In high school we all had to analyze short stories. It was dreadful and tedious for most of us. It was bad enough to have to read those dreary tales written by long-dead authors. Then we had to pick apart each paragraph, searching endlessly for similes, metaphors, foreshadowing and other unfathomable literary devices.
Now, as adults reading for pleasure and personal growth, we can take a more practical approach to analysis. (This approach works fine for students reading required writing, too, before addressing specific essay criteria.) To analyze a short story, ask questions the same way a reporter might organize a feature story.
First: did you like the story? A well-written short story will move you - to laughter, or tears, or enlightenment, or some other visceral reaction. Use your emotional reaction as a springboard for deeper questioning. On the other hand, if you found the story boring or confusing, expect to find negative answers to the rest of your questions.
As a 'reporter' your next question is usually, "who?" (first of the five W's). In a short story, "who" refers to the characters involved. Did the author develop his protagonist and accompanying cast well enough for you to care what happened to them?
A strong character will appeal to you personally because you can relate to him or her. You might feel empathy, sympathy, or revulsion for a character; but you should feel something. Good writers waste little time on topical descriptions of their characters. Instead, they use incidents and subtle clues in dialog and body language to show you, not tell you. Even minor characters should "pop" into your mind, vivid enough that you understand exactly why each one acts as he or she does.
Ask yourself next "what?" happened to those characters. Did the boy get the girl? Did the girl achieve stardom and fame? Did their child save a life? Something important happened in the plot, or the story wasn't worth reading at all. Captivating writing takes the reader to unexpected places, in unexpected ways, often with a tease of foreshadowing at first and a twist along the route.
Novelists know there are only about a half-dozen broad plot-lines available, so success comes via character development. If you were excited or surprised as the story unfolded, then the author told you a tale worth telling.
The third and forth w's are "when?" and "where?" Although these two are the meat of a news story, they are only the trappings for a short story. The era in which the plot evolves should have some crucial impact on the characters and the plot. The same is true for the setting.
Neither provides a good excuse for long-winded descriptions of period automobiles, famous British landmarks, or colorful fall foliage. In a short story, belabored details like these signal padding for a thin plot or two-dimensional characters. Instead, the time and place should draw you into the story, transporting you away from your ordinary life into the extraordinary events unfolding on the pages you're reading.
"Why?" is the most difficult question to answer, the very same question responsible for all those baffling essay topics in school assignments. So ask yourself, "why did this author bother writing this piece?" Don't worry about similes and metaphors, and don't assume there's a hidden meaning in every tale. Just answer the question directly: "the author wanted to show how Love can overcome Adversity." (That's a pretty common theme in short stories, so it's a good sample answer.) The answer to "why?" helps define the sometimes elusive "theme" of a piece.
Identifying and understanding the theme leads all the way back to the original question you asked yourself: how did this story make you feel? Did the author lure you into her fictional world convincingly? Did the things that happened to the people in the story seem interesting or important? Could you imagine yourself as the protagonist? Did you care?
If you weren't moved, then the author failed in some way, large or small, somewhere within those five W's. On the other hand, if you can't wait to read the next story by the same author, then she probably knocked at least four of those W's right out of the ballpark.
[Suggested reading, authors who consistently hit home runs in short stories: Jeffrey Archer (always a twist in the tale), John D. MacDonald (a master at character development), and Stephen King (whose short stories and novellas are often even better than his long tomes).]
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See, also: Practical Rules for Writers
Next installment will focus on developing characters your readers will want to meet.
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