menu

How to Criticize a Short Story in Literature


High school and college English and language arts teachers often ask students to critique famous literary short stories as part of their curriculum. Some teachers also have students critique their classmates' stories; in fact, critiquing workshops are often part of undergraduate and graduate creative writing courses. Take notes as you read the story so you can carefully assess the characters, plot and messages. You may evaluate whether the short story has a clear focus or whether it is full of wordiness and unnecessary details.

Examine the Opening Paragraph

Take a close look at the opening paragraph to make sure it catches your attention. Short stories should start with an unexpected situation, action-packed sequence, climactic event or central conflict, suggests Dennis Jerz, associate English professor at Seton Hill University in Pennsylvania. For example, "The Tell-Tale Heart" by Edgar Allan Poe begins with the protagonist's emotional and heart-wrenching claim that he's not insane. The story captivates readers from the start as they strive to understand what has caused the man so much anguish. If an author's story starts on a low note and doesn't immediately make you want to read more, criticize the slow introduction. Offer suggestions as to how the author might rewrite the introductory paragraph to build suspense.

Look for Relevancy

Every word should count in a short story, says fiction editor and writing coach Victory Crayne. When critiquing a story, you should examine the relevance of each sentence to make sure it adds to the plot and supports the underlying messages. Point out excess content that bogs down the story, such as irrelevant dialogue or unwarranted commentary. Look for places where a writer should have chosen her words more carefully and remind her that descriptive adjectives, strategic dialogue and action verbs make a dramatic impact.

Probe for Excess Material

Assess the number of subplots and characters in the story. A primary plot line with one subplot works for most short stories, but more than one leads to confusion and detracts from the story, says Crayne. For example, "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" by Washington Irving contains one central plot line -- Ichabod Crane's desire to marry Katrina Van Tassel to get her family's money. The subplot about Tassel's jealous boyfriend dressing up as the headless horseman to scare Crane adds mystery and suspense to the story. As a critic or editor, point out story arcs that deviate from the intended purpose. Suggest that the writer remove characters and plot lines that pull away from the core. The goal is to develop a few strong, multifaceted characters who strengthen the plot.

Stick to the Present

Point out places where the author uses excessive back story to support his writing. Flashbacks should be used sparingly in short stories, says Crayne. Short-story writers don't have time to create lengthy character sketches and complex historical backgrounds. For example, "To Build a Fire" by Jack London takes place entirely in the present. The protagonist learns that nature and instinct are vital to survival in the Yukon. As a critic, focus on present conflicts and ways primary characters instigate change by facing difficult circumstances. Balance your short-story critique with positive remarks. You might praise the author's well-organized plot sequences or surprise revelations. It's a good idea to start the critique on a positive note.

About the Author

As curriculum developer and educator, Kristine Tucker has enjoyed the plethora of English assignments she's read (and graded!) over the years. Her experiences as vice-president of an energy consulting firm have given her the opportunity to explore business writing and HR. Tucker has a BA and holds Ohio teaching credentials.

Photo Credits
  • Jack Hollingsworth/Stockbyte/Getty Images