The unforgiving nature of O. Henry's fictional gunslinger the Cisco Kid, who was modeled on the real Billy the Kid, shapes the main idea in his 1907 short story "The Caballero's Way." Explaining the story in a few words, readers might say the story is about how betrayal leads to revenge. While that's a theme, the main idea is a longer sentence or two telling the who, what and why of the story.
Main Idea Defined
Beginning around first grade, students start learning how to explain the main idea of a story. At the elementary level, teachers define the main idea of fiction as being a short statement about what mainly happens in a story. By secondary school, students are expected to base their main idea statements on story details -- such as character, plotting, setting and feelings a story inspires -- without stating those details. Main idea isn't a detailed plot summary. It is a condensation of what the reader understands about the story's details and the mood it creates.
Developing Main Idea
Unlike in nonfiction, the main idea of a fiction story is rarely obvious. Readers determine main idea in fiction by inferring meaning from a multitude of details, including characterization, setting and the order of events. In "The Caballero's Way," the opening of the story describes the Cisco Kid as someone who kills "for the love of it." The sense of menace increases with the isolated desert setting filled with thickets of spiny prickly pear. Summarizing the order of events as well as the reasons why they occur also is necessary in building the main idea. For example, loneliness first leads the Kid's girlfriend, Tonia, into a relationship with the gunslinger and then into an ill-fated love affair with the Texas Ranger assigned to capture him.
Main Idea Tools
After reading "The Caballero's Way," summarizing plot, identifying character traits and considering conflict, students are ready to distill the main idea. One way to do this is to record thoughts on a graphic organizer, such as a three-word main idea map in which three ovals are connected by spokes to a large rectangle. Students select three key words about the story and write them in the ovals. They add a supporting detail on each spoke and then write a main idea based on this information. For example, a student might write "brutal," "betrayal" and "revenge" in the ovals. The respective spokes might say "gunslinger," "love affair" and "murder." Then the resulting main idea might be "A brutal gunslinger, betrayed by his girlfriend's love affair, seeks revenge through murder."
Big Picture of Betrayal
By high school and college, literature teachers place greater emphasis on finding a story's theme. Unlike the main idea, a theme doesn't allude to the facts of a story but to a universal truth that can be applied to other stories. Emotions, experiences and conflicts of the central characters shape theme. In "The Caballero's Way," Tonia's affair and her willingness to lead the Cisco Kid into a trap results in the gunslinger's jealousy and violent solution. The theme of betrayal and revenge are at the core of the story's main idea.
Hollywood's Impact on Main Idea
Character and popular culture can also affect the main idea in a story. In "The Caballero's Way," the Cisco Kid terrorizes the borderlands. His real name is "Goodall" despite Cisco being all bad -- typical O. Henry irony. Hollywood radically changed O. Henry's main idea and character by redefining the Cisco Kid as a friendly, wisecracking, Mexican Robin Hood. In a 2007 article at "The Bilingual Review," Gary D. Keller of Arizona State University notes that Cisco evolved "from irredeemably bad to various gradations of good-bad to awesomely good.”