Responding to short stories

Responding to short stories

This week Insight writer and English teacher Melanie Flower outlines what you should be looking for when studying a collection of short stories.

Many people enjoy reading short stories for pleasure – their compact narratives make them an ideal quick read. However, how do you approach your response to a collection of short stories, when the essay you write could be longer than one of the stories? It is important to find connections between the stories, as well as to develop a deep understanding of the individual narratives. These connections will give you focal points for your analytical essays, as well as elements you can draw on for a creative response.

Below are some aspects to think about as you construct your interpretation of a short-story collection.


The title

Start by considering the title of the collection as a whole, as this has been carefully chosen to suggest an overarching theme or purpose for the work. Is it the title of one of the stories? If so, why has this story been given such prominence? What word associations or ideas are suggested? For example, the title of Alistair MacLeod’s collection, Island, clearly focuses the reader’s attention on the setting of the stories, while also evoking images of separation and isolation.

Cate Kennedy’s collection Like a House on Fire considers the dramas and disasters that can occur within a mundane, domestic sphere, while simultaneously reminding readers of the positively loaded phrase ‘getting along like a house on fire’. These contrasting interpretations of the title give a hint of the tensions existing within the stories.

Most short stories will also have their own title. Think carefully about the title of each individual story. Does it draw the reader’s attention to a particular moment in the story, or to a more general idea? Is its meaning literal or metaphorical? Look at the list of story titles on the contents page: what does this list reveal or suggest about the collection as a whole?


The setting

Make a list of the various locations used in the collection, as this will help you to notice any recurring settings. Is there a particular landscape or environment that is explored repeatedly? How do the stories relate to each other temporally – are they all set in the same time period? Can you identify any thematic links between the settings, such as a focus on natural or built landscapes, on domestic or public spaces, or on the same place changing over time? If you identify a recurring setting, consider what is unique or important about it. What might the author hope to achieve by placing the narratives in this space?


The characters

Note whether any specific characters appear in more than one story. If they do, consider their importance in each narrative. Do they play a central or a supporting role? Is there any evidence of character development between each of their appearances in the text, or do they remain static? Look carefully at their interactions with other characters, as this can provide points of contrast or connection.

If there are no recurring characters, look for repeated character types or roles. For example, there might be several stories focusing on parents, children, elderly characters or people with similar occupations. The way in which the author presents these characters can reveal thematic preoccupations – for example, with family relationships or growing up.


Symbols and motifs

The careful and economical use of language is a notable feature of short stories, which are more focused and condensed than novels. The compact nature of short stories means that writers often use motifs (recurring ideas or images) and symbols (objects that represent abstract concepts) in order to express complex ideas succinctly. Be alert to these, particularly if they are present in several stories. Some symbols, such as religious images (a cross or a star, for instance), are readily identified and understood. Other symbolic imagery, such as the deliberate and repeated use of particular colours, can be more subtle, allowing you to develop your own interpretation. If an idea or image is used in several stories, make a note of each instance and think about the implied meaning. Short stories do not allow writers to indulge in extraneous detail; each element is included for a reason and contributes to the meaning.


Assessment tasks

If you are writing an analytical essay on a short-story collection, either in a SAC or in the end-of-year examination, it is important to focus on the connections and commonalities between the stories. The topic might direct you to examine a specific theme, setting or motif, and your task is to consider this element as it appears across the entire text. Your essay must demonstrate a deep understanding of the collection as a whole, as well as show a detailed knowledge of specific stories.

When responding creatively to a short-story collection, you have a number of options. For example, you can draw on a specific moment in the text; re-tell an incident from a different point of view; describe what happens after the end of a story; or explore one of the recurring settings. All of these options require you to have a good understanding of the stories, both at the level of character and plot, and at the level of themes and ideas.

The key to responding to a collection of short stories is to identify the features that connect the stories. While each story is a self-contained narrative, the collection as a whole has a unity that must be acknowledged in any response, whether it be analytical or creative. Don’t be fooled by the brevity of the stories – a short-story collection requires the same level of analysis and interpretation as a single long narrative.


Are you studying Island or Like a House on Fire, but need some extra help with analysis? We can help you! Insight has Text Guides, Text Articles and Sample Essays on both of these texts. Insight Text Guides and Text Articles explore a text’s setting, language, structure, characters and themes. Our Sample Essays include tips and annotated assessor comments to help you write your best analytical essays.

Insight Publications: an independent Australian educational publisher.

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