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Michael Barsanti's On Structure

On Structure
Michael Barsanti

A lot of the papers I have been reading follow a reliable, clear, and conventional mode of organization: the "one-text-per- paragraph" mode. Basically, these papers start with a general idea common to three works, show how each work exemplifies this idea (one paragraph per), then summarize by repeating the introduction with some changes and new thoughts sprinkled in.


Intro: In the Frankenstein tradition, Frankenstein's creation is hated because he is ugly.
First Paragraph: In Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, the creation is hated because he is ugly.
Second Paragraph: In James Whale's 1931 film version, the creation is hated because he is ugly, and this time we can actually see how ugly he is.
Third Paragraph: In the film Bride of Frankenstein, the monster is hated, even by another monster, because he is ugly.
Conclusion: I have now proven that Frankenstein's creation is hated because he is ugly. We should not judge books by their covers.

There are many reasons to use this organizational structure- -it's easy, it's organized, and it can be planned and written quickly. It also tends to be rather uninteresting and repetitive, unless you are comparing things whose similarities are far from obvious. Because you are simply repeating one claim through several texts (or characters or episodes or whatever), you are often forced to use a claim so broad that it could be applied to anything. In short, this way of organizing papers promotes the use of cliches like "We should not judge a book by its cover," a moral that can be as easily applied to Clueless, James Joyce's Ulysses, the Dukes of Hazzard, and The Shining as to any of the Frankenstein works. [Now that would be an interesting comparative essay.]

Here's an alternative. Instead of assigning each paragraph in your essay to a particular work or character before you start to write, think of each paragraph as making a statement in a larger argument. Another way of saying this: think of your essay as trip from a starting point to a destination, and think of each paragraph as representing an essential leg of the trip. [If I want to get to _________, I have to go through X, Y, and Z. If I want to prove _________, I have to prove X, Y, and Z to get there.] This style of structuring an essay will support "riskier" and more interesting arguments. It also lends itself to talking about fewer works--maybe only one work. It can still be used to compare things, but it encourages you to compare things for a reason more interesting than the comparison itself.


Intro: In the Frankenstein tradition, Frankenstein's creation is hated because he is ugly.
Second Para: The creation's ugliness is related to his size and the fact that he is made out of used corpse parts.
Third Para: The corpse parts are important, because they cause the monster to be associated with death.
Fourth: If the monster is associated with death, one reason he is frightening is because dead things are supposed to be gone and forgotten--but the monster represents something alive and back from the grave.
Conclusion: Therefore fear of the monster comes from the fact that he is a visible reminder to people that the bad things they have done in the past have the capacity to return to haunt them.

Note how in this summary, the ideas progress from paragraph to paragraph and follow from one to the other like links in a chain, or like the aforementioned "trip" that moves from place to place. The trip arrives back in the neighborhood where it started, but with a different, wider, perspective. You might think of yourself as the guide for this trip, taking your reader over territory with which he or she is not familiar, but which you think holds something interesting for him or her to learn.

One problem with this second model is that it is more difficult than the first, but the payoff to you and to your reader will be well worth it.