I made this when I was teaching students how to approach reading in a literature class that focused on the short story.
I am not usually a visual person, but more of an audio learner (charts make me queasy). That said, the essence of this “map” is that it starts by looking at the story in the broadest sense and moves down to the narrower, more detailed aspects of the story. It moves from genre to structure to language.
By posting it here, I suppose I am asking what it leaves out. Should a discussion-based literature course examine a story in a more encompassing and maybe effective way?
This is how I tend to read. How do you read? How do you teach your students to read?
4 Replies to “Short Story Breakdown”
I don’t usually tell students how to approach a story when first encountering it, and I myself am a fast and loose reader the first time through. To the extent that class discussions teach how to (re)read, I tend to focus on the how and why questions. Comparisons are usually helpful there. What other text has dealt with a similar subject? How was its treatment different, and what is the effect of that difference? What is the effect of the story being structured this way rather than that way? How does the context in which this sort of scene is placed change its effect and/or meaning? A caveat, however– I think I’m fairly weak on structure and tend to spend most of my time in character/tone/theme.
Theme! As you see, it’s down on the bottom of my chart, hardly mentioned at all. I had the hardest time with theme–getting my students to talk about it, or talking about it myself.
I’m going to blame that on fiction writing. Once I met with a group of later-in-life learners who had read a story I wrote and one of them asked me, “How do you start? With theme?” I said that for me, thinking about theme was the fastest way to kill a short story while writing it. In the end, theme is always there, but it’s hard to imagine it would come together organically if I actually gave it much thought during the writing process. Having learned to forget about it while writing, it’s very hard to incorporate back into my teaching.
One of the best questions I ever heard asked by a literature professor was “what moral question is the character (author?) grappling with here? (The text was Middlemarch, and the question might be particularly applicable to Elliot). I like to think of writers as engaged in trying to figure things out, and I like to join in alongside them. This isn’t to say that they wrote a story by starting with a theme; just that perhaps all artists and/or thinkers have their perennial questions that will crop up. My classes were often organized around theme, which is why that would be a big aspect of the discussion. I’m often jealous of your perspective on stories, as a writer. I never quite grasp structure as you do, for example. I hardly think of stories in terms of scenes.
Related question: to the extent that there are trends or styles in fiction, do you you think how one reads should change to suit the style of the text at hand? Should a contemporary story be approached the same way as a nineteenth century story? Do you think the difference in our approach, for example, is primarily a matter of training? Or could it be in part that I’ve been immersed in nineteenth century novels, and you’ve been trained in contemporary short fiction?
“I like to think of writers as engaged in trying to figure things out, and I like to join in alongside them. This isn’t to say that they wrote a story by starting with a theme; just that perhaps all artists and/or thinkers have their perennial questions that will crop up.”
I love this and agree. I also liked what you wrote in the previous comment about looking at works in context of others in order to find theme. It’s neat to think that part of a writer’s job is to articulate and record the questions spinning around their social spheres. I should also add that theme is a conscious part of the writing process for many authors. Many of us draft to determine what we are writing about and then revise for clarity. Theme might be part of this clarification, and an author might switch out a narrative detail for one that better highlights the underlying meaning of what they are getting at. In my own process, though, I revise to make scenes and characters and their struggles more vivid, paring down language that sounds faulty, and don’t usually see theme until I go back to a story much later.
And to answer your questions:
“To the extent that there are trends or styles in fiction, do you think how one reads should change to suit the style of the text at hand?”
Yes, it has to. I think most of us read to find out what happens, but a lot of fiction relies more on language to create tension than plot (Christine Schutt’s fiction, for example). Some scholars talk about “level of reader engagement” required to make meaning, with say, Joyce on one end and Grisham on the other. But “reader engagement” seems like a cheap term. Part of reading requires knowing what to look for, and that comes with training, I suppose.
“Should a contemporary story be approached the same way as a nineteenth century story?”
That depends on why a person is reading? If it’s to get lost in a good story then A Christmas Carol would work just as well as a Harry Potter book, or I & II Samuel. But literature classes seem to offer “below the surface” approaches to reading, which is where theories and lenses come in. In a survey course, though, this is quite tricky. Even a “contemporary fiction course” offers a lot of styles to choose from.
“Do you think the difference in our approach, for example, is primarily a matter of training? Or could it be in part that I’ve been immersed in nineteenth century novels, and you’ve been trained in contemporary short fiction?”
Yes to both. It seems that each work requires time devoted to figuring out how best to read it, and some works, like Shakespeare’s or Melville’s, seem to require a sort of reading muscle that develops from spending time with their work.