close reading strategies how to read prose

How to Read Prose: Close Reading Strategies for Prose Writers

In this article, we’ll give you strategies to begin reading prose like a writer. We’ll discuss applying close reading strategies to prose: that is, to anything that isn’t written in verse, from short stories to novels to memoirs and more.

This article is third in our series on how to read like a writer—in other words, how to make your reading strengthen your writing. If you’re interested, check out our introduction to the topic, and our article on how to read poetry.

We’ll analyze a short piece of fiction, walking through a step-by-step analysis for writers. We will learn how to read fiction effectively, dissecting how the author establishes plot, tone, and other literary elements. Although this particular passage is fiction, creative nonfiction writers utilize the same storytelling techniques that fiction writers use, so this analysis applies to all artists of prose.

Let’s get to it! Let’s explore what the masters know and explore effective reading strategies in prose.

An Introduction to Close Reading Strategies in Prose

Close reading strategies are like frameworks for approaching a text. They guide the reader’s attention toward certain details, offering a deeper understanding of the story.

Writers need to read actively, paying attention to the way a story is told and what gives it its impact. Close reading strategies are our tool for this. These strategies are like frameworks for approaching a text; they help guide the reader’s attention toward certain details, giving a deeper understanding of the story. Our goal in employing close reading strategies is to peel back the story so we can see how the author wrote it.

As we explore how to read fiction effectively, our literary analysis will look at the following components:

Effective reading strategies require the reader to examine a text multiple times. It’s good practice to read, re-read, then read again with different lenses. By parsing a story down to its component parts, you are using the skills of expert literary analysis. Now, let’s explore how to read prose.

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How to Read Prose: A Step-by-Step Short Story Analysis

For this analysis, we will employ close reading strategies on the short story “Let Me Explain” by Justin Jahnke. For this exercise, we’ve chosen a story that isn’t too long for readers but has enough “meat on the bones”: Although this flash fiction piece only has 944 words, it has all the components of successful storytelling.

To get the most out of this article, read the story on your own, and keep it open as we analyze the story.

Effective Reading Strategies: Begin With the Plot

I’ll begin with a common quote that circulates among many fiction writers: “There are only two plots: a stranger rides into town, and a person goes on a journey.” (Writer John Gardner may or may not have originated this quote around 1980, and it’s since taken on a life of its own.)

Perhaps that sentiment is too reductive. Still, the plot of “Let Me Explain” leans closer toward a journey of self-exploration—”a person going on a journey.” Let’s start with summarizing the plot: a woman keeps pushing her family’s boundaries as her hoarding intensifies and her mental health deteriorates.

Where does this plot lead us? Let’s look toward the end of the story. After leaving his family’s home and experiencing the autonomy of college, the narrator realizes that he has picked up his mother’s unhealthy behavior. “Let Me Explain” ends on the unexplained—how mental illness stealths itself in our genes until coaxed out by stress or independence.

Let’s summarize the plot with Freytag’s pyramid, a great tool for writers learning how to read prose. This kind of plot summarization helps us identify the focus of the story. On a re-read of “Let Me Explain,” it’s much easier to identify key moments in the plot. I’d say the key moments are:

  1. Exposition: it starts with a dead guinea pig and a house filled with broken tchotchkes—markers of the mother’s unstable mental state. The scene ends with the mother pleading let me explain.
  2. Rising Action: the mother’s erratic behavior continues, but what’s important is her implied hospitalization. We never see her in treatment, but know of its existence by the way the narrator refers to her as “the eighth floor.”
  3. Climax: in this story, the climax and the story’s emotional peak are slightly apart. The plot’s pivotal moment occurs when the son moves to college; the week before, his mom locks herself in her room for a week.
  4. Falling Action/Resolution: I’m lumping these final plot points together, which is normal for stories of this length, as the two can (and do) coincide. After moving, the son starts developing hoarder tendencies and excusing his behavior with let me explain, suggesting something “full circle” and cyclical about mental illness.

Go back through the story yourself, and see how your plotting aligns with mine. You may see different plot points as being more important, which is great—there’s rarely a singular answer when we’re discussing how to read literature.

Effective Reading Strategies: Connecting Plot to Literary Devices

Most writers I know love a good murder mystery, so allow me this macabre comparison. Plotting a story is like laying out a body: you need to get the bones right if you want to solve the mystery.

Literary devices generate deeper meaning for the story.

In other words, plotting out the story as a first step helps us learn how to read prose better. Now that we have clear, specific reference points within the story, we can start fleshing out this analysis by looking at its literary devices. This is a natural next step as we explore how to read fiction effectively because literary devices generate deeper meaning for the story.

What literary devices jump out for you? How does the narrator explore his family through these devices?

Here’s what I notice. First, the author punctuates the story’s conflict with simile: first the home is like Christmas Eve, then it’s like a coiled spring. When juxtaposed, these two images contradict each other, yet both of them lie in wait: excitement at what’s to come tomorrow, followed soon by anxiety. By having these two similes so close to each other, we see a sort of “coming-of-age—a childhood anticipation that morphs into precocious concern.

The narrator explores that precocity through dialogue. The boys—fresh into teenagehood—know their mother is sick before the doctors do. When she’s diagnosed, the boys have already predicted her diagnosis: “bipolar-two, combined with major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and obsessive-compulsive tendencies.”

There’s something almost hilarious about that line. Since when do middle school boys research mental illness? Think about it some more, and that idea carries loads of irony. It’s funny until you realize the trauma behind it—two boys picking up the slack for their mother’s immaturity, handling issues of death and illness with grace. Though they seem fine now, that situation can yield scars later on.

On revisiting the plot, that’s exactly what happens. When he’s no longer responsible for his family’s stability, the narrator’s own psychology starts to slip, and we see inklings of the mental illness his mother suffered through.

(As a non-literary aside: bipolar disorder often runs in the family; if a parent has bipolar disorder, you have a 1 in 2 chance of having it yourself. Additionally, bipolar symptoms rarely show themselves until after pubescence, or around the time a child enters college. Whether the author knows this or not, this story feels well-researched and medically accurate.)

To recap, the primary literary devices here are simile, irony, and juxtaposition. These devices explore the story’s central conflict further, helping the reader understand the narrator’s unique childhood. However, we haven’t much discussed the person telling the story, so naturally our close reading strategies should pivot toward the narrator himself. How does the author write his characters?

Effective Reading Strategies: Examining Characters and Point-of-View

How do writers create characters? Often, the magic of a longer story, such as a novel, resides in its characters: their startling likeness to reality, their ability to exist autonomously and yet remain fictional.

In shorter pieces of fiction, that magic is much harder to harness. With less than 1,000 words to play with, it’s important for the author to include only the essential details. The following strategies make this possible:

  • Writing from a first-person POV
  • Focusing on a single internal/external conflict
  • Using “show, don’t tell” for the narrator’s emotions

First, writing this story with a first-person narrator helps the author mince words. First-person narrators can get away with certain omissions: for example, the narrator never describes what he looks like. A third person narrator—that is, a narrator from outside of the story looking in—will have to include more visual details for the reader to slip inside the story. Writing from the first person makes this process much easier.

This also makes it easier for the narrator to jump across years with little difficulty. The story traverses the path from boyhood to college, and it’s able to do so in under 1,000 words because our narrator focuses on a single conflict.

By focusing on that conflict—namely, familial bipolar disorder—the story can examine both bipolar disorder’s internal and external conflicts. Externally, the narrator must grow up despite his mother’s harmful behavior; internally, he must acknowledge his own neurobiology. Neither of these conflicts are resolved, perhaps because mental illness is often an ongoing issue, willing to be suppressed but not removed.

Finally, a first-person narrator can express his emotions through “show, don’t tell” much easier than a third-person narrator can. The issue isn’t with concision so much as credibility: a third-person narrator can’t insert himself into the story too much, or else he risks telling the story from a biased point of view.

These are some “show, don’t tell” statements that the narrator makes:

Her voice had the same guinea pig tremble.

When I graduated high school, my mother went into her bedroom, shut the door, and didn’t emerge for a week.

The house was like an armed bomb.

Because we’re dealing with a first-person narrator, all these statements are tinged with the sadness of a son whose mother can’t mother him. We don’t need a third-person narrator to explore this boy’s emotions; a little bit of empathy is all it takes for this story to work.

Effective Reading Strategies: Themes and Final Thoughts

It’s often best to analyze themes at the end, because themes rely most heavily on the elements we’ve already discussed.

Among the elements of prose writing, “theme” is the most complex. Often, the author doesn’t develop themes intentionally: they sprout of their own accord, taking shape as the story marches forward. It’s often best to analyze themes at the end, because themes rely most heavily on the elements we’ve already discussed.

Short stories tend to have only one or two themes, as themes require lots of words to build and explore. What do you think the themes are in “Let Me Explain”?

Let’s first highlight the key takeaways from this story:

  • Absentee-parenting and self-parenting cause problems in a child’s adult life.
  • Mental illness runs in the family.
  • Many of our behaviors develop subconsciously.

Have you ever heard the saying “Mental illness is every family’s secret”? Whether that’s true or not, it fits the bill for this story. That quote is a great place to start, as it summarizes the above bullet points, but it works better as a motif—in other words, it’s an aspect of the theme, but not the full theme itself.

We want to work backwards until we can make the most general statement(s) about this story, so let’s break that quote up even further. This story explores:

  • Theme of family: finding order in domestic chaos.
  • Theme of mental illness: practicing empathy on both others and oneself.

Everything we’ve discussed in our analysis of how to read literature builds toward these themes. Our first-person narrator tinges the story with a kind of unspoken sadness that only these themes could produce. The narrator supports his storytelling with irony, juxtaposition, and simile, all coalescing toward a deeper understanding of this family dynamic. Finally, these themes underscore the importance of time. Mental illness and family are themes that endure throughout a person’s life, so naturally, this story spans the distance between childhood and early adulthood.

When we look at theme and how the rest of the story reflects it, it’s much easier to read this story like a writer. It’s okay to leave theme toward the end of your analysis, but make sure it’s in your arsenal of close reading strategies. A good literary analysis of theme requires us to break down other elements, and when we look at how the author partitioned plot events and employed literary devices, we can draw conclusions for ourselves and our writing lives.

Finding Inspiration: How to Read Prose like a Writer

As writers, we should read with the intent of learning new writing techniques and ideas.

As writers, we should read with the intent of learning new writing techniques and ideas. Justin Jahnke uses several great writing strategies to bring “Let Me Explain” to life, and these are strategies we can use in our own prose writing. Fiction and nonfiction writers might be inspired by the story’s complex theme, the way it characterizes its first person narrator, or by the way the story ends ambiguously.

Another possibility presents itself: continuing the story where Jahnke left off. Stories have inspired stories since the dawn of storytelling: Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea challenges Jane Eyre and its problematic trope of the “mad wife in the attic”; by contrast, John Updike’s Gertrude and Claudius is a prequel to the play Hamlet, and it extends the psychological complexities of the original play through the lens of Gertrude, an equally complex character. Those authors read the inspirational text like a writer, uncovering the story’s construction and molding that construction into a wholly original tale. These close reading strategies aren’t just suggestions, they’re the key to writing successful literature.

One way to participate in today’s literary conversation is to extend or challenge another piece of literature. You could write a story that continues where Jahnke’s story ends, watching how mental illness consumes the narrator—or how he can be saved from that illness. You could also write a story that challenges this one, searching for ways to redeem the mother or save her from being hospitalized. Whatever the story inspires, reading like a writer will help you explore that inspiration.

Conclusion: How to Read Literature

The close reading strategies we’ve applied here help us understand what makes this story effective. By analyzing both the story’s construction and the reader’s emotional response, “reading like a writer” makes for great (non)fiction reading strategies.

This guide is a great place to start learning how to read literature. Why stop there? Taking a writing class with Writers.com will introduce you to great works of literature, while also providing the structure to write in a one-of-a-kind writing community. Take a look at our upcoming courses and join our Facebook group to boost your writing success.

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