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How to Summarize Short Stories


Summarizing a short story is similar to summarizing a full-length literary piece, except the focus should be on the moral lesson, message or point of the story. Short story authors don't typically dive into huge character analyses or complex plot lines, so it's your job to detail important themes, discuss the author's use of figurative language and list specific examples of symbolism or foreshadowing. Short stories are designed to help readers examine deep underlying messages and hidden truths that often have moral or ethical implications. Short story summaries are generally one to three pages long.

Elements of a Short Story

Start your summary by introducing the short story, author, year of publication and any relevant historical information that might help readers understand the context. Include background information about the author if it's important to the underlying messages or themes. Explain important elements of the story, such as descriptions of the major characters, plot, setting, conflict, climax, resolution, mood and tone. Keep the plot summary brief and to the point. You might mention any unforeseen twists or unusual developments that provide insight as to the author's reason for writing the story.

Symbolism and Figurative Language

Two or three paragraphs of your summary should be about the author's use of figurative language and symbolism to drive home his point. Due to the low word count in short stories, authors typically use metaphors, similes, foreshadowing, personification, irony and symbolism to help readers understand deeper meanings in only one or two scenes. For example, in O. Henry's short story "The Gift of the Magi," Della's beautiful long hair and Henry's watch symbolize material possessions that aren't nearly as valuable as their love for one another.

Lessons, Themes and Morals

Explain the underlying themes and messages in one to three paragraphs of your summary. Discuss hidden messages that reveal greater truths about the characters and their difficult plights or life-changing personal journeys. For example, in Washington Irving's short story "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," Irving uses a mysterious, unattractive, monster-like character with unusual habits to help readers understand the dangers of greed, gluttony and lust. Even though short stories are entertaining, authors often use them to teach important life lessons.

Powerful Conclusion

Challenge readers to examine inferences the author might be making about humankind and society. For example, does the author use irony to help readers see flaws in society? Or, does she use figurative language to help readers explore moral dilemmas? Finish your summary with a compelling conclusion that motivates readers to examine their own lives. Summaries for short stories are different from summaries of full-length novels because the focus is on the meaning of the story, not the characters or plot.

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.

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