Star Wars movie.

Sometimes opening words can take on a life all their own. Think of the first paragraph of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” or “Rosebud,” the first word spoken in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane. While Tolstoy’s sentence sets the tone for his novel, the dying word of Charles Foster Kane sets up a mystery (a question if you will) which the film’s story attempts to unravel.

Students are taught to write introductory paragraphs that clearly state what you are going to write about and how you are going to go about it. Unless you have been assigned to do one of those five-paragraph essays, your opening statement does not have to be your opening paragraph—it might even be several paragraphs long.

For instance, you could start off by telling an anecdote whose relevance to your topic is not initially evident. It could set up a mystery or question much like Welles did with “Rosebud.” One might also begin with an evocative quotation, such as “Once upon a time….” to start a book review of Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, or Tolstoy’s “Happy families” to introduce your essay on the dynamics of families coping with schizophrenia.

While the use of anecdotes and/or quotations to start off your book or essay might seem a bit of a cliché, they can be useful literary devices to get you going. After all, it’s much more interesting than starting a term paper for your American Literature class with something as cut and dry as, “John Steinbeck was born on February 27, 1902, in Salinas, California.”

Structure: Opening and Closing Paragraphs

Dorothy Parker writingOne of the most common problems in writing nonfiction, faced by students and professionals alike, is making sure your opening and closing paragraphs relate to each other. This is true whether the work is a 1,500-word term paper or a 120,000-word book. It is an issue I’m facing right now in expanding my PhD dissertation into a book. Not only am I enlarging the scope of my earlier work, I am using a different theoretical framework, which has made me look at what I wrote years ago in a different light. Fortunately, I have a year to fix problems and I have two crackerjack editors—my wife and the one assigned by the publisher—to help me.

College students who don’t seek professional assistance in writing their papers tend to rely on friends, family and their school’s writing assistance program. Term papers are also often done last minute and the writer is delighted at finishing it on time. Very few professional writers, except possibly journalists, consider their work completed after a first draft. An example I saw all the time: A paper starts off with one topic ends up being about something else. There may nothing wrong with either topic, but when your opening paragraph says you’re going to write about “A” but your conclusion is about “B,” you have a problem—and it will hurt your grade.

The question then is how to avoid this situation? Problems like this are fixed by doing a second draft! You can edit your second draft to stick to your original topic. Or, you can rewrite the opening to conform to your conclusions, making sure your evidence supports the new argument. In other words, your opening paragraph should be the last thing you write.

In writing future papers, you might want to consider an approach championed by Wayne C. Booth, Gregory G. Colomb and Joseph M. Williams in their valuable book, The Craft of Research, when writing a paper, constantly refer back to your opening statements to make sure you’re keeping on track.

— Harvey Deneroff