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Essay Outline Part 2: Theme

Simple example

This example shows that a story's process is connected to its theme:


Plot arc (main goal of the story): learn to ride a bike

Process

Themes

The main character keeps falling but keeps getting up. Eventually, they succeed.

  • Resilience

  • Perseverance

The main character keeps stubbornly failing and refusing help. Eventually, have to ask their older sibling for help. After this, they succeed.

  • Learning to ask for help

  • Overcoming pride

Process & theme

How you succeed (or fail) implies a lesson about how people should act or see the world.

In Process 1, the protagonist succeeds by being resilient. This implies that resilience is important for achieving goals: we must be willing to face failure before we reach success.


In Process 2, resilience is not enough. The protagonist must overcome their pride and accept that asking for help is a natural, necessary part of growth.


Theme questions

Asking these questions can help you figure our your story's theme:

Question

Aspect of story

Impact on theme

What did you do?

Process (act 2 & climax)

Spotlight a trait or worldview

What was the outcome?

Resolution (of plot arc)

Validate or critique this trait or worldview

How did you change?

Character arc

Give the theme emotional impact through empathy

Node and Fork

If you structured your personal essay correctly, you should have a climax with several possible outcomes. Obviously, you should write what actually happened in your life, but considering all potential outcomes can clarify your story's theme—or let you know that it's time to consider a new topic.

  • Node: a key point in the story with 2+ possible outcomes

  • Fork: a possible outcome

Let's use the AP Stats story from my last post. The image below is not a complete list of options, but this is already getting pretty complicated.



The process of the AP Stats story is the main character studying with other students and gradually developing a friendship with them. MC faces a moral conflict that highlights the connection between selfishness and personal success.


Based on this process, here are the themes for all 8 resolution options. If these don't make sense, I'll explain them all below.


If you missed it, the numbers come from the orange boxes on the right in the picture.

Ending

Theme

1

"Crime doesn't pay"

2

We live in a society (where people are incentivized to be selfish)

3

​Crime doesn't pay (but friendship does)

4

Crime pays ... and so does friendship (this theme is weak)

5

Friendship is more important than personal success

6

Society is unfair, and those who find success (even through moral means) have a responsibility to acknowledge the opportunities they have taken from others.

7

​Sometimes, life is unfair—but having a community of people who support you can help you through tough times (this theme is also a little weak/confusing)

8

"Success is not counted by how high you have climbed but by how many people you brought with you." (apparently this is a quote by Dr. Wil Rose)

Theme Explanations

Theme One: If the main character sabotages his friends and still fails to succeed, this means that selfishness is not a viable path to success. The story becomes a cautionary tale (god, this makes me sound like ChatGPT) against letting your selfish desire for success outweigh your relationships with others.


Theme Two: All the "sabotage + success" endings are pretty weird to me, because the way I wrote the first half of the story heavily implies that the main character will ultimately choose to be unselfish. But if they do decide to still sabotage their new friends and succeed, then the story becomes a criticism of the way our society is set up. There's something tragic about seeing someone have a moral crisis ("should I really betray my friends for a grade?") and then still decide to do it and achieve the success they originally wanted. This ending has two flavors (more forks I didn't put in the graphic):

  1. the main character lies to their friends about the sabotage and harbor a sense of guilt.

  2. the main character's friends learn about the sabotage and resent MC, leaving them alone and (probably) unhappy with the success they thought they wanted.

Theme Three: This one's pretty funny. I imagine it playing out like this: the main character (who isn't as smart as the other members of the study group) tries a really bad sabotage plan. Either the plan fails, or MC (I should have named them...) gets caught by the teacher. Either way, it would be funny to see Torn-Nikes Tim (who is implied to be the laziest member of the group) get an A through the help of his friends while MC fails because of their selfishness.


Theme Four: This ending/theme don't make sense to me. MC succeeds by cheating, but the other members of the group also succeed by not cheating? The story frames "cheating vs. not cheating" as a moral conflict of "selfishness vs. unselfishness." Having them both be viable paths to success is confusing. How does MC "successfully" sabotage his friends while they also still get As?


Theme Five: This is the one most people probably expect. MC chooses not to sabotage his friends, one of the smart kids gets the A, but MC realizes that friendship is more important than personal success. I like this one because it does the fun trick of giving a satisfying, positive resolution despite the main character failing their plot arc.


For another example of this ending type, see "Me Talk Pretty One Day" by David Sedaris (the short essay, not the entire collection.)


Theme Six: This is another social critique. MC experiences moral conflict from their desire for personal success vs. empathy for their friends, chooses to do the right thing, and still succeeds at the cost of their friends' success. All the "no sabotage" versions of MC have maximum empathy for their friends and are willing to sacrifice personal success for their friends' happiness. So this version of MC is the most sad and conflicted about getting the only A—and most conscious of how unfair this grading system is.


This makes the story an allegory for, well, the theme I listed above for #6.


Theme Seven: This is one of my favorite quirky endings, but it would be tricky to pull off. It leans the most into the idea that friendship is more important than success. For this ending to work, MC's friends have to meaningfully provide emotional support to counterbalance the two-part sadness of having not gotten an A and learning that the zero-sum game was a lie (presumably to get the students to study harder).


Theme Eight: This ending would be a little deus ex machina if you're not careful. (That means that the solution to the seemingly unsolvable problem comes out of nowhere right at the end.) If you wanted to do this version, you'd have to revise earlier sections to include subtle hints that this was coming. From there, MC would realize that the study-session idea helped not only them but also Torn-Nikes Tim get an A.


I personally wouldn't want to write this ending because it deflates the conflict (sabotage vs. no sabotage), which draws our attention away from the complex relationship between selfishness and personal success. It communicates (unrealistically, I think) that everyone can succeed because society is a fair meritocracy (even if it superficially appears to be otherwise).


What else do we learn from this?

1. Resilience/perseverance essays are weak for personal statements.

In the bike example, the protagonist doesn't change in Process 1, meaning the first version does not feature personal growth.


2. Avoid mentor essays.

A mentor essay is any essay where someone else does the majority of the actions. These actions usually inspire you to grow or learn a lesson—but since you didn't do anything, your essay doesn't feature a process that we can connect to a theme.

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