So you’ve finished reading the short story, and now you’ve got to write up your critique essay. But you don’t have a clue where to start. The answer is simple:
Step away from the keyboard.
And keep on reading.
The beauty of the short story is that it is short. You spotted the clue in the name, right? So unlike a novel, you can read short fiction multiple times and focus on a different aspect of literary critique for each sitting. And by the time you are through you will know the story like the back of your hand, and writing your essay will be a breeze.
So stop typing, rewind, and start again at the beginning:
Step 1: Smart reading
The key to smart reading is to be critical. Criticism can be positive or negative, and you need to have confidence in your own views of the work, regardless of the author’s reputation or whatever anyone else thinks.
The bottom line with literary criticism is that there are no right or wrong answers. As long as you back everything up with evidence, you can still attain a top grade if you take the opposite view to the author, your teacher or the best student in your class.
But your reading needs to be methodical.
For the first sitting, focus on the sequence of events that takes place throughout the story.
Analyzing the plot of a short story is easy because unlike novels, which can contain multiple plotlines, short stories usually have only one.
And to make the process even easier, here are some questions that you can ask yourself as you read:
- Does the plot hold your interest from beginning to end?
- What are the most important events, and why?
- Is the plotline realistic?
- Are there any parts of the plotline that seem irrelevant the main story?
- Does the plot deal with external conflict, internal conflict or both?
Next you can look at the way the author portrays the characters in the story.
Short stories will not have many characters, and often centre around one main character, known as the protagonist.
The best way to analyze characterization is ask these questions:
- Who is the protagonist?
- How effectively does the author describe the characters’ actions, appearance and thoughts?
- What are your feelings towards the characters?
- Does the way the characters speak give you any information about their personality?
- Do the characters change over the course of the story?
- If the story contains minor characters, are they necessary and effective?
Alongside plot and characters, there is a third element that is a crucial part of any story:
Short stories are usually set in a single location and time period, but some do have more than one.
These questions will help you master the setting:
- How does the author describe the location of the events?
- Does the story take place in the past, the present, or the future (or all three)?
- What are the wider circumstances surrounding the story’s setting?
- Does the setting play an important role in the story?
- Does the place and time period in which the author lived and worked have an effect on the place and time period in which the story is set?
- Has the author successfully given you a feeling of really being in the story’s setting?
Your next read through might require some creative thinking and detective work, as you consider the ideas, messages or lessons behind the story.
Analyzing theme is your chance to really stand out, because while some themes are obvious and intended by the author, it is also possible to find more obscure themes that the author may not have been aware of.
Answer these questions, and you’ve nailed theme:
- What is the main theme? Are there any others?
- How is the theme conveyed?
- If the author is using the story to deliver a particular message, are you convinced by it?
- What does the theme reveal about the author?
Now you’re confident you understand the author’s message. Not so fast! You need to think about who is actually telling the story.
Short stories are usually narrated in the first person by one of the characters (“I woke up early that morning”) or in the third person (“She woke up early that morning”). In the case of the third person, the narrator could be all-knowing or just have the perspective of one or more of the characters (the focalizer). Less commonly, a story will be written in the second person (“You woke up early that morning”).
Analyzing point of view will give to a deeper insight into all of the previous aspects that you have dealt with. So ask yourself:
- Who is narrating the story?
- Does the author use a consistent point of view throughout?
- Is the narrator telling the truth?
- Does the author have the same mindset as the narrator?
- Would the story be different if it were narrated from a different point of view?
Finally, you need to look at the way the author uses language to tell the story.
Ask the following questions when analyzing style:
- What is the author’s tone? Humorous? Serious? Sarcastic? Sentimental?
- Does the author use any unusual words or phrases? What effect do they have?
- Is there anything in the story – an object, for example – that has any special meaning?
- Does the author’s use of literary devices affect your enjoyment of the story in any way?
- What would the story be like if the author used a different style?
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By now you should be familiar with the story and have enough great ideas to produce an A+ essay. Look again at the set question, and decide on the main direction you want your literary criticism essay to take.
Because now it’s time to wipe the dust of that keyboard:
Step 2: Putting it all together
Always keep in mind the two golden rules of essay writing:
- Your essay must be focused on the set question.
- Your opinions are only valid if you can support them with evidence.
Divide your work into three sections:
- Introduction (about 10% of the total word count)
- Main body (about 80% of the total word count)
- Conclusion (about 10% of the total word count)
Your introduction should consist of one or two paragraphs that outline your statement of intent. You do not need to provide any evidence to back up your assertions at this stage – save that for the main body.
Here are the ingredients for a perfect introduction:
- An engaging opening line that captures the reader’s interest.
- The title of the short story and the name of author.
- A brief outline of the main points and arguments that you intend to make.
The main body is used to set out your case in detail and provide evidence to support it. Each paragraph should deal with a different point, and follow a logical order that develops your overall argument.
Your main body is ready for the beach when it has:
- A persuasive and articulate argument.
- Evidence and quotes from the short story, as well external references where appropriate, to support your case.
- Acknowledgement of any competing arguments to provide balance.
- Clear and concise language, with no repetition or irrelevant material.
- Clear focus on the set question.
You’re almost home and dry now:
The conclusion ties everything together and briefly sums up your response to the set question. Like the introduction, this should be only one or two paragraphs long and should not contain any new arguments, information or evidence.
To finish your essay with a bang, you will need:
- A summary of the ideas that you have presented in the main body.
- Acknowledgement of any issues that need to be considered in the future.
- A powerful closing statement that encapsulates your overall position.
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Once you have finished writing your literary analysis essay, the best thing you can do is take a break. When you return to review what you have done it will be with fresh eyes.
You’ve had fun criticising the author. Now it’s time to look in the mirror:
Step 3: Reviewing your work
As usual, good things come in threes. Break your review down into these stages:
- Content editing
For the first of these, you need to look at your essay as a whole and consider:
- Does your essay deal exclusively with the set question?
- Does your introduction accurately preview the content of the main body?
- Does each paragraph in the main body follow a logical order?
- Does your essay contain any repetition, inaccuracy or irrelevant material?
- Does your conclusion successfully sum up your argument?
- Are your references accurate and appropriate?
- Will your reader find your essay to be enjoyable, easy to understand and persuasive?
Once you are happy with the content of your essay, you can review it in more detail to deal with the accuracy and consistency of the text.
Reading carefully, line by line, ask yourself:
- Is your language as clear and concise as possible?
- Is your grammar and spelling correct?
- Have you presented acronyms, abbreviations, capitalization etc. correctly and consistently?
- Are your quotations and references in the correct format?
- Are there any other formatting issues with your document?
Take another break then review your essay one last time. Use your spellchecker then print off a copy and read slowly and carefully, line by line. Hopefully there won’t be too many errors by this stage, but think of this process as a final polish to make your work really shine. A flawless piece of work will be a pleasure for your reader to behold!
If you need any help with editing your literary criticism essay, Custom Writing can have your work edited and proofread to perfection.
Remember, the key to getting your A+ grade is in the reading – smart reading to be precise. Once you have got a grip on the short story using all of the different critique perspectives, you will find that the words will pour out of you. All you need after that is a little discipline to get those words organised.
Finally, if you want to know what makes a great short story watch this interview with master storyteller Stephen King.