One of the first things you need to do before you can get started on your paper is to decide what you want to write about. Often, the most basic part of this decision has been made for you by your professor, who has assigned a topic or list of topics for you to choose from; sometimes, you might need to start from scratch and think of your own topic. In either case, the helpful hints about brainstorming contained in this section will help you to create and narrow your topic.
If you have been assigned a topic, read it over carefully. Once you have a good idea of what the prompt is asking you for, find the scenes in the text/film that are relevant to that topic and review them. For instance, if you were asked to analyze the relationship between Vito and Michael Corleone in The Godfather, your first step would be to brainstorm which scenes in the film show interactions between Vito and Michael or feature one character talking about the other. Watch these scenes again (or, if you are working with a book, reread the relevant passages) and take notes as you do so.
According to Professor Jessica Scarlata, one of the easiest ways to figure out a broad topic when you are not given a prompt is to ask yourself a simple question: “What is it about this text that interests me?” For instance, says Professor Scarlata, if you decided you wanted to write you paper about The Godfather, you would want to figure out what made the film enjoyable to you and what made it seem relevant. Perhaps were surprised that you empathized with the Corleone family. Perhaps you felt it was tragic when Michael replaced Vito as the godfather of the family. Either of these would make good starting points for a paper.
If you find yourself unable to pinpoint something about the text that interests you, Professor Scarlata suggests that you look for obvious motifs in the text. For instance, if you were watching the movie Heat, you would notice that characters mention over and over again that the film takes place on the hottest day of the year. You would also notice that characters mention temperature several times and appear to be sweating in certain scenes. That motif can make an interest starting-point for a paper about the film.
If you have been assigned a topic and have reviewed the relevant scenes or passages, you can now start figuring out how you will approach the topic. Most prompts could be approached in several ways. For instance, if you were asked to analyze a specific scene of a film, you could choose to analyze the directorial choices made in that scene, to do a close “reading” of the language used by the characters in the scene, to write about how elements of that scene relate to the rest of the film, etc. If you are assigned a 5-7 page paper, it is unlikely that you will be able to adequately explore all of these subtopics. You need to choose one or two elements of the scene and focus on those; to help you decide what to write about, review your notes. If you wrote down quotes from the characters because they caught your attention, consider writing about the language in a specific scene. If you jotted down comments about visual elements, consider focusing on cinematography.
If you have not been assigned a topic, you should start thinking of questions your paper might answer. You might recall that when your professor assigns you a topic, he or she will not usually provide you with a simple statement about which to write (e.g. “Write about the concept of hot days and temperature in Heat”). Rather, the assigned topic will usually take the form of questions about one aspect of a text. Now that you know which aspect of your text you plan to focus on, you can generate questions similar to those your professor might have asked in order to narrow your topic and guide you towards a thesis.
For example, says Professor Scarlata, if you chose to focus on the unusual fact that gangsters in the Corleone family are sympathetic characters, you might ask yourself the following questions:
What is it that makes me sympathize with these characters? Is it the way the story is narrated? Do thematic and plot elements help to me empathize with the Corleones? Do Francis Ford Coppola’s directorial choices make the characters seem sympathetic? Does my sympathy have anything to do with the context of the film? If so, how do these things affect my reading of the film?
In the case of The Godfather, comments Professor Scarlata, you might note that the Corleones’ murders in the film begin as responses to other killings; they are defensive. Coppola also lingers on murders committed by other families more than those committed by the Corleones and makes the Corleones’ murders visually less brutal and shocking than those of the other families. You might also notice that Coppola situates Vito in the American ideology by opening the film with a black screen and a voiceover from Vito: “I believe in America.” This could lead you to explore how The Godfather and other gangster movies portray gangsters as immigrants who achieve the American Dream in much the same way that capitalists do (only with more blatantly illegal methods). Or, it might lead you to consider that The Godfather was released during a violent period of America’s history and explore the meanings of Vito’s statement in that context. Any of these ideas and observations could help you to make a solid argument about why and how Vito and the Corleone family seem like sympathetic characters instead of murderous monsters.
When you have finished finding a broad topic and exploring the topic through questions, you are ready to move on to Formulating Your Thesis.