Topic Sentences: Review/Tutorial

(In formal literary analysis with a thesis)


While there are many options for paragraph formation/organization and topic sentences, right now we will be focusing on the formal writing for literary analysis essays. Therefore, topic sentences should be well-focused and reference the thesis. Once we have this down, we can begin looking at other sophisticated ways in which organize paragraphs.
It might be helpful to think of a topic sentence as working in two directions simultaneously. It relates the paragraph to the essay's thesis, and thereby acts as a signpost for the argument of the paper as a whole, but it also defines the scope of the paragraph itself. For example, consider the following topic sentence:
Many characters in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun have one particular dream in which they are following, though Walter pursues his most aggressively.
If this sentence controls the paragraph that follows, then all sentences in the paragraph must relate in some way to Walter and the pursuit of his dream.
Topic sentences often act like tiny thesis statements. Like a thesis statement, a topic sentence makes a claim of some sort. As the thesis statement is the unifying force in the essay, so the topic sentence must be the unifying force in the paragraph. Further, as is the case with the thesis statement, when the topic sentence makes a claim, the paragraph which follows must expand, describe, or prove it in some way. Topic sentences make a point and give reasons or examples to support it.
Note: Given the above reasoning, using a quotation as a topic sentence is unclear and fails to lend focus to your paragraph. Avoid it at all costs! Be sure that your topic sentences are connecting back to the overall thesis of your paper!

A. Identify which of the following topic sentences are strong and which need improvement. For the ones that need improvement, explain what the problem is and then rewrite the topic sentence.

Example: Jane Eyre and Helen are close friends at Lowood School For Girls.
In this topic sentence, the focus is unclear and the reader would expect the rest of the paragraph to be about Jane Eyre and Helen’s close friendship. It is unlikely that the focus of the paper or the thesis is about Jane and Helen being BFF.

1. “I married him, reader” (543). Jane’s life is complete now, though she may no longer possess autonomy.

2. Walter’s next decision impacts the family as well. He decides to simply invest all of the money, even Beneatha’s share. Next, Mr. Lidner comes to the house and makes the family an offer they might be able to refuse.

3. Oftentimes, the struggles of several family members can impact the overall well-being of the family dynamic. Travis asks his father for 50 cents for school and Walter assents. Beneatha needs money for medical school, though she understands better than Walter that the money is not theirs “but [Mama’s]” and that they have no right to demand anything.

4. Bertha’s apparent insanity is fearful; she tears Jane’s wedding veil and sets Rocheter’s room ablaze in the night.

B. First, think about what your argument would be concerning the following ideas. Then, imagine you are writing a paragraph based on that focus and write an appropriate topic sentence for each of these paragraphs:

Ideas: Rochester is quite impulsive and passionate. St John is often characterized as being aloof and restricted in his emotions.
Topic Sentence: The fire and ice motif is best exemplified through the characterizations of Rochester and St John.
(note: like in the example, take the ideas a step further; do not just reword the sentences to create a focus).

1. Walter’s dream is to own a liquor store and he’ll do anything to ensure he attains that dream. Beneatha’s dream is to be a doctor.

2. Dolly Winthrop is an insightful and compassionate woman and neighbor to Silas Marner.

3. Jane is autonomous. She has morals and beliefs.

Explanation of topic sentences courtesy of: