Last week, I finished reading Maragaret Atwood's novel The Blind Assassin. I was taking my time, enjoying the story and the writing, when I ran across a passage so concise and insightful that I knew I had to share it with you:

“All stories are about wolves. All worth repeating, that is...There's escaping from the wolves, fighting the wolves, capturing the wolves, taming the wolves. Being thrown to the wolves, or throwing others to the wolves so the wolves will eat them instead of you. Running with the wolf pack. Turning into a wolf. Best of all, turning into the head wolf. No other decent stories exist.”

Your Story Needs a Wolf

Call it an opponent, an antagonist, a rival, a nemesis, a wolf, or whatever else you want, but whatever you call it, your story needs one. Without a wolf, there's no conflict. And without conflict, it's not really a story. It's a list of facts or observations. Which is boring.

If you've written a first draft, the most important question you can ask yourself is, "Does my story have a wolf?" If it doesn't, find one. If it does, then think about how you can focus your essay more on the wolf.

9 Ideas about How to Write the Application Essay

You know your story needs a wolf, and Atwood gives us 9 ideas about what role the wolf might play in your story. For those of you more inclined toward listicles than block quotes, here they are in all their splendid simplicity:

  1. Escaping the wolves
  2. Fighting the wolves
  3. Capturing the wolves
  4. Taming the wolves
  5. Being thrown to the wolves
  6. Throwing others to the wolves
  7. Running with the wolves
  8. Turning into a wolf
  9. Turning into the head wolf

Not too complicated, right? Start with your gut feeling about what topic matters to you. If you need more ideas, you can use the story tool on the Essaywise home page. Then find your wolf. Do that, and you'll be off to a great start.

Good luck writing!


Jon Perkins holds a B.A. in English from Stanford University and a J.D. from Harvard Law School. He helps students with their college, law school, and medical school applications.