Short Story Critical Paper Assignment
Page count: 3-4 pages
Format: MLA, double-spaced, 12-point font
Required sources: The short stories we’ve read to date
Now that we have nearly completed the short fiction unit of this course, it’s time to get to work on your critical papers.
The goal of a “lens analysis” essay or critical paper is not to simply compare and contrast two or three works of literature, but to put them in conversation with one another. We aren’t necessarily interested in how two or three particular stories contrast (because every story is different in a myriad of ways). We’re interested in looking at the ways the stories and their writers illuminate one another, how elements of craft and author intention are evident across multiple works of literature, and we’re interested in seeing how these elements of craft work to create different effects and create meaning in many works of literature.
Start your paper by formulating a two or three-sentence thesis statement or argument. You must then pull no less than two quotes from each story or text, passages of the story that serve as evidence to your thesis/argument.
You may choose one of the following essay topics (or another idea altogether) to address in your paper:
- Character: Choose protagonists (main characters) from two or three of the stories we’ve read. What does the protagonist most want? Make an argument. Who or what is in his/her way (antagonist)? Why is this a source of conflict or tension for him/her? What is the crisis? How does the climax or ending give you more insight into the meaning of the character’s desires and the overall theme(s) of the story? How do those desires change throughout the story?
- Detail & Description and Imagery: What sensory details make the world of the characters in these stories come alive? How is description working to affect meaning? What does the imagery add to the sensory in terms of emotional associations it brings to the text? Does the image recur (i.e. “the things they carried”)? If so, how does this repetition work to create meaning or enhance theme? Do you notice any objective correlatives, metaphors or examples of personification that enhance or affect meaning? Pick two different passages in each story you choose, and discuss how the writer’s choice of details and imagery helps characterize a place or a person, suggesting something that goes unstated (subtext) in the themes.
- Subtext: What goes unsaid in the dialogue and how does the writer give us hints to this subtext? Choose at least two passages of description of action or dialogue from two different stories and “read between the lines.” How are character gestures, imagery and/or metaphor working to help you “read between the lines” or uncover the subtext and Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory. What do you think is the purpose of subtext? What effect does subtext have on the reader?
- Point of View and Voice: How does the author’s use of style, tone, pacing, repetition and recurrent word choice (i.e. “slut” in Jamaica Kincaid’s story) create voice and thus affect the story’s meaning? Voice can also be created by establishing a structure (a pattern in repetition, POV, syllable stress, sentence length, etc.) and then disrupting that structure. Choose at least two first-person narrators (or second person if you want to use the “you” character in Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl”) we’ve met this semester. What do you learn about this narrator from his or her voice? Can you identify at least two or three moments when you question the narrator’s judgement of things? Is he/she reliable? Why or why not? At what distance is he/she telling the story? How are the other characters acting as witnesses of this narrator, or helping to reveal the narrator’s flaws, shortcomings or oversights?
Formulating Your THESIS STATEMENT and the Final Draft of Your Paper
Using the above questions as a guide, start by formulating a two or three-sentence thesis statement or argument that is specific to the stories you’ve chosen to write about.
Step 1— Consider the above question(s): In a clear, written response, formulate an argument that answers these questions as clearly and concisely as possible. Be prepared to defend your argument with evidence from the texts. Answer the question on a piece of paper using the following formula: “I am writing about _________ in order to argue that _________which helps readers to better understand ___________.” This is not your thesis but should help you arrive at one.
Step 2— Create an outline below your thesis statement that states each idea you’d like to tackle. It helps to divide your ideas/arguments into stories/authors as the Roman numerals (I,II, III) and the specific points you wish to address as it relates each story as the sub-points and the sub-points of your sub-points (A,B, C and 1,2,3).
Step 3— Turn thesis statement
Step 3— Go back through the stories you’ve chosen and find relevant examples that support your argument. Take notes and/or bookmark pages of interest, including examples that completely contradict your argument. Contradictions are worth addressing in an essay like this.
Step 5— Get out your stopwatch/iPhone* and free write for 5 minutes on an example that challenges, contradicts, or presents an impediment to your argument.
Step 6— Take a break. Go back and re-read your writing aloud. As you read, you will likely catch the grammar errors that you missed the first time. New thoughts or better ways of phrasing your writing may occur to you; correct them as you go. Add any additional content that occurs to you.
Step 7— Re-write and revise again. Visit the Writing Center and check MLA handbooks to make sure you’ve cites your sources properly.
Step 8— Upload and post your final paper to Mole
Your Thesis Statement Must Include and Introduce:
- The title of the story(s), poem(s) and essay(s) and their authors. Every misspelling or improper punctuation on title and author name will lower your paper grade by 1⁄2 a letter.
- The theme or themes they share…or the theme you plan to use to connect the pieces.
- The craft choices you’ll be examining in your paper. What are the literary devices the authors are using to convey this theme? The same literary devices used don’t have to be present in all of the pieces. Setting? POV? Voice? Imagery? Description & Detail?
Sample Thesis Statements
These are only samples. Please do not copy or borrow from these.
Thesis statement 1: “Tu B’Shvat” by Melanie Rae Thon and “Live a Dream” by Saul Smith are lyrical short stories that are loaded with vivid and repeated imagery of the human body changing form, representing themes of the passage of time and of imminent death. Both stories are also loaded with patterns of musical imagery also mimetic of Thon’s and Smith’s rhythmic prose. Furthermore, the use of italics in Thon’s story and disruptive, short paragraphs in Smith’s story, periodically interrupt the rhythm of their prose as if dismembering the human body and its form.
MLA Information: When citing text in the body of a critical paper:
Introduce the quotation from your text with a comma if what comes before the quoted text is NOT A COMPLETE SENTENCE (a phrase or fragment) and if it fits in to complete your sentence:
O’Brien uses imagery to reveal that Ted Lavender who, “carried six or seven ounces of premium dope” (335) is afraid.
Introduce the quotation with a colon if what comes before IS A COMPLETE SENTENCE and what comes after it is an example that reinforces the previous sentence:
O’Brien uses imagery of dope to reveal that Ted Lavender is afraid: “He carried six or seven ounces of dope” (335).