How to Analyze a Short Story

Old Fence

Old Fence. A short story has a structure and a message. Can you analyze this picture in much the same way as a short story?

What Is a Short Story?

A short story is a work of short, narrative prose that is usually centered around one or two central events, so it is limited in scope.  An analysis of a short story requires basic knowledge of literary elements. The following guide and questions may help you:


A theme is the main idea, lesson, or message in the short story that is a universal statement about the human condition, society, or life. Themes differ from topics or motifs, in that topics or motifs are ideas from which themes may be constructed (e.g. adversity), whereas themes are complete and universally applicable statements (e.g. “Everyone faces adversity in his or her life”). Ask yourself:

  • What is a possible theme, and what evidence from the story exists to support that theme?
  • What other elements of fiction or aspects of the narrative are central or repeated and therefore most pertinent in the interpretation of a theme?
  • Is there more than one theme?

Narrator and Point of view

The narrator is the person telling the story.  Consider this question: Are the narrator and the main character the same?

By point of view we mean from whose eyes the story is being told. Short stories tend to be told through one character’s point of view. The following are important questions to consider:

  • Who is the narrator or speaker in the story?
  • Does the author speak through the main character?
  • Is the story written in the first person “I” point of view?
    • What is the effect of such first person narration?
  • Is the story written in a detached third person “he/she” point of view?
    • Is the narrator one that is omniscient, limited omniscient, or objective?
    • What is the effect of such third person narration?
  • Is there an “all-knowing” third person who can reveal what all the characters are thinking and doing at all times and in all places?

Plot and Conflict

The plot is the main sequence of events that make up the story. Conflict, which creates building tension, drives the plot, and the main conflict is usually related to/centered around the main character. Consider the following questions:

  • How is the plot structured? Is it linear, chronological, or does it move around (e.g. flash forward, flashback, or cyclical)?
  • What is the main conflict, and what is/are its cause(s)?
  • Is the main conflict external, internal, or a bit of both?
    • What is the impact of the nature of the conflict noted above?
  • Where does “inciting incident/moment” occur, where the “unstable situation” for conflict (the exposition) manifests into the conflict itself (the rising action)?
    • What is the rationale for this identification?
  • Where does the conflict of the plot come to a head (the climax), a point from which the rest of the story must sort itself out (the falling action)?
  • Is there a resolution?  What is the impact of there being or not being one?

Freytag’s Plot Pyramid is a useful visualization of how plot often progresses.  See the chart below and this link to a Prezi presentation using the movie “Finding Nemo” to illustrate this model of plot development.



Characterization deals with how the characters in the story are described. In short stories there are usually fewer characters compared to a novel. They usually focus on one central character or protagonist. Ask yourself the following:

  • Who is/are the main character(s)–the protagonist(s)?  Who/what is/are the main antagonists?
  • Are the main character and other characters described through dialogue – by the way they speak (dialect or slang for instance)?
  • Has the author described the characters by physical appearance, thoughts and feelings, and interaction (the way they act towards others)?
  • Are they static/flat characters who do not change?
  • Are they dynamic/round characters who DO change?
  • What type of characters are they? What qualities stand out? Are they stereotypes?
  • Are the characters believable?


Setting is a description of where and when the story takes place. In a short story there are fewer settings compared to a novel. The time is more limited. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • How is the setting created? Consider geography, weather, time of day, point in history, social conditions, atmosphere, etc.
  • What role does setting play in the story? Is it an important part of the plot or theme? Or is it just a backdrop against which the action takes place?

Study the time period, which is also part of the setting, and ask yourself the following:

  • When was the story written?
  • Does it take place in the present, the past, or the future?
  • How does the time period affect the language, atmosphere or social circumstances of the short story?


Symbols are objects that connote more universal and abstract ideas than they denote (they are not ideas themselves).
  • What objects might be symbols, and what universal or abstract ideas might they suggest?
  • Are there any symbols that represent more than one universal idea (ambiguity)? What might be significant about such symbols?
  • Are there any extended symbols, which are objects that appear more than once during the story? Do these symbols represent the same or different ideas when they appear and what is significant about their similarity or difference?


  • What ironies exist within the story and what makes them ironic?
  • What potential themes emerge from ironies in the work?

Your literary analysis of a short story will often be in the form of an essay where you will discuss the suggested or implied meanings of one or more literary elements like the ones above. Choose the elements that made the greatest impression on you and dig beneath the surface.