Key Questions to Ask

These key questions to ask when reading literature help to guide the reader and focus his/her attention on important components of the piece. Key questions may be used to predict exam questions as well. Questions may be added, deleted, or modified to fit the requirements of different forms of literature.



Beginning-of-Story Questions

Middle-of-Story Questions

End-of-Story Questions


Questions about characters focus the reader's attention. When considering characterization in a piece of literature, consider the following questions. For additional strategies related to character, see the Character Analysis, Checklist of Elements of Literature, and Story Star and Story Map sections of this page.


Authors focus on setting either more or less depending on the importance of setting to character and plot. Sometimes setting is very specific, sometimes it is left vague. These questions help to determine the influence of setting in understanding a work of fiction. Important questions related to setting are listed below. Setting is also considered in the Checklist of Elements of Literature and the Story Star and Story Map sections of this page.


For plot, questions focus on the sequence of events and the issue of conflict. Such questions identify points in the sequence of events that help to organize the presentation. Plot questions are given below, and plot is also considered in the Checklist of Elements of Literature and the Story Star and Story Map sections of this page.


Questions related to theme are given below. The Checklist of Elements of Literature, described elsewhere in this page, is another strategy that deals with theme.


"Poetry has certain conventional and obvious surface features - rhyme, rhythm, stanzas, etc. - that distinguish it from prose. Yet not all poetry has all these features, and some (Whitman's, for example) seems to consciously disregard such poetic conventions. Underlying these superficial elements is a characteristic more essential to poetry - what has been called compression of meaning. It is powerful compression of thought and emotion that is essentially poetic, and the other features are there to help achieve that poetic concentration of force" (Reference, Year, Page).

"This means that part of a reader's response to poetry is to unpack the compressed poem to really see what the poem is. Sometimes people talk about the 'hidden' meanings in poems (ones that only English teachers can find). Indeed, there do seem to be some poets who obscure their meanings more than necessary. But most of the time that suspicion of obscurity is caused by the poetic compression of language - language that becomes clearer and fuller as we begin to unpack the compressed meaning" (Reference, Year, Page).

"A major way poets compress meaning is suggestive language, words which convey not merely their literal meanings but also call to mind associations, historical allusions, emotional responses, etc. As Robert Frost has said, 'Poetry is the one acceptable way of saying one thing and meaning something else.' He didn't mean that the poet lies or tries to mislead, but that the nature of poetry is to call up a richness of suggestion that involves the reader in the creation of the poem each time it is read. The word 'Rose,' for example, has long held associations of love, passion, purity, natural beauty, pain (thorns), and many other attitudes, emotions, and myths that the poet can call upon by using that word" (Reference, Year, Page).

"Here are some analytical questions that might help in that unpacking process: