Narrowing A Topic
Finding Something Worth Saying
You are about to engage in a semester’s worth of intensive research, both primary and
secondary. As you begin to ponder a research topic which interests you, look back to
what you learned in English W131.
•First, it is important to identify a general topic—preferably one about which you are
passionate, or which strikes you as interesting. (There is nothing so stultifying as
researching a topic which bores you.)
•Having identified a topic, you need to narrow the focus. If your research is too
broad, you will only make generalizations. You need to find something very specific
to say.
•When you know enough about your topic, questions will occur to you. Formulate a
research question, then set about finding the answer to your question.
•If you have come up with a good research question, the likelihood is that there will
be no sources which directly answer it. There will, however, be a good deal of
information which will cast light on the subject. The goal is to use what is known to
discover that which is unknown. In other words, your essay will present an original
viewpoint based on your research and will contribute new knowledge to the field.
Your tentative answer to the research question will form your thesis or argument.
Your goal is to prove your thesis, in much the same way that a lawyer proves his
The best way for me to illustrate what I mean
about narrowing a topic is to share my own
experience with you:
Years ago, when I wrote my Master’s thesis, I knew that I wanted to write about
fairytales. Because my major was French, I narrowed it down to French fairytales. However,
because no one had actually taught me how to narrow a topic, I was left to my own devices.
I narrowed the topic to the fairytales of Charles Perrault. Unfortunately, no one offered
me any guidance, and so I blithely wrote about all eight of his fairytales, which made for an
incredibly long thesis (223 pages, to be exact).
Had I taken English W131, I would have known to narrow it down to a single tale. The
story of “Blue-Beard” has always intrigued me—partly because it seems too macabre to be a
children’s tale, and because I have always wondered whatever possessed Charles Perrault to
write it.
Blue-Beard is a character who murders seven women in succession and whose last
wife barely escapes with her life. In what sense is that a children’s story, let alone a fairytale?
Blue-Beard is often associated, somewhat tenuously, with Gilles de Rais; the character
is also sometimes portrayed as a rich middle-eastern merchant. I have wondered whether there
is a historical model known to Charles Perrault—perhaps a 17th century serial killer whose
actions terrified Perrault’s children; or an oriental version of the story known to him—from which
the tale was derived. (The first French translation of the Arabian Nights appeared not long after
Perrault’s tales were published, and oriental tales were all the rage at the time.)
Armed with this somewhat scanty knowledge, there are now several major research
questions which I might ask: Is “Blue-Beard” in fact a children’s story? Why did Perrault write it?
What inspired it? Was there an identifiable historical model for either Blue-Beard the character, or
for “Blue-Beard” the story? Obviously, I can’t answer all of those questions in a ten-page research
paper, so my only option is to choose which one to explore, and to do enough additional research
to formulate a reasonable thesis (or claim). It is this claim which becomes the basis of the
research paper—a claim which I am obligated to prove (or to defend, if you prefer).
In the slide which follows, I have visually represented the
process of narrowing a topic. Notice that you begin with a
general topic, and narrow it down to a very specific research
question. It is the response to the question which will form
the thesis of your essay—the claim which you will prove to
your readers.
Narrowing A Topic:
French fairytales
The eight fairytales
of Charles Perrault
Possible research questions:
•Why did Perrault write “Bluebeard”?
•In what sense is “Bluebeard” a fairytale?
•Is “Bluebeard” really a story for children?
•Is there an identifiable historical model for Bluebeard?
Possible Opening Paragraph for a research paper on “Blue-Beard”
The story of “Blue-Beard,” one of Charles Perrault’s classic fairytales,
first presented to the public in 1697, does not immediately strike one as a
children’s story. Nevertheless, Perrault, a single father of four, may well have
told the tale to allay the fears of his own children in the wake of a terrible series
of murders which took place in the late seventeenth century. Indeed, an
examination of newspapers of the era reveals that several serial murders
occurred not long before Perrault’s tales were published. Although the story of
“Blue-Beard” does not mirror any of them in its exact details, it seems likely that
Perrault drew upon a story well-known in the oral tradition, stemming back to
the Maréchal de Retz (also known as Gilles de Rais). Perrault appears to have
deliberately modified the folktale in an effort to calm his own children’s minds
about a serial killing spree well-known in Paris, and to illustrate the ultimate
triumph of good over evil—which, as father, Jansenist, and honnête homme,
would have been an important moral point for him to make.
PowerPoint Presentation by Mark A. Spalding, BA, MEd, MA, 2008.