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Writing Prompts for Analyzing Fiction

Creating engaging prompts for students writing about fiction can be difficult. This is especially true because interpreting fiction is an inherently subjective, open-ended task. Worse, excessively narrow prompts, like asking a student to summarize a story's plot or to define what a certain symbol “means,” run the risk of driving students toward the implication that there is a “right” answer. In an online context, this may also discourage discussion (i.e., after a “correct” answer is given, students will no longer feel motivated to continue to “engage” with the text via blog posts, etc.). Thus, in a remote classroom environment, it is important to assign open-ended writing prompts that encourage the sort of deep discussion that's typically easier to facilitate face-to-face.

The following prompts may be good place(s) to start in terms of facilitating a this sort of discussion in the online context.

Did you like the short story/chapter/book/etc.? Why or why not?

  • While this question may seem reductive, it is a good place to start in terms of getting students talking in general terms, which, with your facilitation, can guide the students towards more pointed discussion.
    • The "why" aspect of this prompt is key. Encourage students to explain their gut feelings as best as they can, even if they are difficult to put words to. Follow up with additional questions asking students to clarify any feelings they had trouble explaining.

Which character(s) did you like/dislike most? Why?

  • This question allows students to explore characters, their actions, and their motivations without guiding them towards universalisms about those characters.
    • A good follow-up question is to ask if there were any characters that students like at some points and disliked at others. Here, you can press students to explain what sorts of story changes or new contextual information made them change their minds.

Discuss the “hook” of the story.

  • In other words, students should explain what made the story engaging⁠ by exploring its "page turner" qualities. Ways to phrase this might also include questions like "What made you want to keep reading the book?" and "What kept you interested as you engaged with the story?" These questions can help students analyze how authors build tension and raise the stakes for their characters.
    • If students didn’t feel engaged, ask them to explain why. You may also want to prompt students to propose changes to the book that would have made it more engaging.

Choose one sentence from the story that you particularly liked and discuss ONLY that sentence.

  • Exploring a single short excerpt in depth allows students to gain confidence talking about subtle thematic subtext conveyed through the author's linguistic choices. Note, of course, that this prompt can be very open-ended insofar as students may be attracted to a wide variety of choices. However, this aspect of the prompt can help facilitate discussion. Other classmates can be encouraged to agree or disagree with the choice, or offer their own favorite sentences.
    • If highlighting a single sentence seems too limited, this prompt could easily be expanded to favorite paragraph or favorite page. However, the goal should be to focus on a small, digestable chunk.
    • Hear are a few potential follow-up questions: What about the sentence was so great? Does the author play with language in this sentence? How does it relate to the larger themes of the story?

Analyze a character’s wants, needs, and obstacles.

  • Asking students to analyze these key components of a favorite figure in a recent reading can help them understand the important role character motivation plays in fiction writing. It can also get students to think about how motivation relates to the larger themes of any given work.
    • Here is an example of how you might present this prompt to students. First, have students pick a character from a recently-read story/chapter/book. Have them write down the following questions: What is it that they want? Is this different than what they need to become a happy, fulfilled person? What are the obstacles that stand in their way of what they want? How do they try to overcome those obstacles? Have students answer these questions as best as they can, and have them share any spots where they had difficulty answering.

Analyze a significant object.

  • This may not work for every reading, but it can be a productive prompt when it is appropriate. Students should choose an objectnot a personfrom a story/chapter/book they have recently read. It should be something that seemed especially resonant or important to the story. Then, answer the following questions about the object:
    • Why did it seem so important?
    • What about the way it was described or the way characters interacted with the object made it seem so important?
    • Note that this question can be modified depending on the age of the students in order to accomodate a greater or smaller level of nuance.

Discuss how the context for a given piece of writing might have affected the writing itself.

  • Any creative work is ultimately influenced by the historical and cultural context of the time it was written. Provide students with a brief “overview” of key historical events of the time, as well as key biographical events of the given author. Then, ask them to describe how those historical/personal events might affect their interpretation of the story.
    • You might also consider asking whether they think the author intended the story to carry any specific  message for the people of the time.
    • This question can be especially useful for a cross-genre class (e.g., one that incorporates some history instruction), but is helpful regardless of the course.