Analyzing the British Short Story: Techniques & Examples

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  • 0:01 Short Story
  • 0:47 Tone
  • 3:19 Dialogue & Setting
  • 8:00 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

How do short story writers set their stories up to get a reader's reaction? View this lesson to find out about the techniques that are common in British short stories, including tone, dialogue, and setting.

Short Story

Thalia loves to read novels, but lately, her teacher has been on her about reading more short stories. Thalia isn't sure about that. She knows what to expect when she opens up a novel, but how are short stories different? How can she analyze a short story?

A short story is a piece of narrative fiction that is shorter than a novel. Usually, this means that it is shorter than 20,000 words, though some can be much shorter than that. It's kind of a miniature novel, because it has some of the same elements, like characters and setting and plot, which a novel has.

To help Thalia feel more comfortable with short stories, let's take a closer look at some of the important elements of short stories.

Tone

Ever notice how sometimes, when you get an email from someone, you can't tell what exactly they mean? For example, last year, Thalia got an email from her friend and she couldn't tell if her friend was being sincere or sarcastic when her friend said that she liked Thalia's boyfriend.

If Thalia's friend had said that in person, Thalia wouldn't have had any problem figuring out what her friend meant. That's because she would have been able to hear her friend's tone of voice.

Believe it or not, short stories also have a tone. In a short story, tone is the mood of the piece. And just like tone of voice, the tone of a short story can be many different things: happy, sad, angry, and scary are all tones that can be present in a short story.

To understand tone a little bit better, check out this paragraph from Neil Gaiman's award-winning short story 'How to Talk to Girls at Parties':

'I didn't like beer, not back then. I went off to see if there was something I wanted to drink. On the kitchen table stood a large bottle of Coca-Cola, and I poured myself a plastic tumblerful, and I didn't dare say anything to the pair of girls who were talking in the underlit kitchen. They were animated and utterly lovely. Each of them had very black skin and glossy hair and movie star clothes, and their accents were foreign, and each of them was out of my league.'

Now, compare that to the opening paragraph of E.M. Forster's story 'The Life to Come':

'Love had been born somewhere in the forest, of what quality only the future could decide. Trivial or immortal, it had been born to two human bodies as a midnight cry. Impossible to tell whence the cry had come, so dark was the forest. Or into what worlds it would echo, so vast was the forest. Love had been born for good or evil, for a long life or a short.'

These two pieces sound very different, don't they? The tone of the pieces is very different. Gaiman's story has an informal tone, meaning that it is casual and sounds like one person talking to their buddy.

On the other hand, Forster's story has a more formal tone, meaning that it sounds a little bit more fancy and literary. Forster uses words like 'whence' and more complex sentence structure to give his piece the formal tone. In contrast, Gaiman uses normal words and simple sentences to sound more laid-back and informal.

Dialogue & Setting

Thalia is impressed by how much tone can color the way a person feels about a story. When she reads Gaiman's story and then Forster's, she gets a very different view of things. There are two other major things that impact the reader's experience when reading a short story: dialogue and setting.

Dialogue is a conversation between two or more characters in a story. Whenever people are talking, and you see the quotation marks, you know you're reading dialogue. Like tone, dialogue can be very different from one story to the other. Check out the dialogue in the opening lines of Gaiman's story:

'Come on,' said Vic. 'It'll be great.'

'No, it won't,' I said, although I'd lost this fight hours ago, and I knew it.

'It'll be brilliant,' said Vic, for the hundredth time. 'Girls! Girls! Girls!'

Like the paragraph we looked at before, that dialogue is pretty simple and straightforward. It really sounds like two boys talking to each other.

Compare that to this bit of dialogue from Oscar Wilde's short story 'The Happy Prince':

'Swallow, Swallow, little Swallow,' said the Prince, 'will you not stay with me for one night, and be my messenger? The boy is so thirsty, and the mother so sad.'

'I don't think I like boys,' answered the Swallow. 'Last summer, when I was staying on the river, there were two rude boys, the miller's sons, who were always throwing stones at me. They never hit me, of course; we swallows fly far too well for that, and besides, I come of a family famous for its agility; but still, it was a mark of disrespect.'

But the Happy Prince looked so sad that the little Swallow was sorry. 'It is very cold here,' he said 'but I will stay with you for one night, and be your messenger.'

'Thank you, little Swallow,' said the Prince.'

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