Suspense and Coherence in Research Stories

Suspense and Coherence in Research Stories

文 / Dana Liu (本中心教師) 

It has been reported that the famous mystery writer, Agatha Christie, plotted her crime novels beginning with the solution and working backwards. She spent more time plotting the work than actually writing it. How did she manage to keep the reader from discovering the identity of the murderer until the end of the story? By beginning with the solution and working backwards, she avoided getting lost in a labyrinth of dead ends. Mystery writers lull the reader into a false sense of predictability by discounting crucial facts that the detective only later realizes have been overlooked. According to one impassioned reader (Hemus), “When the mystery’s solution is announced, the reader needs to be able to trace the story back and recognize a path they believe they could have followed… Solutions which feel like new and surprising information are momentarily impressive but then leave the reader feeling cheated, asking ‘how was I supposed to solve that?’ The answer to the mystery needs to feel like realization, not revelation.”

Mystery writers may be particularly challenged to weave crooked tales into straight lines, but creating a logic accessible to your reader, as Hemus describes, is a crucial technique for researchers as well. In 2006, a researcher named Janet Wiles posted a step-by-step guide on the internet to help graduate students write a first draft of their research thesis using an approach she called “Reversing Swales”. Reversing the moves of the Introduction in the Discussion section, she suggested, can help graduate students draft a unified and coherent argument. Wiles’ idea may be a useful approach for refining and condensing the ideas in your thesis or research story.

Wiles advised her students to use Swales’ moves to write the introduction, then reverse the moves for the discussion, so that the two sections function as “the opening and closing brackets” of a thesis. “If you get the introduction right, the discussion will map neatly onto it…You can iterate between introduction and discussion until you have a watertight argument. This is not a vague process – every paragraph in the introduction is one of those opening brackets, and the discussion section needs a corresponding closing bracket” (Wiles).

Because Wiles’ instructions are no longer available online, here is a brief summary of her steps. To implement this lesson, the first step is to brainstorm the organization of your introduction and discussion before writing. Use two columns to talk through the coherence (or logic) of these sections. You may wish to do this with your advisor, or someone knowledgeable in your field. The second step is to write. When drafting the introduction, use Swales’ (1990)”Create-A-Research-Space” (CARS) model (below). Wiles offers her own moves for the discussion section, which are the introduction’s moves in reverse order:



Move 1. Establish a territory

Move 2. Locate a research niche

Move 3. Occupy the niche

Move 4. Introduce present research (Added by Wiles)

Wiles’ Discussion

Move 4. How did the plan work out? What is the impact of the body of results on the Aims?

Move 3. How general are the results? What’s the impact on the gap identified in the Intro?

Move 2. How do your results impact on the literature (again content and methods)?

Move 1. If your research has created new knowledge that impacts on claims made in the introduction, succinctly summarize those results here. Situate your research in the initial global context.


Traditional Discussion

Move 1. Contextualize the study

Move 2. Consolidate one’s results

Move 3. State limitations

Move 4. Suggest further research


As you can see from the tables above that compare Wile’s discussion section with a traditional discussion section, Wiles devotes more space to reiterating questions raised in the introduction, specifically asking how one’s results impact on the gap identified in the introduction (Moves 4 & 3) and on previous literature (Move 2). In answering these questions, you may be required you to redraft your introduction to reposition your claims. Reversing Swales can help the writer proof for extraneous “brackets”— unanswered questions remaining at the end of the discussion. For just as a mystery writer plants the murder weapon in the first scene, there should be nothing in the introduction that is not reiterated in the discussion. For example, if your study makes a claim that doesn’t later fulfill, you can modify this in the first draft. In this way, Wiles’ moves are intended to help the research writer to identify extraneous claims, or “loose ends”, early on.

Reversing Swales may not be helpful for every research writer, but it is a useful evaluative tool for graduate students to expose the hidden weaknesses and inconsistencies in their thesis, well before they write the final draft. It may unearth questions that help you to discard extraneous passages, thus tightening the structure of your work. Through simplification, it can improve the speed of your writing process, and even develop your skills in reading and analyzing professional works published in your field.

A second point of this newsletter article is that building small elements of suspense and storytelling in research writing can be a useful strategy as well. According to Helen Sword in her imaginative book, Stylish Academic Writing:

Stylish writers know the importance of sustaining a compelling story rather than merely sprinkling isolated anecdotes throughout an otherwise sagging narrative. A book or article that supplies no suspense, no narrative arc, and no sense of moving from A to B will not hold the reader’s attention nearly as effectively as an article plotted, even at the most subtle level, like a good thriller (‘What will happen next?’) or a mystery novel (‘What clues will the intrepid researcher/detective unearth?’) or a bildungsroman (‘What lessons will the protagonist learn along the way, and from whom?’) (qtd. in Sword 87).

Sword’s practical book comes with numerous tools and case studies to help academic writers correct problems with jargon and abstraction. She offers a variety of stylistic devices, such as stories, anecdotes, case studies, metaphors, illustrations, concrete nouns, vivid verbs, and generous use of examples. Her idea is to bring out the storytelling elements in one’s research by “anchoring” abstract ideas in the “concrete and physical world”. In other words, stylistic devices that embody one’s research visually, physically, emotionally and narratively, can help breathe life—and interest—in one’s research.

Suspense can be added into a research narrative through the careful construction of storytelling elements. In a study presented at the University of Chicago, researchers Ely, Frankel, and Kamenica analyzed “the optimal way to reveal information over time so as to maximize expected suspense or surprised experience” in a rational audience, focusing on specific genres whose value is chiefly derived from their entertainment, such as “mystery novels, political primaries, casinos, game shows, auctions, and sports” (1). Based on the premise that entertainment is a part of modern life, the authors claim that the demand for entertainment may even influence the analysis of political process and voting, which have little inherent connection with entertainment (Ely et al. 2). If this is true, it seems plausible that scholarly books and articles may benefit from a minimal level of entertainment, to some extent. For example, a research paper with stylistic effects that sufficiently entertain the reader may help condition the audience to remain attentive and open-minded until the end of the research story, thus increasing the writer’s possibility of being persuasive.

Such a belief would help justify the many tactics described in Helen Sword’s book, Stylish Academic Writing. The real question may be how to incorporate stylistic elements so that, for example, information is “parceled out” (Mangan) at the proper timing. Revealing information over time in a way that maximizes suspense can elicit a feeling of surprise and relief in the reader with his or her expectations are finally met. The prolonged layering of information is a storytelling technique that, along with other devices such as recurring metaphors and characterizations in one’s research story, can help build a stronger sense of audience identification, curiosity and investment in the outcome.

Whether the use of stylistic devices can increase a reader’s esteem in one’s research is not addressed in this article and would require further study. Furthermore, disciplines that reward conventional structures are less ideally-suited for incorporating strong narrative elements in their writing. Yet Sword notes in her chapter on Structural Designs that not every discipline requires following a strict IMRD structure, and that, particularly in the Humanities, a conventional structure may have some disadvantages, for “unique and experimental structures can open up new ways of approaching familiar issues…If the route is well signposted and the rooms are well lit, readers will be able to take such displacement in stride.” (Sword 129). For disciplines less bound to tradition, however, such as those that emphasize the human impact or value of one’s work, she offers a list of suggestions for experimentation, including playing with “metaphor, theme, or series of sequential steps as a structuring device” (Sword 133).

Regardless of which disciplines are best suited for Sword’s structural techniques, academic writers in all field can improve their writing by replacing “stodgy abstract writing” with concrete details. In an article in The Wall Street Journal, Sword offers examples of stodgy writing along with more vibrant, concrete versions:

Stodgy: A significant variability in nutrient-gathering behaviors has been observed in various insect species.

Stylish: “Insects suck, chew, parasitize, bore, store, and even cultivate their foods to a highly sophisticated degree of specialization.” (Richard Leschen and Thomas Buckley)

Sword concludes in her article that “Stylishness is in the eye of the beholder…and stylistic preferences can vary significantly across disciplines. Nevertheless, all stylish academics adhere to three key principles that any writer can master: communication, concreteness and craft.”

It is important to add that academic research papers cannot leverage elements of suspense to the same extent as in fiction. Yet just as screenwriters must follow a three-act structure, the four sections of a research paper still leave a great deal of room to incorporate stylistic elements that build reader interest. In screenplays, the three-act macro structure (inciting incident, climax, denouement, etc.) is mirrored by a microstructure. Scenes are plotted point and counterpoint, in tandem with the rise and fall of characters’ storylines, so that everything builds together much in the same way as an orchestra’s simultaneous yet discordant melodies form a symphony. Similarly, the four sections of a research paper and the moves and steps are meant to organize one’s research and showcase its impact in the field to maximum effect. Each section must work with the other sections to create a logical whole, and a sense of unity is achieved through the elimination of extraneous steps, non-essential details and an imposed rhetorical order (chronological, importance, logical division, cause-effect, comparison-contrast, etc.). The effect is that the four sections (introduction, methodology, results and discussion) are harmonious, mellifluous, balanced and congruent. Yet perhaps research writing, like other genres of writing, cannot be simply formulaic.

Within the required structure, there must be breathing room for the most instrumental aspects—the groundbreaking ideas–in the paper to be highlighted. Just as an exceptional fictive story has a “breakout” moment, in which the audience’s expectations are challenged but ultimately gratified with a profound sense of surprise and relief, similarly a strong research paper may surpass the audience’s expectations through the use of highly-crafted language, visual and concrete details, striking and repeated metaphors, and other stylistic devices that assist the writer to best communicate within its genre.

Perhaps the moment of departure within the formulaic structure of a research paper is best situated in the discussion and conclusion, the final sections where the innate tensions set up between the outcome and the result can be dynamically exploited in a final discovery, a newly raised question, or an unforeseen impact within the field. The placement and timing of these observations and suggestions may play a more critical role in reader’s perceptions and persuasiveness than one may guess. Audiences and readers of any genre are profoundly susceptible to a sense of conviction, wonder and enchantment. Stylistic tools may help condition reader’s perceptions, but how large a role they play is hard to quantify. Nevertheless, good fiction and effective research stories share in common an essential element: the best writing aspires to a final moment of satisfaction and relief when the reader realizes that the work has surpassed their expectations and something new has been achieved.


Works Cited

Ely, Jeffrey, Alexander Frankel, and Emir Kamenica, “Suspense and Surprise.” University of Chicago. Web. Sept. 2012.

Hale, Bruce. “Writing Tip: Plotting Backwards.” Web. 24 Mar. 2012.

Hemus, Bronwyn. “Understanding the Essentials of Writing a Murder Mystery.” Web.

Mangan, Lucy. “Agatha Christie: Getting Away With Murder.” The Guardian. Web. 1 Oct. 2010.

Sword, Helen. Stylish Academic Writing. Boston: Harvard University Press, 2012. Print.

Sword, Helen. “My Daily Read: Helen Sword Interview.” Chronicle of Higher Education. Web. 2 May 2012.

Sword, Helen. “Yes, Even Professors Can Write Stylishly.” Wall Street Journal. Web. 6 May 2012.

Wiles, Janet. “Introductions and Discussions using Swales.” Web. 13 Feb. 2006 (removed from website).


臺大寫作教學中心電子報No. 005