When reading and discussing short stories with students in the sixth, seventh or eighth grades, much time is spent in figuring out the plot. Focusing on the central problem in a story forces students to understand the motivation of the characters. Why do the characters act the way they do? Amazingly, many students will read stories without ever considering the problem presented by the author, and then they end up totally confused about what they have read. After working with plot until students begin to ask themselves, what is the problem in this story, characters and setting can be discussed more clearly. The pieces make more sense once the motivation of the action is understood.
Reading mystery and detective fiction is a splendid means of accomplishing plot recognition. Detective fiction allows students to get in tune with the author, and then with the characters in a book. While reading a mystery, the young person is forced to listen to the author much more than in other types of literature. Therefore, the focus on plot brings about a clearer understanding of how an author goes about contriving his tale. While enjoying a good book the student is also learning how a good author works. Once a student’s grasp of plot is firm, the further study of character and setting will make more sense.
In this unit I want to share my love for mystery and detective fiction with the students in my classes. I am also continuously striving to find different ways of improving writing skills. By reading mysteries I can show students elements of writing technique that are not so clear in other types of literature. Much of the unit will be spent reading and discussing various mysteries and detective fiction, both short stories and novels. While the length of material read will depend on reading levels, an above-average sixth grader can be a remarkably astute reader. A problem of social maturation or sophistication may arise with some adult mysteries, but this problem can be dealt with by excerpting from novels that are examples of hard-boiled detective fiction.
Students need to be reminded that the setting of a short story or novel is the place where the action occurs, and also the historical period in which the action happens. Setting can be the primary motivational factor in mysteries, forcing characters to do and say whatever is said and done. Edgar Allen Poe’s gloomy and dire prison in “The Pit and the Pendulum”, or the Mardi Gras in “The Cask of Amontillado” are forces that have as much to do with shaping the plot as the characters themselves. As in understanding the setting of a story, students need also learn how to study characters in a story or novel. How does the author develop his characters? Does each character speak to the reader thereby revealing his nature, or does the author describe each character directly for the reader? Students who learn to read with these critical skills will be better readers, writers and their love of both reading and writing will be strengthened.