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48 Writing About Short Fiction
Dr. Karen Palmer
Analysis means to break something down in order to better understand how it works. To analyze a literary work is to pull it apart and look at its discrete components to see how those components contribute to the meaning and/or effect of the whole. Thus, a literary analysis argument considers what has been learned in analyzing a work (What do the parts look like and how do they function?) and forwards a particular perspective on their contribution to the whole (In light of the author’s use of diction, for example, what meaning does the novel, as a whole, yield?).
When writing a critical theory paper, your goal is to bring out a deeper meaning in a text through the application of a critical theory. For instance, you might show how an author illustrates the status of women in a particular time period (as in “The Story of an Hour”) or how a short story’s focus on money or status highlights a disparity between the classes (“The Necklace”).
Your own findings from your analysis of the primary text should be a priority in your interpretation of the work. Analytical skills are invaluable as you explore any subject, investigating the subject by breaking it down and looking closely at how it functions. Finding patterns in your observations, then, helps you to interpret your analysis and communicate to others how you came to your conclusions about the subject’s meaning and/or effect. As you make your case to the readers, it is crucial that you make it clear how your perspective is relevant to them. Ideally, they will come away from your argument intrigued by the new insights you have revealed about the subject.
Step 5: Researching
Although analysis is a crucial phase in writing about any subject, the next step of contributing to society’s knowledge and understanding is to participate in the scholarly dialog on the subject. The dialog among scholars, conveyed through academic articles and books, is a crucial resource for any researcher.
Regardless of the type of critical lens you are using for your paper, discovering more about the author of the text can add to your understanding of the text and add depth to your argument. Author pages are located in the Literature Online ProQuest database. Here, you can find information about an author and his/her work, along with a list of recent articles written about the author. This is a wonderful starting point for your research.
The next step is to attempt to locate an article about the text itself. It’s important to narrow down your database choices to the Literature category. In some cases, the options will be numerous. You can narrow down the choices by adding your critical lens to the search terms. ie “Story of an Hour” and feminism
In the case that your results are very limited, you might need to think outside of the box. Look for the author’s name and your critical theory. It’s possibly that articles have been written about another of the author’s pieces that can still add to your project. Another option is to search the full ProQuest database or the newspaper databases. Some periodicals publish literary criticism and reviews. Since they are popular, rather than academic, sources, these may be found in the periodical databases, rather than the literature options.
Another option is to search for an article relating to the critical lens you’ve chosen. For example, you might look for an article on the key elements of feminist literary criticism or on Freud’s id, ego, and superego to help you support your argument.
Finally, you might look for articles pertinent to an issue discussed in the short story. For example, “The Yellow Wallpaper” is about the treatment of post-partum depression. A modern day article on the appropriate treatment for this illness or a survey of the treatment of the illness could be a fantastic addition to your paper.
Remember, it is helpful to keep a Research Journal to track your research. Your journal should include, at a minimum, the correct MLA citation of the source, a brief summary of the article, and any quotes that stick out to you. A note about how you think the article adds to your understanding of the topic or might contribute to your project is a good addition, as well.
Step 6: Creating a Thesis and Outline
By the time you have completed an analysis of the story and finished your research, you should have a pretty clear idea about what you want to say about the text you’ve chosen. Your thesis should convey the main point you want to make about the story as viewed through the lens you chose. Perhaps you are looking at “The Yellow Wallpaper” through a feminist lens. Perhaps you want to call attention to the fact that women’s voices were unheard in their battles with post-partum depression. Your thesis might say something like, “Gilman used her short story to highlight the inappropriate and often harmful treatment women suffering from post-partum depression received and, in so doing, advocated for women’s voices to be heard.”
Once your argument is in place, the next step is to create an outline of your paper. Remember–your outline is like the skeleton of your paper. Without a solid foundation, your argument will not work properly.
One common misconception students entertain when they approach literary analysis essays is the idea that the structure of the essay should follow the structure of the literary work. The events of short stories, novels, and plays are often related chronologically, in linear order from the moment when the first event occurs to the moment of the last. Yet, it can be awkward to write a literary analysis using the story’s chronology as a basic structure for your own essay. Often, this approach leads to an essay that simply summarizes the literary work. Since a literary analysis paper should avoid summary for summary’s sake, the writer should avoid an essay structure that results in that pattern.
If chronology is not the primary structural factor in setting up a literary analysis paper, what is? You might consider the following hints in arranging the points of your own essay:
What are your major points?
What order will most effectively lead the reader to your perspective on this subject?
Paragraph breaks should (a) cue the reader regarding shifts in focus and (b) break down ideas into small enough chunks that the reader does not lose sight of the currently emphasized point. On the other hand, in an academic essay, the paragraphs should not seem “choppy.” Rather each should be long enough to develop its point thoroughly before shifting to the next.
In most cases, a literary analysis outline will have the following parts:
Introduction (hook, topic, thesis)
Summary of the work and background of the author
Argument (at least three points)
Here is a complete student outline for the story, “Everything in This Country Must,” by Colum McCann.
Introduction: Have you ever had something precious taken away from you? An object or a pet, how about a person? “Everything in This Country Must” by Colum McCann explores this idea in a unique and disarming way, drawing the reader’s attention to the small and yet infinitely important details.
Thesis: In “Everything in This Country Must” the author reveals the effect that grief can have on someone through the use of terminology, relationships, imagery, irony, and paradox.
Colum McCann’s History
Born in Dublin, Ireland February 28th, 1965.
He was a reporter.
He is a Creative Writing Professor at Hunter College.
A brief description of “Everything in This Country Must”
When was it written?
What time is it based in?
A short synopsis on what it is about.
Soldiers use expletives. A true reflection of soldiers here.
Contrast between American perception on certain words, versus what they mean in the United Kingdom.
What Katie calls the soldiers. For the readers’ benefit and humor.
Father’s relationship with Mammy and Fiachra.
Father’s relationship with Katie.
Father’s relationship with the draft horse.
Father’s relationship with the soldiers.
The soldiers’ relationship with each other.
The vivid descriptions and the extensive use of simile.
The darkness and rain seem to reflect the mood of the story. (Note: the very last sentence of the story.)
The British soldiers, (possibly the same ones who killed Mammy and Fiachra in a car accident) are the object of all the father’s loathing and blame. But they are also the savior of his favorite horse.
The entire story is based on saving the draft horse. At the end of the story, though, the father shoots it, and it dies. Why would he do that?
Colum McCann reveals to the reader the innate and devastating effect grief can have on even the best of people. He does this in a beautiful short story and accomplished this through terminology, relationships, imagery, irony, and paradox.
Watch this video with some additional tips for creating an outline:
Step 7: Drafting
Writing an Introduction
The formula for a successful introduction for a literary analysis essay should feel very familiar to you. Your first task as a writer is to draw your readers into your essay by connecting their own experiences with the topic of your paper. This is accomplished by a hook that relates to your readers and draws them into your argument. For example, if you were writing about the treatment of post-partum depression in “The Yellow Wallpaper,” you might begin your paper with a statistic about the number of women who experience it. This statistic shows readers that your topic has significance to a modern issue and possibly to their own lives, as well.
Once you’ve successfully hooked your audience, you should transition into your topic. In this case, you’ll need to give your readers the author and title of the piece you are discussing. For example, you might say something like, “Post-partum depression is nothing new. In fact, Charlotte Perkins Gilman addresses the improper treatment of post-partum depression in her short story, ‘The Yellow Wallpaper.'” This sentence provides a bridge from the hook to the thesis.
Finally, your introduction should include a strong statement of your argument. “Gilman used her short story to highlight the inappropriate and often harmful treatment women suffering from post-partum depression received and, in so doing, advocated for women’s voices to be heard.” This final piece of the introduction leaves no doubt about the essay’s argument.
Remember that, while there are three key parts to an introduction, this does not mean that you will only have three sentences in your introductory paragraph.
When writing an analysis of a short story, it’s important to consider your readers’ experience with the text. In general, you should assume that the reader is familiar with the short story, but that it may have been awhile since they have read it. Therefore, including a brief summary of the plot of the text is an important part of ensuring that your readers can follow your argument.
Here are some basic tips for writing a summary:
Begin with an introductory sentence that states the text’s title, author and main thesis or subject.
Write in your own words–do not include quotes.
In less than five sentences, tell readers the general plot of the story, including key characters, events, and ideas.
Do not insert any of your own opinions, interpretations, deductions or comments into a summary.
Depending on the type of analysis you are writing, the information about the author might also be an important element to include in your background section. This could be as simple as a single sentence telling readers when the piece was written or as complex as a short paragraph describing the historical and cultural context of the piece.
Remember that your body paragraphs have three key components:
Topic sentence that tells readers what point you will be discussing in the paragraph and relates back to the thesis. The topic sentence is also where you would include a transition from the previous paragraph.
Support/Evidence for your point from the story, following the Quote Formula.
Wrap up the paragraph by explaining to readers how the evidence you’ve provided proves your point.
Here’s a brief video explaining these the parts of a body paragraph in a literary analysis essay:
Here’s a brief video recapping the process of writing a literary analysis of the short story, “Story of an Hour”:
Incorporating Secondary Sources
One of the keys to a successful literary analysis is engaging in the academic conversation about the author and the work you’ve chosen. This means that you should incorporate your secondary sources into your analysis, as well as the primary text you are studying. Look for areas where an expert voice will help to strengthen the argument you are making in your paper. Since you’ve built your argument on your own analysis in combination with your research, this should be a fairly straightforward process. Remember to always surround quotes with your own words and follow the Quote Formula!
WHAT THIS HANDOUT IS ABOUT
This handout will explain the functions of conclusions, offer strategies for writing effective ones, help you evaluate your drafted conclusions, and suggest conclusion strategies to avoid.
Introductions and conclusions can be the most difficult parts of papers to write. While the body is often easier to write, it needs a frame around it. An introduction and conclusion frame your thoughts and bridge your ideas for the reader.
Just as your introduction acts as a bridge that transports your readers from their own lives into the “place” of your analysis, your conclusion can provide a bridge to help your readers make the transition back to their daily lives. Such a conclusion will help them see why all your analysis and information should matter to them after they put the paper down.
Your conclusion is your chance to have the last word on the subject. The conclusion allows you to have the final say on the issues you have raised in your paper, to synthesize your thoughts, to demonstrate the importance of your ideas, and to propel your reader to a new view of the subject. It is also your opportunity to make a good final impression and to end on a positive note.
Your conclusion can go beyond the confines of the assignment. The conclusion pushes beyond the boundaries of the prompt and allows you to consider broader issues, make new connections, and elaborate on the significance of your findings.
Your conclusion should make your readers glad they read your paper. Your conclusion gives your reader something to take away that will help them see things differently or appreciate your topic in personally relevant ways. It can suggest broader implications that will not only interest your reader, but also enrich your reader’s life in some way. It is your gift to the reader.
STRATEGIES FOR WRITING AN EFFECTIVE CONCLUSION
One or more of the following strategies may help you write an effective conclusion.
Play the “So What” Game. If you’re stuck and feel like your conclusion isn’t saying anything new or interesting, ask a friend to read it with you. Whenever you make a statement from your conclusion, ask the friend to say, “So what?” or “Why should anybody care?” Then ponder that question and answer it. Here’s how it might go:You: Basically, I’m just saying that education was important to Douglass.Friend: So what?You: Well, it was important because it was a key to him feeling like a free and equal citizen.
Friend: Why should anybody care?
You: That’s important because plantation owners tried to keep slaves from being educated so that they could maintain control. When Douglass obtained an education, he undermined that control personally.
You can also use this strategy on your own, asking yourself “So What?” as you develop your ideas or your draft.
Return to the theme or themes in the introduction. This strategy brings the reader full circle. For example, if you begin by describing a scenario, you can end with the same scenario as proof that your essay is helpful in creating a new understanding. You may also refer to the introductory paragraph by using key words or parallel concepts and images that you also used in the introduction.
Synthesize, don’t summarize: Include a brief summary of the paper’s main points, but don’t simply repeat things that were in your paper. Instead, show your reader how the points you made and the support and examples you used fit together. Pull it all together.
Include a provocative insight or quotation from the research or reading you did for your paper.
Propose a course of action, a solution to an issue, or questions for further study. This can redirect your reader’s thought process and help her to apply your info and ideas to her own life or to see the broader implications.
Point to broader implications. For example, if your paper examines the Greensboro sit-ins or another event in the Civil Rights Movement, you could point out its impact on the Civil Rights Movement as a whole. A paper about the style of writer Virginia Woolf could point to her influence on other writers or on later feminists.
STRATEGIES TO AVOID
Beginning with an unnecessary, overused phrase such as “in conclusion,” “in summary,” or “in closing.” Although these phrases can work in speeches, they come across as wooden and trite in writing.
Stating the thesis for the very first time in the conclusion.
Introducing a new idea or subtopic in your conclusion.
Ending with a rephrased thesis statement without any substantive changes.
Making sentimental, emotional appeals that are out of character with the rest of an analytical paper.
Including evidence (quotations, statistics, etc.) that should be in the body of the paper.
FOUR KINDS OF INEFFECTIVE CONCLUSIONS
The “That’s My Story and I’m Sticking to It” Conclusion. This conclusion just restates the thesis and is usually painfully short. It does not push the ideas forward. People write this kind of conclusion when they can’t think of anything else to say. Example: In conclusion, Frederick Douglass was, as we have seen, a pioneer in American education, proving that education was a major force for social change with regard to slavery.
The “Sherlock Holmes” Conclusion. Sometimes writers will state the thesis for the very first time in the conclusion. You might be tempted to use this strategy if you don’t want to give everything away too early in your paper. You may think it would be more dramatic to keep the reader in the dark until the end and then “wow” him with your main idea, as in a Sherlock Holmes mystery. The reader, however, does not expect a mystery, but an analytical discussion of your topic in an academic style, with the main argument (thesis) stated up front. Example: (After a paper that lists numerous incidents from the book but never says what these incidents reveal about Douglass and his views on education): So, as the evidence above demonstrates, Douglass saw education as a way to undermine the slaveholders’ power and also an important step toward freedom.
The “America the Beautiful”/”I Am Woman”/”We Shall Overcome” Conclusion. This kind of conclusion usually draws on emotion to make its appeal, but while this emotion and even sentimentality may be very heartfelt, it is usually out of character with the rest of an analytical paper. A more sophisticated commentary, rather than emotional praise, would be a more fitting tribute to the topic. Example: Because of the efforts of fine Americans like Frederick Douglass, countless others have seen the shining beacon of light that is education. His example was a torch that lit the way for others. Frederick Douglass was truly an American hero.
The “Grab Bag” Conclusion. This kind of conclusion includes extra information that the writer found or thought of but couldn’t integrate into the main paper. You may find it hard to leave out details that you discovered after hours of research and thought, but adding random facts and bits of evidence at the end of an otherwise-well-organized essay can just create confusion. Example: In addition to being an educational pioneer, Frederick Douglass provides an interesting case study for masculinity in the American South. He also offers historians an interesting glimpse into slave resistance when he confronts Covey, the overseer. His relationships with female relatives reveal the importance of family in the slave community.
We consulted these works while writing the original version of this handout. This is not a comprehensive list of resources on the handout’s topic, and we encourage you to do your own research to find the latest publications on this topic. Please do not use this list as a model for the format of your own reference list, as it may not match the citation style you are using. For guidance on formatting citations, please see the UNC Libraries citation tutorial.
All quotations are from:
Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, edited and with introduction by Houston A. Baker, Jr., New York: Penguin Books, 1986.
Strategies for Writing a Conclusion. Literacy Education Online, St. Cloud State University. 18 May 2005 <http://leo.stcloudstate.edu/acadwrite/conclude.html>.
Conclusions. Nesbitt-Johnston Writing Center, Hamilton College. 17 May 2005 <http://www.hamilton.edu/academic/Resource/WC/SampleConclusions.html>.
Here’s a sample student paper that uses psychological criticism to analyze Edgar Allen Poe’s short story “The Black Cat”:
Content created by Dr. Karen Palmer. Licensed under CC BY NC SA.