45 Introduction to Short Fiction
Dr. Karen Palmer
A short story is a work of short, narrative prose that is usually centered around one single event. It is limited in scope and has an introduction, body, and conclusion. Although a short story has much in common with a novel, it is written with much greater precision.
In this unit, you will work toward writing an analysis of a short story using a critical lens. The first step in your journey is to choose a short story from the Short Fiction Anthology. Then, you’ll want to read the story carefully.
How to Read and Analyze Short Fiction
It is impossible to be a good writer without being a good reader first. But what do we mean by ‘good’? Writers go to books for various reasons, whether for guidance and inspiration, or to understand something better about writing, life, or both. Perhaps the key to ‘reading as a writer’ – in other words, reading with a writerly eye – is being able to understand a text as its constituent parts while still appreciating it as a whole.
Reading the work of a variety of different authors is invaluable for expanding your awareness of what a text can be and do. Reading provides not only inspiration and useful examples of methods, subjects and styles, but also a context within which to develop your own voice and individuality as a writer. The more you learn about how texts operate, the better equipped you’ll be as a writer.
Reading as a writer, also known as ‘critical reading’ or ‘close reading’, involves analyzing how a piece works and how an author achieves particular effects. When reading a short story, readers should consider how the writer uses elements like point of view, tone, and structure to generate tension or create a compelling ending.
Think about why the author made certain choices in their piece, and what the outcomes of those choices are. Remember: texts are not simply given. They are the result of countless decisions on the writer’s part. Some of them might be instinctual and might not seem like conscious decision-making to the writer, but a great deal of them will also be the result of painstaking deliberation. We might not be able to know an author’s personal intention, but we can analyze what effect their choices have on us.
Tips for Reading
- As in poetry, read the short story for enjoyment first. Make sure you understand what is happening in the story. If you have questions about the basic story line, you can read the story again, find a YouTube video of someone reading the story out loud, watch a movie of the story, or use an online source like SparkNotes to give you a summary and basic background about the story.
- Next, read the story with a pen in hand, annotating as you read. Underline lines you find important, take notes. Circle words you don’t know and look up definitions. In this step, you are trying to uncover more meaning.
- Finally, think about the theme of the story. What lesson does the main character learn? What can we learn about life from reading the story?
After reading a work carefully, annotating it, and reacting to it, the next step is to determine how it fits into your perspective on the world. Forming your own conclusions about a literary work, or a topic of any kind, is the first step to shaping an argument and, ultimately, making a case for your perspective through a persuasive essay.
Step 2: Writing a Personal Response
Elements of Fiction
Once you feel you understand the basic story, it’s time to think about the elements of fiction. Just as understanding the elements of poetry helps readers better appreciate the artistry of the poet, understanding the elements of fiction helps readers better appreciate and understand the authors of short fiction and their work. Remember that, while the elements are important, they are used by an author to support the theme or main idea of the text–to highlight certain things they want the reader to understand about the characters and the theme.
One thing you should remember about theme is that it must be expressed in a complete sentence. For instance, “discrimination” is not a theme; however, “genetic modification in humans is dangerous because it can result in discrimination” is a complete theme.
A story can have more than one theme, and it is often useful to question and analyze how the themes interact. For instance, does the story have conflicting themes? Or do a number of slightly different themes point the reader toward one conclusion? Sometimes the themes don’t have to connect– many stories use multiple themes in order to bring multiple ideas to the readers’ attention.
So how do we find theme in a work? One way is to examine motifs, or recurring elements in a story. If something appears a number of times within a story, it is likely of significance. A motif can be a statement, a place, an object, or even a sound. Motifs often lead us to discern a theme by drawing attention to it through repetition. In addition, motifs are often symbolic. They can represent any number of things, from a character’s childhood to the loss of a loved one. By examining what a motif symbolizes, you can extrapolate a story’s possible themes. For instance, a story might use a park to represent a character’s childhood. If the author makes constant references to the park, but we later see it replaced by a housing complex, we might draw conclusions about what the story is saying about childhood and the transition to adulthood.
Though theme is similar to message or argument, it is not necessarily an assertion like the other two terms are. In connecting to a work’s meaning, a theme can refer to key topics of a work. Thus, while we might say “Ode on a Grecian Urn” argues that the state of desire should be appreciated beyond the moment of satisfaction, we might state that the themes of the poem are becoming versus being, the role of timeless art in a time-dependent world, and the relationship between beauty and truth.The theme of a story is the universal lesson about life that readers can draw from the story. Theme might incorporate broad ideas, such as life/death, madness/sanity, love/hate, society/individual, known/unknown. Theme might also be focused more on the individual, for example the theme could be midlife crisis or growing up.
This video focuses on theme from a film perspective, but it is an interesting discussion that is also applicable to the short story. How To Find A Theme
The characters are the people in a story. The narrator is the voice telling the story, but the narrator may or may not be a character in the story. The protagonist is the central character. The antagonist is the force or character that opposes the main character. Characters might be static (remain the same) or dynamic (change through the course of the story). The way an author creates a character is called characterization. Characterization includes the physical traits of characters, their personalities, and the way they speak. Authors might make judgments, either explicit (stated plainly) or implicit (allowing the reader to judge), about the characters in a story.
In addition to the protagonist and antagonist, most stories have secondary or minor characters. These are the other characters in the story. They sometimes support the protagonist or antagonist in their struggles, and they sometimes never come into contact with the main characters. Authors use minor characters for a variety of reasons. For instance, they can illustrate a different side of the main conflict, or they can highlight the traits of the main characters. One important type of minor character is called a foil. This character emphasizes the traits of a main character (usually the protagonist) through contrast. Thus, a foil will often be the polar opposite of the main character he or she highlights. Sometimes, the foil can take the form of a sidekick or friend. Other times, he or she might be someone who contends against the protagonist. For example, an author might use a decisive and determined foil to draw attention to a protagonist’s lack of resolve and motivation.
Finally, any character in a story can be an archetype. We can define archetype as an original model for a type of character, but that doesn’t fully explain the term. One way to think of an archetype is to think of how a bronze statue is made. First, the sculptor creates his design out of wax or clay. Next, he creates a fireproof mold around the original. After this is done, the sculptor can make as many of the same sculpture as he pleases. The original model is the equivalent to the archetype. Some popular archetypes are the trickster figure, such as Coyote in Native American myth or Brer Rabbit in African American folklore, and the femme fatale, like Pandora in Greek myth. Keep in mind that archetype simply means original pattern and does not always apply to characters. It can come in the form of an object, a narrative, etc. For instance, the apple in the Garden of Eden provides the object-based forbidden fruit archetype, and Odysseus’s voyage gives us the narrative-based journey home archetype.
Here are some questions to consider about characterization:
- Who is the main character?
- Are the main character and other characters described through dialogue – by the way they speak (dialect or slang for instance)?
- Has the author described the characters by physical appearance, thoughts and feelings, and interaction (the way they act towards others)?
- Are they static/flat characters who do not change?
- Are they dynamic/round characters who DO change?
- What type of characters are they? What qualities stand out? Are they stereotypes?
- Are the characters believable?
Here’s a video on Archetype and Characterization from Shmoop:
Plot & Structure
Before you can write an in-depth explanation of the themes, motives, or diction of a book, you need to be able to discuss one of its most basic elements: the story. If you can’t identify what has happened in a story, your writing will lack context. Writing your paper will be like trying to put together a complex puzzle without looking at the picture you’re supposed to create. Each piece is important, but without the bigger picture for reference, you and anyone watching will have a hard time understanding what is being assembled. Thus, you should look for “the bigger picture” in a book, poem, or play by reading for plot.
Rather than tell everything that might possibly happen to a character in certain circumstances, the writer carefully selects the details that will develop the plot, the characters, and the story’s themes and messages. The writer engages in character development in order to develop the plot and the meaning of the story, paying special attention to the protagonist, or main character. In a conventional story, the protagonist grows and/or changes as a result of having to negotiate the story’s central conflict. A character might be developed through exposition, in which the narrator simply tells us about this person. But more often, the character is developed through dialogue, point of view, and description of this person’s expressions and actions.
In essence, the plot is the action of the story. Most short fiction follows the traditional pattern of Greek drama, with an introduction, rising action involving a conflict, the climax in which a crisis occurs (the turning point), and a resolution (how the conflict is resolved).
Here are some questions to consider about plot:
- What is the most important event?
- How is the plot structured? Is it linear, chronological or does it move around?
- Is the plot believable?
Here’s another great video from Shmoop describing plot: Power in Literature, Short Stories Part 4: Plot
The structure is the design or form of the story. The structure can provide clues to character and action and can mirror the author’s intentions. Look for repeated elements in action, gestures, dialogue, description, and shifts.
Here’s one way to look at this: Kurt Vonnegut on the Shapes of Stories
If a story has characters and a plot, these elements must exist within some context. The frame of reference in which the story occurs is known as setting. The most basic definition of setting is one of place and time.
Setting doesn’t have to just include the physical elements of time and place. Setting can also refer to a story’s social and cultural context. There are two questions to consider when dealing with this kind of setting: “What is the cultural and social setting of the story?” and “What was the author’s cultural and social setting when the story was written?” The first question will help you analyze why characters make certain choices and act in certain manners. The second question will allow you to analyze why the author chose to have the characters act in this way.
Setting is created with elements such as geography, weather, time of day, social conditions, etc. Think about what role setting plays in the story. Is it an important part of the plot or theme? Or is it just a backdrop against which the action takes place?
The time period of the story is also a part of setting. Think about the following questions:
- When was the story written?
- Does it take place in the present, the past, or the future?
- How does the time period affect the language, atmosphere or social circumstances of the short story?
One more video from Shmoop on Setting: Power in Literature, Short Stories Part 2: Setting
Point of View:
By point of view we mean from whose eyes the story is being told. Short stories tend to be told through one character’s point of view. Sometimes a short story is told by a narrator who might be a character in the story, or a person completely outside of the events of the story. A text can be written from first person (I/me), second person (you), or third person (he/she/it) point of view.
Here are some questions to consider about point of view:
- Who is the narrator or speaker in the story?
- Does the author speak through the main character?
- Is the story written in the first person “I” point of view?
- Is the story written in a detached third person “he/she” point of view?
- Is there an “all-knowing” 3rd person who can reveal what all the characters are thinking and doing at all times and in all places?
Here is a video about Points of View in Literature:
Language & Style
Language and style are how the author presents the story to the reader. These elements are used to create the mood and tone of the story. In particular, look for diction, symbols, and irony.
- Diction: As in poetry, fiction often utilizes diction and figurative language to convey important ideas. In the short story, “The Story of an Hour,” the words “aquiver,” “spring,” “delicious breath,” and “twittering” suggest a kind of rebirth occurring for Mrs. Mallard.
- Symbolism: As in poetry, authors of short stories often use symbols to add depth to the story. A symbol represents something larger than itself. Common examples of symbols include a country’s flag, which represent the country, and a hear, which represents love. Each symbol has suggestive meanings–the flag, for example, brings up thoughts of patriotism, a unified country. What is the value of using symbols in a literary text? Symbols in literature allow a writer to express more in a condensed manner. The meaning of a symbol is connotative or suggestive, rather than definitive, which allows for multiple interpretations.
- Irony: Irony is the contrast between appearance/expectation and reality. Irony can be verbal (spoken), situational (something is supposed to happen but doesn’t), or dramatic (difference between what the characters know and what the audience knows).
This song includes many examples of irony…Alanis Morissette Updates ‘Ironic’ Lyrics
Step 3: Elements of Fiction
- Content created by Dr. Karen Palmer. Licensed under CC BY NC SA.
- Introduction adapted from “About Critical Reading” from OpenLearn and licensed under CC BY NC SA.
- Content adapted from “Forming a Perspective on the Subject” from Writing and Literature, licensed under CC BY SA.
- Content adapted from How to Analyze a Short Story by Carol Dwankowaki aned licensed CC BY-SA.
- “Symbolism” adapted from Rhetorical and Literary Devices licensed under CC BY NC.
- Content adapted from Writing About Literature: The Basics and licensed CC BY NC.