Thesis Workshop II: Motive

motiveLast week we discussed the basic mechanics of the thesis statement, focusing primarily on The Magic Thesis Statement and brainstorming ideas for a concise, convincing thesis. This week I’d like to introduce a concept that will make coming up with that thesis statement even easier: motive.

[Continue reading to learn about motive]

What is motive? 

Gordon Harvey, in his “Elements of the Academic Essay,” defines motive as the “intellectual context” established at the beginning of the paper to show why the thesis is important or relevant.

In more simpler terms, motive basically motivates your thesis statement. It is essentially a pre-thesis, what anticipates and adds emphasis to your main argument. It is quite simply the reason for your writing. In its most basic form, motive is a question. Such as:

  • Why do Shakespeare’s comedies always end “happily” with a marriage?
  • Does Hemingway’s writing style, which is characterized by stripped and simple prose, mean his books are easier to read?
  • Do critics have a right to suggest that Game of Thrones is historically inaccurate, given its qualification as social media?

As you can see, motives as questions point out something inherently puzzling, intriguing, contradictory, conflictual, or interesting. They find a weak spot or territory in what they are analyzing that is ripe for argument material. This is why I encouraged you in my recent blog post on critical reading to ask questions about the passages you read, especially questions like these: why did the author use that pronoun there? Why isn’t the character being very clear? Why does the tone of the passage seem so dreary? These are all great questions to ask if you are coming up with a thesis.

What are other forms of motive?

Motives are easiest to conceive of in question form. But they can also take other forms as well. Motives can accomplish any or all of the following:

  • Directly challenge dominant opinions in secondary sources (the sources that comment upon a primary text, like critics writing about Christopher Marlowe’s plays, or Edith Wharton’s novels).
  • Add to, modify, or revise a dominant opinion in secondary literature. This is often more successful than a direct attack as listed above.
  • Use historical context to make a new insight. For example: why do most critics overlook the impact of World War I in Virginia Woolf’s novels?
  • Look for deeper meanings. Prove how a superficial reading of a text is not adequate for what it is really trying to say.

Where does motive appear in the essay?

Motives should definitely precede your thesis statement. The space between a motive and a thesis statement does not have to be immense. Sometimes motives appear textually within a thesis statement, or immediately before it. Sometimes, motives do not appear at all; they exist more like a concept to get the juices flowing. But I would encourage you to incorporate motive at some point into your essay.


  • “Many critics see the relationship between Huck and Jim as fair and harmonious, but closer examination of the novel reveals that this is not the case.”
  • “It is easy to assume that the main cause of the Civil War was disagreement over slavery simply because the outcome of that war had such dramatic effects on the institution of slavery.”
  • “When the book Twilight was released, many people derided it as juvenile and catering to clichés of teen romance, but since then, the text has appeared on some college reading lists, particularly for courses about Gothic literature.”

Did you notice how the word “but” follows these motives? This is crucial! Motives challenge, interrogate, or question existing conceptions or perspectives. They should almost always create a BUT.

Final Tips (Theses and Motives):

  • Remember to ask yourself: What’s the point? Why does my argument matter to the reader, or the world of academics? What impact does my thesis have on the academic discussion related to this particular subject?
  • After your first draft of an essay, as yourself immediately: what is my thesis? If you can say it out loud in your own words easily, great. Better yet, underline your thesis statement. If you can do both, you’re on the right track. If you can do one but not the other, you’ll need to do a little more work. You want to have a clear idea of your thesis statement in your brain and on your paper.
  • Theses should be concise. I cannot emphasize this enough. They should not ramble on for a paragraph. They should appear as quickly as possible and not take up more than two sentences (or three if you have a longer essay).
  • If you simply cannot come up with a thesis, try locating another motive. It’s easier to find a new problem/question/conflict to analyze than try to make up a new argument!

About the author: Kathleen McGunagle is a senior in Princeton University’s English department and Interdisciplinary Humanities Certificate Program. Concentrating in British Renaissance Literature, she will be writing a thesis this spring on Shakespeare and early modern materialist psychology. Kathleen is an Academic Peer Adviser at Princeton, tutor through Princeton Tutoring, and avid performer. She has recently returned from a year of study at Worcester College, Oxford.



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