What is luminol?
If you have ever watched CSI or any other crime drama, you've probably seen luminol. The detective suspects there is blood at the crime scene. To test her hunch, she sprays the area with luminol. Luminol reacts with the iron in blood to give off an eerie blue glow.
You're the detective.
When you first think of a possible topic, you're standing in the detective's shoes. You have a hunch you're on the right track to a good essay, but you need a way to confirm. If only there were essay luminol, something you could use to test your topic to see whether it's the real thing or just a false lead.
My version of essay luminol is a series of 7 areas you can explore about your topic. If you find you have a lot to say about most of these questions, that's a good sign. If not, then maybe you need to keep looking. OK, here we go:
- Images. When you think of your topic, what images come to mind? Think of some important moments related to your topic, and consider what you saw during those moments. Who, what, where. To take it a step further, does any of these images seem like ones that might not be obvious to other people writing about the same topic? If I'm writing about soccer, then yes, the soccer ball is an image, but it's an obvious image that will occur to most people writing soccer essays. The old rag I use to polish my old-school Copas is maybe less obvious. Ideally, you'll find at least one unique image relating to your topic.
- Desires. This will not be the first or last time I tell you that good characters want things. If you don't want anything, then I'm not sure why I should care about what you're saying. As you think about your topic, what did you want? It might be something abstract, like a quantum of solace, if that is even the correct measure of solace. Or it might be something concrete, like potato chips and french onion dip. And you might discover that your desire changes - you start out wanting one thing, like chips and dip, and then you realize what you really want is solace. Look for at least one desire to move your story.
- Words. Most likely, your involvement with your topic did not occur in pure solitude. You interacted with other people. One way to develop your topic is to consider your conversations with those other people. Was there something you said that you remember? Something someone else said? Was there a misunderstanding, disagreement, or other conflict? Some words that evoked a strong response from you? Those are the types of words that might help you discover why this topic is important to you.
- Actions. When I was in college, I had a conversation with my grandmother about religion the importance of beliefs versus the importance of actions. I dared to suggest to Gramy that belief mattered more than actions. She just looked at me and said, "Jonathan, if what you do in this world isn't important, then I don't know what is." Sentences starting with "Jonathan" usually indicate rebuke from some loved one, and this was no exception. But the point here is that what you do matters. When you're talking about your topic, it can't all be in your head. You have to talk about what you did and what the people around you did.
- Obstacles. Yes, here we are at obstacles again. If you think about your favorite book or movie, you'll probably have to concede that your favorite characters face obstacles. Not only that, but these obstacles probably made your favorite characters into the people you love. An obstacle could be a thing, a person, or even a personality flaw. What is the mountain blocking your path? Who is your Voldemort? What is your Achilles' heel? Think about what stood between you and your desire.
- Values. If colleges don't read your essay, they'll know your GPA and your classes. They'll know your SAT and other scores. They'll know from your activities list how you spent your time. But they will have no idea what type of person you are. So if there's a value that matters to you, the essay is your chance to share it. If you don't tell the colleges that you're all about congruence, confidence, or whatever, they'll have no idea, and you'll have missed your chance. Think about what values you learned through your topic. Even better, think about how what you actually learned differed from what you expected to learn. And think about what you have yet to learn, too. Your essay doesn't have to end with you achieving perfection.
- Changes. Just remember back to when your parents read you The Very Hungry Caterpillar. That gluttonous caterpillar doesn't just stay a caterpillar. He transforms into a butterfly. You don't need to undergo a complete transformation, but you need to take one step toward becoming someone better. If you're telling me a story and you're the same at the end as you were at the beginning, then again, I don't really care. I want to know how you grew from your experience. By the way, this transformation is not just mental. A one-sentence statement in your conclusion like "I learned X" isn't going to cut it. A real transformation evidences itself through action. So think about how your attitude changed, how your actions changed, and also how your goals changed. Those are all aspects of transformation.
If you have a topic in mind, try writing a few sentences about each of these 7 areas. That will give you a fast indication of whether you've detected the makings of a good story. Not as fast as luminol, but still effective.
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.