How to Analyze Short Story Plot
Analyzing a story's plot involves examining the ways its events unfold and the devices the author uses to advance them. Because a short story must be brief enough to read in one sitting, the plot is often compact, with only a few major characters and expert management of time and pacing. Exploring a short story's technique in plot development, including its structure and major conflicts, can give you insight into the author's craft and design for the story's events.
Examine the Exposition
In plot structure, exposition is the initial situation of the characters when the story begins. Short stories often begin in medias res, a Latin phrase meaning "in the middle of things," introducing the main conflict immediately without much backstory.
For example, the exposition in Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man is Hard to Find" reveals that the family in the story is going on a trip to Georgia and that the grandmother opposes the decision to go because a serial killer, The Misfit, is on the loose where they'll be traveling, forming the core of the story's conflict.
As you analyze the plot, look closely at the beginning and determine what events and potential difficulties the characters are facing as the story opens.
Trace the Rising Action
As the story continues to develop, its major conflict begins to gain steam and tension. The book's rising action includes the events in the story where things start to get a little more complicated for the characters and the ending seems uncertain.
In "A Good Man is Hard to Find," the rising action covers the beginning of the family's journey, their visit to a truck stop and finally, a car accident that leaves them stranded. As you analyze the plot's rising action, identify each event and how it functions to escalate the conflict. You also might consider the order of the events, analyzing how each one leads to another as the story advances.
Investigate the Climax
The climax is the emotional high point of the action in a story where the characters have entered the point of no return; regardless of what happens after this event, they will be irrevocably changed by it.
In "A Good Man is Hard to Find," the climax begins when the men accompanying The Misfit begin executing the family, and reaches its greatest intensity when the grandmother uses her last words to tell The Misfit that he is "one of my own children," forgiving him for his actions. Analyze the story's climax by looking at how the preceding chain of events logically leads to it and sets the stage for this moment of truth.
Wrestle with the Resolution
While the story's resolution involves how the plot literally ends, it also focuses on how the characters respond to its overall events. Twentieth century novelist James Joyce believed that the short story should end with an epiphany, a new level of insight the character gains from the action.
Sometimes the story's resolution is explicitly clear, while other times, as in the end of "A Good Man is Hard to Find," it isn't. Some readers believe the grandmother's dying words genuinely change The Misfit, while others believe they have only a temporary effect on him.
As you analyze the ending, consider what epiphany the main character reaches and how it relates to his final actions in the story.
Kori Morgan holds a Bachelor of Arts in professional writing and a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing and has been crafting online and print educational materials since 2006. She taught creative writing and composition at West Virginia University and the University of Akron and her fiction, poetry and essays have appeared in numerous literary journals.