Writing An Essay About A Short Story
To write an effective critical analysis, you must first be sure that you understand the question that has been posed, and all literary terms that you have been asked to address. Once you feel you understand the question, reread the piece of literature, making notes. Then look at the notes you've made, consider what connections you can make between observations, and reconsider the question. Try to formulate a rough thesis statement (your "claim"). Now try to select those pieces of evidence that you feel you can most convincingly use to support the claim you made. Next, try to formulate a good introduction, that
- names the work discussed and the author.
- provides a very brief plot summary.
- relates some aspect of that plot to the topic you have chosen to address.
- provides a thesis statement.
- indicates the way you plan to develop your argument (support your claim).
Now proceed to introduce and discuss the evidence you mentioned in your introduction, in the order in which you mentioned it. Ensure that you deal with each kind of evidence in a paragraph of its own, and that you introduce the topic of each paragraph with a carefully-focused topic sentence. Also ensure that you end each paragraph with a concluding sentence that sums up the thrust of that paragraph's argument and possibly paves the way for the next piece of evidence to be discussed. (Alternatively, you can begin the next paragraph with a transitional phrase that links the new piece of evidence with the one you have just summarized.)
Finally, write a conclusion that restates your thesis (but using different words), incorporates a brief restatement of your key evidence, and provides a sense of closure. A good closing technique is to somehow link the claim you have made about this particular piece of literature with the author's general style or preoccupations, or to suggest some way in which the topic you have just discussed relates more generally to some aspect of human existence.
What follows is the sample essay analysing the use of setting in the short story "The Cask of Amontillado." Both "good" and "poor" examples of the essay's first and second body paragraphs are included. As you read each paragraph of the essay, beginning with its introduction, clicking on the "continue" arrow at the bottom of the paragraph will permit you to see commentary on particular features of the essay-writing process. To see all the commentary, you may need to click the arrow multiple times.
This is an abbreviated and adapted version of Appendix 3 from Ann Charters,The Story and Its Writer: An Introduction to Short Fiction (3rd ed. Boston: Bedford Books of St. Martin's Press, 1991), a very useful anthology with a broad selection of short fiction and related commentaries.
In writing an essay about literature, you clarify your relationship to what you have read. This relationship goes beyond a basic emotional response to the story, whether you enjoyed it or not. You write to reveal what Ernest Hemingway referred to as "the measure of what you brought to the reading." As soon as you ask the smallest question about the meaning or structure of a story and try to answer it, you are beginning a critical inquiry that involves your intellect as well as your emotions. This activity is called the interpretation of the text. What makes it valuable is that it reveals to you and to others how you respond to the stories after they have entertained, instructed, and perhaps enchanted you. Now it is your turn to explain their effect on you, and to analyze how they did it. Once you have asked yourself what there is about a story that gives you pleasure the style, the form, the meaning - you have begun discovering "the measure of what you brought to the reading." The next stage is to communicate your ideas to someone else. Turning yourself from a reader into a writer takes time, but if you understand the various steps involved, the process becomes much easier.
Writing the Paper
An essay about literature can take various forms and be various lengths, depending on the nature of the assignment. But whether you are writing an essay of only a few paragraphs or a research paper of several thousand words, the basic requirement is always the same. You must keep in mind that an essay on short stories (or on any subject, for that matter) is a type of expository writing, and expository means "serving to clarify, set forth, or explain in detail" an idea about the subject. Writing about literature helps you clarify your ideas. If you want your essay to communicate these ideas clearly to a reader, you must understand that it always requires two things to be effective: a strong thesis sentence or central idea about your topic, and an adequate development of your thesis sentence. How you organize your paper will depend on the way you choose to develop your central idea. The three principal ways of organizing essays about short stories - explication, analysis, and comparison and contrast - will be taken up after a discussion of ways to find a thesis sentence.
Getting Ideas for Your Topic and Thesis Sentence
Most effective short papers (about 500 words) usually treat one aspect of the story: its theme, characterization, setting, point of view, or literary style. These are some of the possible topics for your paper, the general subject you are going to write about. Usually your first response to a story is a jumble of impressions that do not separate themselves into neat categories of topics and thesis sentences. You must sort through these impressions to select a topic on which to concentrate in order to get ideas for your thesis sentence.
Before you can start your essay, you should feel that you understand the story thoroughly as a whole. Read it again to remind yourself of the passages that strike you with particular force. Underline the words and sentences you consider significant -- or, even better, make a list of what seems important while you are reading the story. These can be outstanding descriptions of the characters or settings, passages of meaningful dialogue, details showing the way the author builds toward the story's climax, or hints that foreshadow the conclusion. To stimulate ideas about topics, you may want to jot down answers to the following questions about the elements of the story as you reread it.
Does the plot depend on chance or coincidence, or does it grow out of the personalities of the characters? Are any later incidents foreshadowed early in the story? Are the episodes presented in chronological order? If not, why not? Does the climax indicate a change in a situation or a change in a character? How dramatic is this change? Or is there no change at all?
Are the characters believable? Are they stereotypes? Do they suggest real people, or abstract qualities? Is there one protagonist or are there several? Does the story have an antagonist? How does the author tell you about the main character through description of physical appearance, actions, thoughts, and emotions, or through contrast with a minor character? Does the main character change in the course of the story? If so, how? Why?
How does the setting influence the plot and the characters? Does it help to suggest or develop the meaning of the story?
Point of View.
How does the point of view shape the theme? Would the story change if told from a different viewpoint? In first-person narration, can you trust the narrator?
Is the author's prose style primarily literal or figurative? Can you find examples of irony in dialogue or narrative passages? If dialect or colloquial speech is used, what is its effect? Does the author call attention to the way he or she uses words, or is the literary style inconspicuous?
Does the story's title help explain its meaning? Can you find a suggestion of the theme in specific passages or dialogue or description? Are certain symbols or repetitions of images important in revealing the author's intent in the story, what Poe would call "the single effect"?
Now put the text aside and look over your notes. Can you see any pattern in them? You may find that you have been most impressed by the way the author developed characterizations, for example. Then you will have a possible topic for your paper. Certainly if you have a choice, you should pick whatever appeals to you the most in the story and concentrate on it.
If you still cannot come up with a topic, ask for help in your next class. Perhaps your instructor will suggest something: "Why don't you discuss the way Hawthorne used irony in 'Young Goodman Brown'?" Often the class will be assigned one topic to write about. Some students think assigned topics make writing more difficult; others find they make it easier to begin to write.
A topic, however, is not the same as a thesis sentence. A topic is a general subject (for example, the character of Goodman Brown). A thesis sentence, by contrast, makes a statement about a topic; it is usually the result of thinking about the topic and narrowing it down to focus on some relationship of the topic to the story as a whole. A good thesis sentence has two important functions. First, it suggests a way for you to write about the story. Second, it makes clear to your reader the approach you have taken toward the topic. To write critically about short fiction, you must think critically about it. You start with an interpretation of the entire story and then show how some particular aspect of it contributes to what you think is its overall pattern and meaning.
Narrowing Ideas to a Thesis
A thesis sentence states the central idea you will develop in your paper. It should be easy for the reader of your essay to recognize - even if it's sometimes hard for you to formulate. A thesis sentence is a complete sentence that points the way you will take to clarify your interpretation of the story. In Hawthorne's story, for example, you might decide to write about the character of Goodman Brown (topic). You interpret the story to be a warning about the danger of losing religious faith (theme). If you think about the way your topic relates to the theme, your analysis might lead you to the idea that Goodman Brown lost his religious faith through the sin of pride. This thought process narrows the topic into a thesis, which you can state as the sentence "The story 'Young Goodman Brown' shows how a man can lose his religious faith through the sin of pride."
The test of a good thesis sentence is whether your subject ("The story 'Young Goodman Brown'") is followed by a clearly focused predicate ("shows how a man can lose his religious faith through the sin of pride"). What you want is a statement of an idea that you can then develop in your essay.
Finding a thesis sentence is often the biggest stumbling block for writers of expository prose. How do you know if your idea is worth developing in a paper? Generally speaking, a thesis will work if it expresses a specific idea about the story that you want to develop. If you are not interested to begin with, or do not like the story you are writing about, you probably will not write effectively. You almost always write better about a story you have enjoyed reading. Certainly you will feel more sympathetic to the intent of the author if you are not hostile to the assignment in the first place. Remember also that as a literary critic you must always keep an open mind when interpreting a story. Your ideas about it are as valid as anyone else's, so long as you can support them with examples from the text. There are many possible ways to read a story, although the author may have felt the original impulse to write it because of a particular idea or feeling about the subject.
Sometimes the thesis sentence occurs to you while you are thinking about the story; then you can jot it down as a fully formed idea right away. Other times you may find that you are unable to formulate any definite idea about the story until you start to write. No single procedure works for all writers at all times. You might begin writing with a trial thesis in mind, putting down rough ideas or a string of sentences as you think about the general topic you have chosen. Or you might decide to go back to the notes you took while reading the story and try to organize them into a simple outline about your topic, looking for connections between things that might suggest a direction to take in a trial essay and then hoping a thesis sentence will emerge while you free-associate with paper and pencil in hand. You might also get an idea for a thesis sentence by talking about the story with a friend. Whatever way you start, do not settle for anything quick and easy. "Hawthorne's use of irony in 'Young Goodman Brown' is interesting" is much too general to be helpful to you in writing a good essay. Keep thinking or scribbling away at your first rough draft until you find an idea that gives you a specific direction to take in your paper. "Hawthorne's use of irony in 'Young Goodman Brown' suggests his judgment of the Puritan moral code" is a thesis sentence that has a clearly focused predicate. It states a definite relationship of the topic to the meaning of the thesis you want to explore. Then you know you are on your way to writing a good essay.
Writing and Revising
If you begin the first paragraph of your essay with a strong thesis sentence, your ideas will usually flow in writing and revising the paper. You will often discover further possibilities for refining your thesis while using it to interpret the text. That is one reason you should allow plenty of time to complete a writing assignment. It's an unusual first draft in which the central idea is developed coherently and fully enough to be turned in as a finished paper. Revision often stimulates further thought, sharpening and strengthening the development of your thesis. In the process of writing, you will come to understand the story more fully as your thesis takes you closer to its meaning.
Try not to become discouraged about writing by visualizing some distant final product - a well-organized essay, neatly typed on clean, white paper, shimmering on the page in what looks like pristine perfection. Remember that it took time to get that way. Your essay originated in halfformed, often confused thoughts that had to be coaxed to arrange themselves into coherent paragraphs linked by what only much later appear to be inevitable transitions. More often than not, the 500 words you might think are a perfect essay when you turn in your final paper will be the end result -- if you took enough time in writing -- of winnowing down 1,000 or more words from your rough drafts. You must amplify and clarify your thesis, editing your sentences and paragraphs so that each one relates coherently to your central idea. Then your essay will express your insights about the story so clearly that they can be understood as you intended.
At the beginning, it is best to forget about the end result and give all your thought and effort to the process of writing. If you find it useful, make an outline and try to follow it, but this practice varies with different writers. Some find it valuable to organize their notes about the story into a formal outline, whereas others prefer to make a rough sketch of the steps they plan to follow in developing their central idea. You may find that you do not want to use an outline at all, although in general it can help to keep you from straying too far from the point you are trying to make. Remember, too, that there is no fixed rule about the number of drafts or the amount of revision necessary before you have a finished essay. Every essay changes from the first rough draft through various revisions; an essay is often gone, over several times in the days or weeks between getting the assignment: and bringing the finished paper to class. In the various stages of writing different aspects of the central idea often reveal themselves and are integrated into the paper, depending on your degree of concentration and J involvement in the assignment. Even if you scrap sentences or whole paragraphs that do not relate to your final discussion, you have not waste& your time, because your early efforts to put your thoughts down on paper bring you to the point where you have better insights.
You will probably have to rewrite your opening paragraph many times to tailor your thesis sentence to the final shape your ideas have taken. So writers just sketch in the first paragraph and go back to polish it when I rest of the essay is finished. Often you will want to amplify and refine your thesis sentence, dividing it into several sentences in your introductory remarks. Then it becomes a thesis statement, rather than a single sentence.
Developing the Thesis
While it is possible to write many different kinds of papers about short fiction, most college instructors assign students the task of interpreting the text. The literary items used in the headnotes on each writer in this anthology and defined in the Glossary [of this book] can help you find a vocabulary to express your ideas. You cannot write intelligently about any subject without using the special terminology of that subject, whether it is English, economics, psychology, or engineering. At the same time, dropping the terms in your paper the way a person might drop names at a party will not impress your readers. Understand what the terms mean so you can use them to think and write critically about the elements of a story when you begin to interpret the text in the light of your central idea.
You will usually develop your thesis statement in the body of your essay by following one or more of the three common methods of writing about literature: explication, analysis, and comparison and contrast.