The movie Inglorious Basterds opens with a glorious scene. The shot doesn’t reveal much about the story or the characters, but it’s so engrossing that once you watch it, you are hooked. That scene accurately captures the importance of a great introduction to a film.
Introduction to an essay is like an opening scene to a movie. It should start strong, give a brief idea of what’s coming ahead, and make your audience wanting for more. A well-crafted introduction creates that urgency and curiosity in the minds of the readers, captivating them into reading the rest of the write-up. A splendid introduction is, therefore, a prerequisite for a splendid essay.
An effective introduction to the UPSC essay should be around 120-150 words and should meet three basic conditions:
a. It must generate interest in the reader
b. It must be relevant to the question
c. It must be concise
Now the question is: How do we meet these conditions and make the essay impactful? We can accomplish it in the following ways:
1. Tell a Story— It’s a fundamental psychological principle that humans are fascinated by stories. Create characters, give them fictitious names and weave a narrative relevant to the question asked. For an essay on healthcare reform in India, you can create a character from a rural village who is neglected by the PHC, misguided by the private clinics and fleeced by the local medical store. A short story on it powerfully brings out the problems of our public health sector. Similarly, for a topic such as Fifty Golds in Olympics: Can this be a reality for India?, you can introduce your essay with a short narration of India winning fifty Olympic gold medals in 2032. You can then transition to the main body discussing how to make that a reality. So, with topics where you feel that a story can accurately bring out the core theme of your essay, go ahead with this method. Just be mindful of keeping your story short and relevant.
Topic: Cyberspace is the new battlefield
Introduction: It is a fine winter morning in 2025. As commuters travel to work, the metro rail crashes to a grinding halt. Concurrently, planes in the airspace lose communication with the ground control. Banks report breach of confidential data from their servers. Government websites are hacked with threatening messages splashed all across the screens. The energy and nuclear power plants control systems are infected with strange viruses. In 30 minutes, the country’s critical infrastructure collapses and within an hour, it becomes clear that the country has become a victim of a coordinated cyberattack— cyberwar.
This scary scenario, confined earlier to sci-fi movies is now a potential reality. With increasing networking and interconnectedness, cyberspace is emerging as a new arena for warfare in the 21st century. How India prepares for this combat is a critical challenge of our times.
2. Narrate an Anecdote— Write about an incident or story you’ve read in the newspapers or books. Or write a historical anecdote related to the question. This is merely a variant of the fictitious story mentioned in the first category. The only difference is that, here, it’s a real-life incident. Care must be taken to ensure that you pick an incident that’s widely known. Do not write about an obscure event that the examiner might not have heard of. For instance, if there’s a question on women’s empowerment or gender justice, one can start with the Nirbhaya episode or PV Sindhu’s rise to the top of Badminton.
Topic: Be the change you wish to see
Introduction: It was 1893. A bright, young lawyer was travelling first class on a train in the British colony of South Africa. During the journey, a white man objected to his presence in the compartment, despite the lawyer possessing a valid ticket. The white man insisted that ‘coloured’ men like him were supposed to ride in the third class and not in the first class. When the lawyer refused to give up his seat, he was thrown off the train. Insulted at this discrimination, the young man resolved to fight injustice with truth and non-violence. He went on to become the force of change he wished to see in the world. He was Mahatma Gandhi.
3. Mention a Startling Fact or Statistic— State a fact that pulls the reader out of comfort zone and builds curiosity about the topic.
Topic: Alternative technologies for a climate change resilient India
Introduction: Around 1 million plant and animal species are on the verge of extinction, with alarming implications for human survival, according to a United Nations report. Our natural resources are getting depleted, rains are getting erratic, and the air is turning toxic. The scientific consensus is clear about the cause behind this dangerous trend: carbon emissions from human activities are irrevocably damaging the environment at a rapid pace. It’s not climate change anymore. It is climate emergency. This poses an imminent danger to the world, especially to the developing countries like India which have to balance the need for rapid economic growth with reducing carbon emissions.
To tackle this challenge and make India climate change resilient, the country requires imagination and innovation— especially in alternative technologies.
4. Pose a Question— A series of rhetorical questions that encapsulate what you will discuss next. These questions act as thought-provoking tools and engage the attention of the reader by adding flair to your writing.
Topic: A good life is one helped by compassion and guided by humanity
Introduction: What is a good life? This is a fundamental question that captured the human’s imagination for eternity. And we often hear many answers. Is it one with enormous wealth, power and status? Or is it one filled with compassion and empathy for fellow living beings? From Mahatma to Mandela, Lincoln to Luther King, if there is one common thread that binds these great lives, it is that they led a life full of compassion and love for fellow humans. From the lives of these great people who have left a remarkable legacy, what can we learn? How do we live a life full of purpose and meaning? How can we inculcate these learnings to become better individuals, build better societies, and shape great nations? Let us explore these fundamental questions.
5. Begin with a Quote (or a Poem)— A famous poem or quote is a time-tested way to start the essay. After you write the quote, the rest of the introduction must be an elaboration of the quote, explaining its significance and relevance to the question.
Topic: Can Capitalism bring inclusive growth?
Introduction: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness…”, so wrote Charles Dickens during the Industrial Revolution. These lines describe the paradox of those times: incredible riches coexisting with unimaginable poverty. One would be inclined to form a similar opinion of modern day capitalism.
Advocates of capitalism claim that it has created immense global wealth for everyone and accelerated our economic progress. Yet, critics point out that it is deeply biased towards a privileged few leading to a fundamental debate: can capitalism be beneficial to everyone?
Is capitalism a rising tide that lifts all boats? Or is it a rigged system of the rich, by the rich and for the rich? The endeavour of this essay is to carefully examine these claims and provide an answer to the debate.
6. Provide Context to the Essay Topic — In this method, you write about the broad circumstances surrounding the issue. It can include any of these things: a recent legislation, a newly introduced government scheme, or a recurring current affairs topic. Writing about the topic’s context and its background information reads like a news report, and it might be something the reader already knows. So, on this front, it fails the first test of an effective introduction: to generate interest or curiosity. Use this method only when you cannot come up with other methods discussed above.
Topic: Aadhar and the right to privacy
Introduction: The recent Supreme Court judgement in Justice Puttaswamy v Union of India case brought into sharp focus many important issues pertaining to Aadhar and its potential conflict with the privacy rights of the citizens. The Apex court ruled that the right to privacy is a fundamental right, and at the same time upheld the constitutional validity of the Aadhar Act. But critics of the Aadhar scheme point out that the empowering government to collect and store sensitive data of citizens such as biometrics is fraught with many risks and is prone to abuse of power. In this context, it is becoming increasingly important to understand the Aadhar scheme, its importance, drawbacks, and the potential solutions to balance the need of Aadhar with the requirement to protect the fundamental right to privacy of the citizens. Let us examine each of these issues in detail.
7. Define the Terms of the Essay— This is self-explanatory. In this method, break down the question in parts and define the meaning of each term. We use this technique extensively in GS papers. However, it is not the right approach for the essay. Remember that the essay is not meant to be written like a GS paper since the essay, apart from content, is also graded for language, flow, coherence and effective argumentation. Introducing your essay like a GS answer feels bland and clichéd, lacking any warmth or human element. So, it’s recommended that aspirants desist from using this type of introduction.
Topic: Fourth Industrial Revolution— Are we prepared for it?
Introduction: Fourth Industrial Revolution refers to the collection of breakthrough technologies that have emerged in recent times. They include internet of things, Artificial Intelligence, Robotics and advancements in biotechnology. Internet of things help us to connect with material objects. AI is building brains that can now have the ability to think. Latest developments in Biotechnologies have given us the power to edit genes and engineer babies. All these technologies have the potential to fundamentally change the way we live our lives, but not always for the better. These technologies come with considerable risks, and therefore, require careful analysis and nuanced usage.
A thesis statement is a single sentence near the end of your introduction that presents your stand on the given topic. The rest of the essay is about evidence and reasoning to persuade the reader of the logic of your claim. It is a roadmap for your response, conveying to the reader what to expect from the rest of the essay.
Topic: Globalisation— A curse or a blessing?
Thesis statement: In this essay, we will discuss the history, meaning and the impact of globalisation on various facets of humanity. We will then focus on the reasons which drove this phenomenon and the impact it has had. Finally, we will discuss the solutions to overcome the ill effects of globalisation to make it prosperous for all.
In the initial days, I used to write a thesis statement in my essays. But as I became better at structuring my write-up in a coherent way, I stopped writing it. In the final UPSC exam, I did not write one. So my suggestion is, if your essay is fluid with each argument flowing into the next effortlessly, then there is no need to write a thesis statement. But if you are new to writing essays and want to make things clear upfront, without leaving anything to guesswork, then state it. As you write more essays and become better at flow and structure, focus on subheadings and coherence between paragraphs to make the thesis statement unnecessary.
Note: This is a free excerpt from my upcoming book, Fundamentals of Essay and Answer Writing. I have previously published another excerpt on GS-2. The final book has similar detailed chapters on Essay and answer writing for GS-1,2,3,4, including the Anthropology optional. Subscribe to this blog to hear first when the book launches.