The Short Stories

3 The Short Story

3.3 Things to Look for When Reading a Story

Things to Look for When Reading a Story

There are certain literary techniques at work when a story is written. One should be alert to recognize these while reading a story in order to understand and appreciate it better. For example we should be able to locate the vantagepoint from which the author chooses to tell his story. This is called the point of view. The other things to notice are the tone in which the story is told, how the plot is orchestrated, how the characters are revealed, what the setting is and how is the dialogue delivered and whether there is any use of symbols and ultimately we should be able to recognize thetheme of the story. Packer, Hoopes and Stone in their excellent book The Short Story: An Introduction, have elucidated these various features in detail and I have relied on their explanation in the following listing.

    Point of View

This is a literary term that refers to the relationship between the storyteller, the story and the reader. It ‘signifies the way a story is told -- the perspective or perspectives established by the author through which the reader is presented with characters, actions, setting and events which constitute the narrative in a work of fiction.’ We must notice whether the story comes directly to the reader or is it being filtered through the mind of another character or more than one character who are the narrators of the story. The narrator may or may not be a participant in the action.It all depends on which window or which key-hole you get to see the action from. There may be just one key-hole which may limit what we see or there may be many which give us diverse perspectives on the action, on the characters and on the theme of the story.  

Thus a story can be presented in many different ways and at times a single piece of narration (especially extended narration) can employ various means within the same narrative. If we attempt a simplified classification then Point of View can be broadly divided into two categories -- the Third Person Narrative and the First Person Narrative that can have further divisions or subclasses. In the Third Person Point of View the narrator is someone outside the story who refers to all the characters in the story proper by name or as ‘he’, ‘she’, and ‘they’. In a First Person Narrative, the narrator speaks as ‘I’ and is himself a character in the story. The Third Person Narrative can be further divided into the Omniscient Point of View and the Limited Point View or the Direct Observer’s Point of View.  Let us see how these two operate.

  •     Omniscient Point of View

This point of view works on the assumption that the narrator is an all knowing, all seeing person, free to move from place to place, from character to character, having access to their thoughts and feelings and motives as well as to their obvious speech and actions. The omniscient narrator chooses and reports whatever he wants the reader to know. If the narrator is intrusive then he comments freely on the characters, evaluates their actions and motives and philosophizes about human life in general. These comments and reports of an omniscient narrator are to be taken as authoritative. If on the other hand the omniscient narrator is non-intrusive or impersonal then he describes, reports or ‘shows’ the action in dramatic scenes without introducing his own comments or judgements. The Omniscient Point of View allows philosophical depth but requires distance thus making close identification difficult. There is a loss in intensity resulting from this distancing.

  •     The Direct Observer’s Point of View

The Direct Observer’s Point of View, also known as the Limited Point of View, is almost the exact opposite of the Omniscient Point of View. The narrative is still in third person but the narrator is little more than ‘a fly on the wall recording a scene’, or ‘he confines himself to what is experienced, thought and felt by a single character or at most by a very limited number of characters within the story. Of all Points of View, the Direct Observer’s allows for maximum amount of dramatic intensity and compactness. We are made to feel as though we ourselves are present in the midst of the action going on. The narrator is the ‘centre of consciousness’ and all the events are filtered through his consciousness to the reader. This technique was developed by later writers as the stream of consciousness technique in which ‘we are presented with outer observations only as they impinge on the current of thought, memory and feeling which constitute the observer’s total awareness.’ While in the impersonal omniscient narrative we remain aware of an outside voice telling us about what is going on, in the Direct Observer’s Point of View we remain under the illusion that we ourselves are participating in and experiencing the events unfolding before our eyes. In that sense it is more dramatic. This method however has its limitations. Because of its dramatic nature it is difficult to describe the delicately changing mental or emotional positions of the characters or to give a wide range of understanding of the issues. As against the expansive view of the omniscient narrator, the direct observer gives a narrow perspective.

  •     The First Person Point of View

This mode limits the Point of View to what the first person narrator experiences, knows, infers or can find out by talking to other characters. The first person ‘I’ may be merely a witness of the events he relates or he may be a minor or peripheral character in the story or he may also be the central protagonist. This kind of narrative avoids the rambling quality of Omniscience and also the restriction of the Direct Observer.

The narrator, however, may at times be a self-conscious narrator when he is aware that he is composing a work of art and will therefore take the reader into his confidence about various problems involved — either seriously or for comic purposes. At other times he may be an unreliable or infallible narrator when we find that his interpretation of events and evaluation of the matters he relates does not coincide with the beliefs and values held by the author. These beliefs and values may not albays be stated but are nevertheless implied in the narrative and the author expects the reader to share the same with him. This narrator’s excessive innocence, moral obtuseness or lack of sophistication makes him a distorted ‘centre of consciousness’ which in turn creates irony within the narrative because there would always be much more implied than is being obviously stated.

    Tone

The Tone of a story is the ‘voice’ in which it comes to us and the attitude that voice expresses. It is not necessary for a story to have an obvious storyteller or narrator in order to have a voice or tone. Every story has a voice, a tone which conveys the author’s attitude and his intentions and shapes the reader’s responses. To put it differently, often the true meaning of words emerges not from what is said but how it is said. This is what Tone is.  The way words are conveyed, the way they are arranged, the rhythm they carry, the pace they create — all contributes to give them a certain tone, which goes a long way in determining the reader’s reaction.

Thre is an extensive variety of possible Tones because it depends directly on the vast range of human thoughts, feelings emotions, approaches and attitudes. The tone may be formal or informal, intimate or detached, outspoken or reticent, serious, ironic, simple or obscure, condescending, angry, loving and so on but of all these one tone needs to be paid special attention. Irony, which should not be confused with sarcasm or invective, is a subtle tone, which can be registered in the voice of the story as well as in the plot. It comes into play when there is a difference between what is being stated on the surface and what is being implied underneath. It therefore exposes the difference between appearance and reality and subtly lays bare the variance between what is true and what isn’t, between fact and fiction, between what one expects to happen and what actually happens.

    Plot

To put it very simply, the Plot of any dramatic or narrative work is the sequence of its events, the way things happen, the structure of its actions and how they are arranged and ordered to move towards a certain emotional and artistic effect. But a Plot is not merely a working of what happens but also why it happens and so it becomes not just consecutive but consequential as well.

‘Plot’ is directly related to ‘Character’ because the actions are performed by characters and are geared towards revealing their intrinsic qualities, their moral leanings, and their attitudes towards various things, people, and situations. As Henry James has said, ‘What is character but the determination of incident? What is incident but the illustration of character?’

The movement of the plot is usually from a given situation to a certain complication of events and finally to a resolution in the end. If, however, the focus of a narrative is on the inner workings of the mind of a character then at times this movement is exhibited not through external events but through their interiorization.

    Setting 

Setting is the ‘place’ where the action is located. Events have to take place somewhere and that locale is the Setting of the narrative which involves not only the particular physical location but also the historical time in which the action occurs. The Setting is important because it arouses expectations in the reader and creates an atmosphere of the narrative. Early short stories generally began with a lengthy description of the physical and historical scene and also the personal backgrounds of the characters. Over the years, however, due to movement of the story being towards a compactness of description this practice is being discarded in favour of an impressionistic rendering when the details of the scene are either suggested or unobtrusively added to the progressing narrative rather than being separately detailed.

    Dialogue

In a dramatic or narrative work there are characters that do and say things which express their ‘moral and dispositional qualities’. What the characters say is Dialogue and what they do is Action. Generally Dialogue occurs in almost all short stories but it is not used only as a medium for exposition. Dialogue means that the characters are interacting and it is this interaction that pushes the story towards its conclusion. There are other forms where speech or dialogue is employed such as letters, monologues, dreams, confessions and these have a similar effect in the narrative. Dialogue is one thing that gives the narrative a dramatic quality.

    Character

Characters in a dramatic or narrative work are the persons with a given set of qualities around whom the action revolves and who are participants in the action. We have already seen how Plot and Character are interdependent. Other points discussed so far are also related to character. For example, Point of View influences character because the way a character is presented directly determines the way we respond to a character. This also brings into play the tone which too can create or influence character in particular ways. If the author’s tone while presenting a character is disdainful or mocking or condescending or funny then we as readers are likely to see the character in a similar light.

E.M. Forster in his Aspects of the Novel (1927) made a broad distinction between various types of characters and classified those under two headings— flat and round. A flat character (also called a ‘type’ or ‘two dimensional’), Forster says, is built around ‘a single idea or quality’ and is presented in outline without much individualizing detail and so can be fairly adequately described in a single phrase or sentence. A round character is complex in temperament and observation and is revealed with subtlety. He is difficult to describe with any adequacy just as a person in real life and like most people he is capable of surprising us.

Even in methods of characterization a broad distinction has been made. Two alternative methods -- that of showing andtelling are available to the authors for this purpose. ‘Showing’ is the dramatic method in which the author merely shows the characters in action and the reader is left to infer on his own about the motives and dispositions behind their actions. In ‘Telling’ the author intervenes deliberately in order to describe and evaluate the motives and temperament of his characters. The two methods can often be combined.

    Symbol

‘A Symbol is a sign standing for a meaning.’ In other words its meaning is not limited to the literal but extends beyond that to have a range of significance and reference. Some symbols have a permanent significance in particular cultures such as ‘the Cross.’ These are conventional symbols. Some symbols have a fixed and specific meaning for example a nation deciding what the colours of the flag would mean or a political party deciding what the image they use will stand for. As explained by Packer, Hoopes and Stone, more often than not symbols have a derived meaning –‘a meaning that is born from the history and experience of a culture as the blindfolds on our statue of Justice stand for the impartiality of the law which is rooted in our western tradition.’ Sometimes the significance of a symbol is generated from within the narrative itself and these are the ones that can pose problems of interpretation for the reader. At times symbol hunting can lead to an unnecessary significance being attached where none in fact exists. So we have to be on our guard against this over indulgence and remember that sometimes what we are being shown is just that and nothing more. Packer, Hoopes and Stone remind us rightly of Freud’s words who said that sometimes a cigar is only a cigar.

    Theme

This word is applied to ‘a thesis or doctrine, which an imaginative work is designed to incorporate and make persuasive to the reader.’ Underlying the working of character and events in any dramatic or narrative work are the values which the writer is trying to express and also his understanding of the human predicament. These values and this understanding become the Theme of the narrative. It is implicit and emerges in the act of writing.