How to Analyze Short Stories

By Henri Bauholz
A mongoose, the main character, Rudyard Kipling's stories, India
Meerkat image by Dawn from

The short story in America has a history that goes back as far as Colonial times when the first magazines appeared. Soon thereafter, Washington Irving penned several classic tales about a legendary place named Sleepy Hollow and the short story has been a vital part of American literature ever since. Many short story authors have also written novels, but some writers only publish in the briefer format. Edgar Allan Poe is of major importance as a short story writer, as are the 20th century writers Raymond Carver and Flannery O'Connor.

How It's Done

Establish a reading group or class and choose one short story to read. The story can be classic or modern, but it is best to choose a well known writer. Short stories can also be analyzed if you are working alone or just with one other person, but in this case you will need pen and paper to write down your thoughts and conclusions.

Read the story. Don't try to read into it too much--that will come later. Just relax, take your time and enjoy the story.

Meet as a group and begin the discussion with everyone's overall reaction to the story. You might want to begin by commenting or jotting down notes on the genre. It might help to use a phrase or short sentence and go beyond the simple one-word descriptions that accompany genre. Examples might include "lost-in-the-wilderness" tragic adventure for something like Jack London's "To Build a Fire" or "time-runs-backwards" surreal satire for "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Examine the plot and do a detailed analysis of how the storyline unfolds. Plot is defined as the storyline of the piece of literature, based on the characters' actions; and when used effectively this literary device can help create a tense and exciting tale. Ask yourself or the group, "Does the author use flashbacks or "time tripping" to vary the time-line?" Or maybe the writer begins in the middle of the tale and quickly skips back to first chronological event. Nonetheless, there are many ways to spin a tale and it is always essential to note how this is accomplished.

Take a look at the underlying conflict in the story. This should involve the main character, but be aware that conflict can come in many forms. There may be an antagonist who clashes with the main character, or the conflict could lie within the internal psyche of the central figure. Sometimes the major struggle might be with an outside force, such as the arctic winter in the Jack London tale mentioned above.

Study the characters. Characters express themselves through actions, dialogue and their response to events. Take some time and analyze how the author brings life to the various persona, particularly the main character.

Finish discussing the major elements of a short story by covering theme and setting. These two elements are vital to the story and at times may involve a long and detailed conversation, but often they can be linked together in one round of talks.

Summarize the results of the analysis. Whether you are working alone or in a larger group, this is a good time to put down some permanent written comments on the nature of the short story.

About the Author

I live in Portland, Maine, I have travelled extensively in North America and Europe and I am an accomplished photographer. My hobbies include hiking, skiing, swimming and camping.