When I’m writing fiction, I only recognise what a story is really about when it’s very near completion. Only then does it become clear that it’s about ‘control versus letting go’, for example, or ‘security versus freedom’. I realise I need to go back and find the places in the text where these tensions arise, and explore them more deeply.
This can apply in academic writing in the arts, humanities and social sciences, too. Try the following exercise with your essay, dissertation or thesis. Identifying opposing elements in your work can expose underlying conflicts and reveal potential themes.
- In two columns, list at least five pairs of ‘opposites’ within your project. You might identify opposing elements in relation to size, space or time — or personality, habitat or temperature, for example.
- Freewrite to reflect on the relationships between these pairs of opposites. (Freewriting is writing steadily without stopping and without knowing where you’re going.)
- Identify places in your work where you may want to consider these relationships further or make the conflicts more apparent.
I used this exercise on my own doctoral thesis, which explores parallels between the mythic archetype – or classic story arc – and the creative process. I quickly noted down the following ‘opposites’ in these paradigms:
Studying the list, I noticed that these opposites might be further aligned by the typical qualities of masculine and feminine, or yin and yang:
I realised that the protagonist’s journey through a story and an individual’s creative process both swung between these two poles. This informed the conclusion of my thesis.
At a writing workshop for artists and writers, I asked them to consider opposites within their own work in progress. Participants identified contrasts they hadn’t previously been aware of: movement and stasis; smooth and rough; child and adult. These tensions triggered ideas that enabled them to develop the central theme of their work.
If you try this exercise, it might help you identify hidden tensions that reveal a theme. You may then want to ensure that you have highlighted these tensions within the work itself.