How to Write the Perfect Five-Paragraph Essay

It was my job for a time to corral college freshmen, feed them books and then coax from them fits of insight five paragraphs at a time. This I did imperfectly. I asked them to think about their lives to concoct a narrative or descriptive piece from those thoughts. Or I’d place a book or a film in front of them and guide them down a twisting path of analysis. We’d end the semester by debating some thorny societal issue; they’d develop an opinion, search for credible sources to back up their views and then attempt to forcefully argue the point. This is all standard. Pages and pages of reading for me. Many late nights with students’ words. Hand cramped from marking grammar issues. Mind numbed from the repeated phrases, the In today’s society; from the malapropisms, the now and days. As I am teaching and grading these essays, I am writing my own fiction, the stories that would become my collections Insurrections and The World Doesn’t Require You. I wondered about the form of the five-paragraph essay and its place in my own work. One never sees a five-paragraph essay in the wild. Could it hold its own in a mature piece of writing? Constraints can lead to creativity, right? Isn’t that what poetic forms are about? This is how I arrived at the novella, “Special Topics in Loneliness Studies,” which ends my second collection. The constraints imposed by the five-paragraph essay could, I figured, be a space to dramatize all that is contradictory or absurd about academia.

In my own fiction, I usually dream freely, writing without form, mostly, hoping the words, like water, find their own shape. In my students’ work, though, I, like many academics engaged in teaching Composition, imposed a rigid structure: five paragraphs consisting of an introduction with a thesis statement at the end, three body paragraphs, and a summary conclusion. It’s a heavily maligned form, I know. Writer John Warner, whose book Why They Can’t Write is subtitled: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities, insists it warps students’ idea of a well-formed essay and we should “kill it dead.” Even while teaching it and arguing that the form allows weaker writers unfamiliar with structure and grammar to find their way, I had my reservations. To think this through further, I figured, I’d introduce the form to my fiction. First, I’d write a story consisting of nothing but five-paragraph essays, taking us through a semester in a student’s and a professor’s life. It would be a longer story, though not anything resembling a novella; the essays would begin in a relatively milquetoast way though full of colorful malaprops and misspellings that winked at double meanings. As the student grew in confidence she would also grow more verbose and the narrative would become surreal and loopy until she was in open revolt against the structure of the essay, the professor, and society itself.
This provided some challenges that made themselves obvious before I could even write the first word. How does the professor’s voice get into the story? What is this class about and why does it make this student want to rebel? Most importantly, what the heck is this student writing about? Essays, student essays in Comp. 101 at least, don’t come from nowhere. They come from prompts carefully drawn up by professors to achieve some educational purpose. Those educational purposes are laid out in the course syllabus. Before I could write this student’s essays, before I could write a prompt, I needed to write a syllabus. This would be a Freshman Composition class, I knew. There I could exploit any number of contradictions and conflicts—between the high intellectual nature of the academic and the utilitarian nature of the course; between bored student and starry-eyed professor. It would be tragic. It would be hilarious.


When I started drawing up the syllabus, I thought of the way the realities of the classroom impose a loneliness onto the academic, particularly low-paid, overworked contingent faculty members. The words Professor or Dr. appended to the beginning of a name have the ring of prestige, but the miniscule rewards—low pay, lack of stability and time because of the mountains of papers to grade—often make getting through day-to-day life difficult and frustrating, even dangerous if you have no health benefits and your overwork is eroding your health. The phrase, Special Topics in Loneliness Studies, flitted through my head as a title and in making the syllabus the professor character formed. He would be a lonely man obsessed by loneliness and, like any good academic, he would use his intellect to solve his solitude. A doomed project if I’ve ever heard one. When I heard the professor’s voice I needed to know why he was so lonely. Some of it was in his syllabus, but to really understand it I needed context that called for traditional narration. I watched the story grow, not just into sections like a traditional short story, but into chapters. The email is both the bane and lifeblood of the college campus these days. As the professor reached out to his students and peers via electronic mail, I wrote those for him and his peers and charges. But what did the professor tell his students in class? Back in the real world, I spent many a class hour standing in front of PowerPoint presentations, talking and watching students flash pictures of the screen like paparazzi. I snapped ridiculous pictures of my childhood toys and used the photos to create the professor’s lecture slides. To you and me they’d be absurd, to him the pictures are as serious as commitment, as serious as sitting in solitude to think through your life’s path.
Through the process of getting to know the characters and watching the piece expand from a long short story into a novella, I realized I had to abandon my original conceit, the constraint of a series of five-paragraph essays that were to bring me boundless creativity. While the narrative had prompts for free writes and free writes from the student, both further revealing the professor and the student, the five-paragraph essay had not yet made an appearance. The narrative no longer needed three of them to mark time. The narrative now took place in an academic year, not a semester. I must say, I wasn’t eager to write the five-paragraph essay I knew the book needed. I had written enough from the student’s perspective that I knew her. Her final class essay had to represent a maturity of her voice. But the five-paragraph essay is often thought of as facile and stale, the opposite of mature, fully realized work. As Warner writes in an Inside Higher Ed essay: “The 5-paragraph essay is indeed a genre, but one that is entirely uncoupled from anything resembling meaningful work when it comes to developing a fully mature writing process.” I consulted books, doing the research the student would have done, inhabiting her, and then I wrote, following the rules and structures of the five-paragraph essay with the precision I had always hoped my students would, creating for her and for the narrative a piece of insight in five paragraphs.
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and also appeared on publishersweekly.com.

Image credit: Unsplash/Lachlan Cormie.

Across the Boundaries: A Conversation with Sonya Chung and Rion Amilcar Scott

Sonya Chung’s novel The Loved Ones is the type of book you read slowly, pausing to reflect on the difficult wisdom and the tangibly human characters. I corresponded via email with Sonya (a contributing editor at The Millions) about creating multi-dimensional characters, reader expectations, writing across difference, and more.

Rion Amilcar Scott: Part of what I love about The Loved Ones is how believably you render characters who are so different from one another and from you the author. You approach them all with a core of warmth and humanity. Can you talk about how you approached the creation of a Charles, and Alice or a Hannah. You mention in a previous interview that you had to work hard to get to know these characters. I’m wondering what that “working hard” looks like.

Sonya Chung: First, I’m gratified to hear that you found the characters believable and experienced warmth and humanity in the writing; of course that was my hope/intention, but in taking major imaginative leaps, one always risks failure on these fronts.

With each of the characters you mention — Charles, who is African American, the youngest son in a large family, fatherless, a former soldier, a reader of spy novels; his wife Alice, who is white and estranged from her privileged, conservative southern family; and Hannah, who is closest to me demographically but odd and isolated in a very particular way — the “working hard” meant different things.

Charles is a composite of different men I’ve either known well or observed closely (from one degree of separation) over the last 20 years. Developing and rendering Charles thus involved both melding the composite elements into a coherent singular person, as well as finding the part of me, the author, that would express itself in him (which is what I think we authors have to do with all our characters).  Or: backing up a little, maybe the most significant work were those 20 years; I could not have written this book, say, 15 years ago, or even 10.  In fact, I tried to write it six years ago and failed; that unpublished novel was a very different story with different characters, but I do think of it as the first try at this one.

With Alice, there was some research to do — campus-protest culture in the early ’70s, the Peace Corps in Chile, the Department of Defense educational system, and army-base life in Seoul — but mostly I had to work at compassion for Alice, to understand that her often alienating behavior was motivated by a series of losses, compounded.  I knew that if I couldn’t connect emotionally with Alice — especially when her emotions went dark and cold — then the reader wouldn’t either.

Hannah, interestingly, became the most challenging character to access and fully develop. I was a lonely child like her, but my family circumstances were very different; and my childhood world was multiracial but segregated, while hers, by design, collides with Charles and Alice Lee’s world.  What ultimately befalls Hannah in The Loved Ones is quite far from my own experience, so she became a distinctly “write what you don’t know” character for me, and I had to employ all the textbook writerly skills of putting myself in her shoes, really immersing in “what if?” empathy, and investing myself in her way of reacting to the world around her (which is rather unconventional).

You’ve talked in an interview about the “work” of writing across gender.  What does that look like for you?  I’m also wondering your thoughts on the institutional power differentials surrounding these identity-crossing issues in fiction.  For example, many people ask me about writing Charles Lee, but you are the first to ask me about writing Alice Lee.  Is this because she is white?  Or perhaps because she is less of a major character?

RAS: The “work” of writing across any sort of difference, to me, requires finding what sort of commonalities you, the author, have with that character. When I was writing from the perspective of an 11-year-old girl in “202 Checkmates” I first asked myself what mattered to me when I was 11. I remembered the futile crushes, the play, the curiosity and fear of the adult world, and the burgeoning reality that I was steadily marching into it. All of that is somewhat universal to children at that age. Then I had to think about how navigating these things is different for a girl.

I find it interesting that no one asks about how Alice Lee was created. She and Charles are the characters that stick with me most because they are such difficult people, both difficult in their own unique ways. Two theories on why people ask about Charles and not Alice: 1) It’s unusual seeing such a well-drawn black character, at least more rare than encountering a white character who is presented as fully human. Or, relatedly, 2) White is seen as the default in fiction so painting an Alice character is not regarded as extraordinary. By the way, even creating a well-drawn character that does not cut across difference, that is some composite of the author’s own life experiences, is a difficult and extraordinary feat.

I’m curious about what sort of responses you’ve gotten about your characters and how that differed from your intentions for them?

SC: You know, I’ve gotten positive feedback about the book in general — its ideas and themes and overall multi/interracial conception — and about “the characters” being real and dimensional. Most people share your sense that the characters are “difficult,” and a few reviewers and interviewers have commented on how impressed they were to be drawn into rooting for such difficult characters.  One thing I hear often is how much readers cared about “every one of the characters.” On the one hand, that’s extremely gratifying, given the challenges of creating well-drawn characters we’ve just discussed; but I do wonder in what ways different readers connect or attach themselves to specific characters.

Some readers have said The Loved Ones is Charles’s story; others have said Hannah takes center stage.  A few readers attach themselves strongly to Hannah’s parents. I don’t hear much about Veda (Charles and Alice’s biracial daughter), which surprises me a little: she’s a secondary character, but sort of the breath-of-fresh-air character.  And again, very little comment on Alice, generally speaking (poor Alice!).

I wonder: how much does the reader’s own identity — race, gender, age, sexuality, etc. — affect, if at all, connection to/repulsion by various characters?  I also wonder who, in these current times, is drawn to reading a book with a multiracial ensemble cast.  There are a number of high-profile novels that came out this fall that are “Black” or “Asian,” and I sometimes wonder if The Loved Ones is a harder sell amidst them.

(I could probably do a little research on all this by poring over Goodreads reviews or something; but I am intentionally choosing not to do that, for my own sanity!)

Do you have a sense of who is reading your work and how they are responding to various stories, characters, ideas?

RAS: I’m surprised that anyone at all is reading Insurrections.  But people are and the reception has been generally positive, people showing me things I hadn’t necessarily considered about the stories. For instance, students showing me the ways “Juba” — about a man being mistaken and arrested for being a mythical drug dealer — can be read as a parable for the mass incarceration era.

People like to ask about where the reality in the work lies, which is odd since most of my stories are akin to fever dreams, I think. Ordinary people don’t go out looking for mythical drug dealers after mistaken identity encounters; that’s an insane thing to do and I don’t recommend it.

Readers have also asked me a lot about the bigger picture. My book takes place in the fictional town of Cross River, Md., which was founded after a successful slave revolt; I plan to explore Cross River for as long as I’m writing fiction. So I tend to think of Insurrections as one piece in a much larger puzzle. Some readers wanted to see a lot of the stories resolved and I don’t want to resolve anything for anyone, I want readers to ruminate when they get to the end of a story; people tend to be happy to hear the town is coming back and some of the characters are coming back. But when Cross River comes back it’s not to resolve or to provide happy endings, but for us to keep thinking about the ways we access and react to history that controls us despite our dim awareness of it.

How about you? What is your sense about how The Loved Ones fits into what you envision is your larger landscape as an author?

SC: “Ordinary people don’t go out looking for mythical drug dealers after mistaken identity encounters; that’s an insane thing to do and I don’t recommend it.”  I think we’ve just found the tagline for this conversation.  Or maybe the title of your next Cross River installment . . .

But seriously: I love hearing about the stories in Insurrections as “fever dreams” (that rings true for me, as one of your readers) and that Cross River is a place you are continuing to explore.  I recall reading a review of Insurrections in which the reviewer did feel that the place was as yet fully explored, and I appreciate your perspective as the artist, which is Yeah, exactly.  The patience and process-centeredness of that resonates.

By the way, when my first novel came out, I was also surprised when people said they’d read it.  You have?  I would think.  Why in the world would you do that?  Recently I walked into an esteemed writer’s vast library (someone I don’t really know, a friend of a friend) and was awestruck — it was like a mythical Borgesian sort of place — then I looked over and saw, literally, right there on a shelf by my knee, a copy of my first novel, Long for This World.  It was a little crazy; I mean I’m proud of that book, but it didn’t exactly sweep the nation.  I nudged my friend and asked if she’d given it to the writer whose library it was, and she said no and was as delighted and surprised as I was to see it there. I share that story just to remind us writers — lest we fall into defeatism or assumptions — that there is still something magical about the way books and readers find each other.

My larger landscape: with The Loved Ones I had the experience of writing (and rewriting and rewriting) a book that felt like a deep and wide and compressed and honed version of who I am — so much of the best and most difficult stuff I’ve really known in my life.  Not literally, but intellectually, emotionally, psychologically, spiritually. And so I feel like I kind of understand now how the best books — my best books — will get written: it can’t be a craft exercise, or an imaginative exercise, or a conceptual exercise, or — and this feels particularly relevant right now — a political statement.  I mean, it can, but there also has to be real, personal skin in the game.  And so the next books — I have two simmering in adjacent pots right now (I like the idea of a work of art as a stew that needs a long time to find its optimal flavor) — are also both reaching into those most interesting, complicated, difficult-to-talk-about lived life spaces.  Specifically, race, sex, art, religion, family — the complicated undersides of all these.  If there’s a big-picture trajectory — and I’m not sure there is — but if there is, I imagine myself becoming more and more invested and vulnerable in what I’m writing, while also upping (sharpening, experimenting, paring down) my craft to match.  It sounds simple, but writers know how impossible this is.  I like what the sculptor Henry Moore said, that the secret of life is devoting yourself tirelessly to the tasks of your vocation, and the task at hand “must be something you cannot possibly do.”

I’d love to hear a little about your forthcoming book Wolf Tickets.  Is it related/connected to Insurrections, or something completely different?  How does the new book compare with the first one — writing process, publication process, your anticipation of its release and reception now that you have one book under your belt?

RAS: Wolf Tickets also takes place in Cross River, but it is a very different book. Much more hallucinatory, much darker, much more relentless. It’s a collection of linked (mostly) flash stories about a wolf hunt that gets very out of control. It’s a time of violence and lacking common decency and resistance. I wrote and submitted Wolf Tickets before Insurrections was completed. For reasons beyond my control it’s been sitting on the shelf for a while now. Things are starting to move with it. The thing I love about writing these two books is all the little things they teach me about Cross River. I worked on them in tandem so they really do speak to each other. Characters in the books do not overlap, but locations and ideas and the common histories do. The final story in Wolf Tickets called on a lyricism I wasn’t sure I was capable of so I learned to write word by word — often my writing day consisted of just listing words that I imagined needed to appear in the story. This taught me how to write, “Three Insurrections,”  the final story in Insurrections, which had been troubling me for years (it took me three years to write).

What about, you? I’m very much looking forward to whatever you’re working on now and/or have coming next.

SC: And I’m really looking forward to Wolf Tickets — writing “word by word” is especially intriguing and exciting to me, as I’m sure it is to all our language-oriented readers here. It’s also interesting about the timing: production and publishing is indeed often out of our control, but I’ll look forward to hearing you tell the “story” of the two books, how they speak to each other and what it means to you for one to precede the other in the world, and vice versa in your process.

As for me, I’m working on book-length nonfiction and fiction simultaneously.  I’m finding both really difficult and really absorbing (à la Henry Moore), though in different ways.  I like going back and forth between the two, although each requires serious immersion, so I can’t flip-flop too frequently.  I find I have to really “listen” for which project to be working on, for fear that the simultaneity will forestall completion of either in an unproductive way; my hope is for the projects to feed each other and my writing energy.

Trying to publish book-length nonfiction will be a new journey for me.  But I’m optimistic about publishing prospects in general, because of the excellent experience I’ve had with Relegation Books, a micropress/“craft” publisher.  There are so many fabulous small presses right now, and I was able to experience the reality that there are myriad superb options out there outside The Big Five — that there truly is a best way to publish one’s book, as opposed to the conventional, erroneous idea that there is Plan A (corporate) and Plan B (indie).  I feel we are living in a world now where claiming and investing ourselves in robust democratization — bottom-up creativity — is more crucial, and more appealing, than ever.