Who, what, where, when...
A good newspaper story will answer the questions Who, What, When, Where, Why and sometimes even How, all within the first paragraph, or lead. The rest of the story is designed to elaborate and give more detail, but the essential questions are usually answered right up front. While your essays will hardly ever assume the journalistic style, it may help you to think about your topic the way a journalist writes a story. Try answering the six fundamental questions about your topic and see if they point to a possible thesis. Often the most complex questions (why and how) will form the drive of your thesis, but it's helpful to answer all the questions to figure out your specific area of inquiry.
This used to be a widely-used strategy, but has fallen out of favor more recently. Maybe you've even been assigned to "free-write" in middle school or high school. The goal of freewriting is to get ideas flowing, and so it's important to not stop writing. Set a time limit (5-10 minutes should be plenty) and force yourself to keep writing on whatever comes to your mind until that time is up. The more focused you are on your topic the more helpful this will be, but if you can't think of anything immediately just write whatever you're thinking right now. After the time limit is up, take a look at what you've written and see if you can extract any useful ideas from it.
NOTE: Although freewriting tends to be less helpful for structuring your whole paper than other techniques, it can be very helpful later on in the writing process if you're the kind of writer who has difficulty with the actual writing of the paper. Most of a paper can usually be written by following a good outline, but at some point (especially in a compare and contrast paper) your argument may become so complex that it's hard to outline it effectively. If you reach a point like this, try freewriting as a way to get all of your arguments down on paper, then look at what you've written. With a little cleanup, it may even go in the final version of your paper!
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