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Short Story Reading Strategies

by Soheila Battaglia

A key strategy to gaining an in-depth understanding of any text is to ask questions. If you ask yourself a series of questions before and during the act of reading a short story, you can deepen your understanding and analysis of any text. The responses to these questions will provide the information from which you can draw to write a paper or create a project. Focus your questions on the title, background, characters, plot and themes of the story.

Title

A title can be a decorative accessory to a text, but it can also reveal something about the story itself. During the reading process, ask yourself what the title tells you about the story. Does it foreshadow an event or name a particular character? Does it reference or allude to something specific outside of the story, such as another story, event or a mythical character? The title of a short story can contribute to your overall reading of the text.

Background and Context

Knowing the background and context can be crucial to gaining insight about a story. Take the time to read about the biography of the author, and glance at the rest of his body of work. Note when and where the story was written, as the social and political climate at the time of its production can reveal meaning and references that may not have been otherwise clear. For example, knowing that a story was written during the slavery-era can give insight into a particular story's use of language and its prominent themes.

Characters

The characters are the people in the story, both major and minor, to whom the story happens. The protagonist is the main character and often drives the story forward. Ask what the protagonist wants. What is she fighting for? Do the characters change or develop over the course of the story? Different points-of-view afford different degrees of insight into the characters' thoughts and motivations. Examine whether the story is told through the point-of-view of any of the characters. What limitations or important information does the reader gain from a particular point-of-view?

Plot

The plot is essentially what happens to the characters in the story. Ask if there is a traditional plot structure of exposition, rising action, climax, falling action and resolution. If these points exist in the story, how are they manifested and why do they matter to the story and its characters? A key force that can drive a plot is a problem or conflict. Is there a problem or conflict between the characters or between two forces such as good and evil? Is this conflict ever resolved? If so, how?

Themes

A theme is a central topic or subject and often expresses some aspect of human experience. All art, including literature, embodies universal themes like love, death, forgiveness and resilience. Most art contains several of these themes in a single piece. For example, the short story, Edgar Allen Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado," contains the themes of revenge, holding a grudge and madness.

Tips

Highlight or underline specific quotes as you read -- anything that strikes you as interesting, confusing or powerful. Later, these quotes can serve as reference points for your analysis as well as evidence for your essays. Enjoy the text, as many of these elements will reveal themselves to you as you follow the story. Read the story more than once. Often a fresh reading will provide new and important revelations.

About the Author

Soheila Battaglia is a published and award-winning author and filmmaker. She holds an MA in literary cultures from New York University and a BA in ethnic studies from UC Berkeley. She is a college professor of literature and composition.

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