Today we began our study of the “short story.” Beyond being merely a story that is short, short stories are a special genre with unique traits. Because they are brief, short stories don’t convey every possible description or detail that a longer work may delve into. Short stories also tend to start in the middle of the main action, rather than having a long expository part that gives a lot of contextual detail. Short stories are also different than novels in that they tend to portray one single, unified action. Novels can encompass all of the events in an entire life, whereas short stories tend to choose one single event.

Because of this last feature, short stories are ideal for helping us learn about this literary convention known as “plot.” The term “plot” simply refers to the sequence of events an author links up into one, unified action, and you can map these terms onto a kind of a graph to show how they work together to create a dramatic story.

Picture, if you will, a hill with a gentle rise on one side, and a rather precipitous drop on the other. Each of the terms below can be mapped onto this hill.

Before you get to the hill, as you walk along ground that is nearly flat, you hit the “exposition,” or the part of the story that gives the reader information about the characters and setting they need so they don’t get lost.

As you keep walking, the ground begins to rise. You have hit your first “conflict,” which is just a fancy word for a major problem or issue to be resolved in the plot. As conflict adds to conflict the ground gets steeper. This is known as “rising action.” Sometimes, rising action is accompanied by “foreshadowing,” which is a subtle hint an author gives you of things to come.

As you near the top of the rise, you approach the “climax,” which is the point of greatest dramatic tension, and the moment when the outcome is decided. Will the woman get her man? Will the frog turn into prince? Will the bomb explode? These are all questions that are finally answered as the story reaches its most climactic moment.

After that, it’s a quick drop down through the “denouement,” which is a French word which means something like ” the untying of the knot.” You’re supposed to imagine that life, before conflict, was a smooth, untangled rope. As the author adds conflict, though, the rope becomes twisted and knotted. Each conflict adds a knot. At the end of the story, the author must resolve or address each conflict she created along the way, thus “untying” all the knots she created during the rising action. The “denouement” is also known as “falling action” or “resolution.” Short stories generally spend very little time on this “falling action,” usually leaving their readers’ splatted on the floor below after a dizzying fall from a dramatic climax.

So that’s all you need to know from today. We talked plot and read the story “A lickpenny lover,” by O. Henry, which exhibited all these traits of plot, and is also quite humorous, if you know anything about Coney Island, which my students do. Well, they do now. A fat lot of good it’ll do ’em now that the story’s ended…

Anyway, happy DPF to all, and to all a good night.


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