Bolt The Door, Abigail
B stands for Before (as A stands for After) and serves as an opening one-paragraph snapshot or postcard, a flash of concrete picture painting where the writer presents and illuminates the scene and the problem contained within it. B is all show and no tell, letting the reader see, hear, smell, touch, and taste the theme. Example: “Montana’s only female fly fishing guide, Julie Johnson, spends a day on the stream dealing with jerks from New York who hit on her; she wonders why she bothers trying to make a living as a guide when she could just fish?” B shows her at work, shows the jerks being jerks, shows her joyfully catching fish, shows her alarm going off at 4:00 a.m. to start another day.
T stands for Thesis. Remember your high school English professor describing the classic keyhole essay structure and the need for a cogent thesis statement? This is that (and you thought he was an idiot – hah!) The second paragraph is all tell and no show, where the writer clearly states the problem under examination, and the 2 or 3 or 4 ways of looking at it: “Fishing guides in Montana have to_____; it’s even harder for women to overcome_____; Julie Jones found out early on that_____; they say if you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life, but for Julie Jones,_____.”
D stands for Development. This is the main body of the essay, and if your thesis statement is well-wrought, you can follow the structure you’ve established, one paragraph on the job of being a fly fishing guide in general, a second on the difficulties women encounter, a third on how Julie Johnson has met and dealt with them, and a fourth illuminating her moments of doubt.
A is the After closing snapshot. It is the opposite of the opening snapshot, where you again show (but do not tell) how Julie Johnson has solved the problem. It is the kicker, the last vivid concrete image you leave your reader with and perhaps the only thing they’ll remember, a day or week or year after reading your essay. Example: “One day Julie Johnson is hired by a sweet Doofus Dad over-dressed in Orvis gear who wants to go fishing with his reluctant teenage son; they spend a glorious day catching giant trout that sparkle in the sun; the sullen teenage boy decides his dad isn’t such a doofus after all; Doofus Dad takes Julie aside and asks if he can tell her ‘something personal;’ she fears he’s about to hit on her; he confides that a year ago, he was told he had cancer, a few months to live, but Doofus Dad got better, full remission; all he wanted, lying in the hospital, all he dreamed of, was to have one day fishing with his boy…”
Julie Johnson was a woman I profiled for a magazine, one of 150+ articles I’ve published over the years, and her story fell into place for me. Not all stories do, and then it’s the writer’s job to shape the story accordingly. You may quarrel with the idea of formulas, or strive to vary or depart from them, but they work. Bolt The Door Abigail is archetypal, historically consistent from Updike to Montaigne to Socrates. The best reason to heed the standard essay structure is, if you do, your editor will smile and think, “Ah – this writer gets it – less work for me.”