Reading and Writing about Literature

(Ray Bigauskas 2005)




Short Stories and Literature


The word literature is generally used to refer to works of creative imagination such as novels, plays, poems, and short stories.  Literature tells stories, presents dramatic situations, expresses emotions and reveals characters’ thoughts.  In short, literature is an expression of human life and its circumstances and conditions. By reading literature we discover different ways of seeing and interpreting the world.  We also discover how much of the way in which we think and feel about things is shared by others in other times and in other parts of the world.  It has been said that literature shows us not how different we are from others, but how, in many ways, we have much in common. 


On one level, we read literature for its entertainment value.  In fact, if writing is not entertaining or stimulating in some way, we simply won’t read it.  At the same time, literature offers us insights into life and into our own experience.  Literature reflects and exposes the human condition.  A novel can present the life of a character over many years through many experiences. Characters are introduced, a dramatic situation is presented, and then we are left trying to figure out what it all means.  We are exposed to the thoughts of others and see how they think and react in different situations.  We may find ourselves asking, “Would I do that?” As we gain an appreciation for literature, we also come to realize its value in the way that it makes us question the way we see the world.



Short stories have a more limited scope than novels. They have fewer characters and tend to focus on one dramatic episode.  Nevertheless, they can be both entertaining and thought provoking.  After reading a short story you might find yourself wondering, “What was that all about?”  It is useful to think of the difference between what happens in a story (the plot) and what the story is about (the theme).  For example, the plot of the story may involve one man planning to kill another because the other was responsible for the death of his brother.  The theme of the story may be the desire for revenge and how the inability to forgive past wrongs leads to more violence. 


Our first relationship with a novel or story is a personal one.  We may like the story because we found characters we could relate to or the plot focused on a subject that we were attracted to. We are constantly reassessing our response and deciding whether or not we like a piece of writing and whether it catches and holds our attention. Your role as a student of literature is to read literature with a view to analyzing and interpreting. Think not only of what the character did, but of her motivations and the consequences of her actions.  Reading is an active process in which we are constantly questioning what is going on, how the situation is changing, and what is going to happen next.  In the end, we want to come up with an interpretation for or at least be able to articulate our understanding of the events in a story.  Naturally, different readers will come up with different interpretations of the same story.  What is important, however, is to look carefully at the story for evidence which supports your interpretation.


Here are some suggestions for questions to ask yourself when preparing to write about a short story


  1. Who is the main character? (Who are the main characters?)


  1. How do you feel toward the character(s) at the beginning of the story? At the end of the story?  What causes your feelings to change?


  1. How is the story organized?  Does it rely on flashbacks?  Is the story told largely through dialogue or action?


  1. Where and when is the story set? Does the setting have an effect on the way characters behave or on the plot?


  1. What is the tone of the story?  Is it light and humorous, dark and gloomy?


  1. Who tells the story?  Is it a first-person narrator, an omniscient narrator, or a fly-on-the-wall (objective) narrator?  How does this affect the story?


  1. What is the theme of the story? What does the story show or reveal?  Can you state the theme in one sentence?


  1. Look at the title. Does it contribute to helping you understand the meaning of the story?


  1. Are there any obvious symbols in the story?




Writing about Literature


Literature essays, like other essays, require a clear thesis supported by evidence.  In a literature essay, the evidence comes from the events and characters’ actions and words. For example, a story about a shy character’s inability to express his love might suggest to you that love can be expressed in many different ways and still be love.  The essay would then include examples from the story to support this point.


Before beginning to write a literature essay, an understanding of the basic literature terms and elements of literature is helpful.




Elements of Literature




Plot refers to the arrangement of the actions, events or incidents that make up a story. The plot typically involves several stages.  The first stage is the exposition, which introduces the reader to the information about characters and background necessary to understand the events to follow.  The plot is not just the events of a story, but also the motivation for those events. As the plot develops, an element of conflict is introduced.  The conflict builds to a climax—the point of greatest tension in a story.  The story moves to some form of resolution which brings the story to a close. The story may have a neat wrap-up or the reader may be left to ponder several possibilities.




The theme is the main idea of a work of literature.  The theme might be about how hope can help people make it through desperate circumstances or how our standards of what is right and wrong are influenced by our personal situation.  It often takes some searching and thinking to find the theme.  We have to carefully consider the events in a story and our reactions to them. We might also think of the response the writer intended to elicit from the reader.




The setting is the time and place of the main events of the story.  The setting can have a strong influence on the way the characters relate to each other and to the world around them.  Many Canadian short stories set during the “Great Depression” of the 1930’s provide a unique view of the lives of Canadians during that period.




A story is only interesting if we know enough about the main character to understand some of his or her emotions and thoughts.  In a story or novel, we learn about characters through their actions, what they say about themselves or to others, and what others say about them.  Eventually we piece together a portrait of a person. We can understand our hero’s motivations and can even predict what they are likely to do in certain situations.  Characters, even sympathetic ones, are often drawn with a personal flaw to heighten dramatic tension.


Point of View


Point of view refers to who is telling the story. There are three main points of view, although these are often broken down further.  The first-person narrator is a character within the story who tells the story from his or her perspective.  Sometimes the first-person narrator is the main character, but often a minor character such as a child narrates the story.  The omniscient narrator is the all-knowing narrator who can move freely into the minds of the characters and read and express their thoughts.  A limited omniscient narrator sees only what one character thinks and feels.  An objective narrator tells the story through action and dialogue, but does not express characters’ thoughts. The objective narrator is sometimes referred to as the fly-on-the-wall or the camera.  He is able to see the surface of things, but no further.


Literature Essay Tips


  1. Don’t just retell the story.  Assume that your reader has also read the story and is familiar with what happened but doesn’t quite understand it all.  Your job is to make some aspect of the meaning of the story clear to the reader.


  1. Use quotations from the story as evidence to back up your points. You can use single words, phrases, or sentences but be sure to introduce your quotes and place any words taken directly from the text in quotation marks.


  1. Write in the present tense to talk about events happening during the main part of the story.


  1. Write in the third person.  Avoid expressing unsupported first person opinions such as “I really like the main character”. Rather try, “The main character is appealing because of his integrity and courage.”


Finding a Topic


Finding a suitable writing topic can be a frustrating process.  It is made easier by writing about a story that you enjoyed or that had some impact on you.  Start there. Why did I enjoy this story?  What did I get out of it? Then you can start to zero in on a manageable writing topic.  Here are a few suggestions.


  1. Compare two stories that deal with a similar theme. (e.g. the consequences of jealousy)


  1. Look at two stories that deal with the same topic and see how they emerge with different themes.  (e.g. two stories about war: one might focus on courage, while the other might look at the futility of war


  1. Study a character in detail.  Explain how the character’s situation is a consequence of his character.


  1. Examine the conflict a story. What is the motivation and what are the results?


  1. Discuss how the point of view is essential to the effect of the story.


  1. Discuss the importance of setting to the story.  Could the story have taken place in another time and place?