Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman
One of the skills that we learn fairly early in our academic careers is how to spot the key idea of a passage such as a paragraph, an essay, or a book. Often, these passages are of non-fiction prose. We learn to look at the beginning of the paragraph, the chapter, or the book for a topic sentence, an introductory paragraph, or a foreword or preface. In shorter passages, we learn that the main idea may also be presented at the end of the paragraph. Seldom will we find it in the middle of the paragraph, however, because what is written first and last are emphatic, and what is presented between these two parts of the whole tends to get somewhat lost in the shuffle, as it were.
We also learn, eventually, to decipher such literary texts as short stories, novels, and poems. But, in doing so, we are taught to consider not any particular sentence or even any specific part of the work so much as the whole of the story, the novel, or the poem, for in the literature of the imagination, we learn, the meaning is in the whole, and not the parts. Fiction (and drama) ask us to fathom the meaning of an entire experience. Therefore, before we can interpret the significance of such a work, we must first summarize it. Then, we must consider the cause and effect of the experience, which is represented, in the literary work, as action or what we sometimes call the storyline.
Ask yourself what are the cause and the effect of each of the following storylines?
Father Damien, a priest, exorcises a preadolescent girl named Reagan MacNeil (The Exorcist).If you can answer this question, you will not only be able to understand what you read but there’s a good chance that you will also be able to write intelligible fiction.
Beowulf, a Geatish warrior, slays Grendel, a troll that has been terrorizing Danes (Beowulf).
Carrie White, an abused telekinetic girl, avenges herself against her mother, high school bullies, and her hometown (Carrie).
To damn Father Damien, a doubting priest (cause), the devil possesses Reagan; the priest’s recovery of his faith, borne of his desire to deliver the girl, results in Reagan’s deliverance and Father Damien’s victory (effect). Theme: Love conquers doubt.
A man of valor, Beowulf slays Grendel (and his mother) (effect) to gain immortality through fame and to establish a bond with a foreign king (cause). Theme: Great deeds bring lasting fame.
Carrie’s mother, a religious fanatic, does a poor job in preparing Carrie for life in the
real world (cause), and, when her high school’s bullies take their harassment too far, Carrie is unable to cope and seeks vengeance through violence (effect). Theme: As the twig is bent, so grows the tree.