Preliminary Note: why this Study Guide.
This Study Guide is designed to remind you of a battery of questions that you will want to make an into an integral part of what we might call your "standard curiosity" about any story you read from now on.
Your first reading: the narrative "window" or "angle of vision" upon the action.
(1) For any story, we want to reflect on the implications of who is telling the story. But before we can do this, we have to get clear about the nature of the narrator. Here are just some of the possibilities we might be confronted with.
Does the narrator's being "outside" the action contribute to his or her impartiality? Or does it pose a problem for the narrator, who has to work at understanding what he or she reports?
Do not read further in this Study Guide until you have completed your first reading.
Your second reading: the shape of the action.
Use your second reading of the story to force yourself to concentrate on the following questions that have to do with how story has been structured..
(2) How does the story piece out in terms of plot?
(a) What are the important conflicts in the story?
Sorts, types to be on the lookout for:
Between "points of view" -- between sets of assumptions about how things are? about how things ought to be?
Between characters and elements that do not have the nature of "character" (e.g., impersonal forces of nature, social predicament, cultural situation)?
Relationships: Do some of the conflicts featured in the story underlie or give rise to others?
Priority and focus: Is some one conflict more central to the story than others?
(b) What serves as the precipitating incident of the action? That is: what episode or event precipitates the plot, upsetting the pre-existing (relatively stable) state of affairs, and initiating the complication?
What is the status quo ante (the "state of affairs beforehand") that is upset by the precipitating incident?
How does the story contrive to get this information before the reader?
(c) What episode or moment is best thought of as constituting the climax of the story?
In what sense or senses does it resolve the central conflict?
What light does it throw on different subordinate conflicts?
(d) How is the complication constructed? That is: what is the causal process by which the story proceeds from precipitating incident to climax?
(e) Is there a dénouement to the story's plot? That is: what, if anything, follows the story's climax, relaxing the tension released at the climax?
Why is it there -- what does it do? What would be surrendered if the story were to conclude simply with the climactic episode?
Does it, for example, indicate some implications that might otherwise go unappreciated?
(f) What are the specific features of the story's conclusion?
What particular kind of "equilibrium" situation are we left with?
What do you see as the possible point of this? Is the author, for example, being ironic? Is it "superior" or "inferior" to the condition of equilibrium that preceded the precipitating incident? (Be alert to possible complexity: coulds it be superior in some but inferior in others?)
Do not read further in this Study Guide until you have completed your second reading.
Your third reading: the contexts of the action.
For this reading, see if you can make yourself reflectively aware of the following issues:
(3) What is the setting of the story? Where does the action take place?
Note that generally we are not interested in "time and place" for their own sake, but for what they in turn lead us to notice about the cultural context of the action: what assumptions are the characters acting under? (We can't understand their motives -- to say nothing of evaluate them! -- if we don't grasp these assumptions, and the reasons for them.) To appreciate what is going on in any historical situation -- real or imagined -- that isn't pretty much already our own, we have to be something of an anthropologist.
What are the leading presuppositions you can detect for each of these points of view?
Suggestions are welcome. Please send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org .
Contents copyright © 1999 by Lyman A. Baker.
Permission is granted for non-commercial educational use; all other rights reserved.
This page last updated 26 October 2000.