The Craft Analysis is neither a critique (an assessment of a creative work that comments on its good and bad qualities) nor an explication (an interpretation of the meaning of a creative work), but a tightly focused argument—two to three pages maximum—in which the student is required to:
· make a claim about how the writer employs a particular element of craft in a short story; and
· support that claim with evidence from the text.
The Craft Analysis is an exercise in precision and concision, compelling lots of revision in order to hone down and focus the argument to three pages. Typical exhortations to students when assigning the Craft Analysis for the first time (and when commenting on their initial attempts) include: “Do not dilly-dally!” and “Get to it!”
The Craft Analysis compels the student to “think like a writer,” to engage in critical analysis from the other side of the readeràtextßwriter exchange, by focusing on how a particular element of craft deployed by the writer elicits a particular dramatic effect from the reader. How does subtext in mundane dialog reveal character and motive? How do details of setting evoke a particular mood? How do shifts in point of view generate dramatic tension, and to what end?
One fruitful way of framing the assignment is to ask the students: “What is it about the story that puzzles or intrigues or frustrates you? At what point in the story do you ask: Why would a writer do that? Why would a writer make that particular writerly choice? What is the effect of that choice on the reader?” (When they read and write about stories, students tend to avoid writing about what is puzzling or frustrating, what is difficult, in them; this tactic encourages them to find their craft analysis topic by engaging in these difficult questions head on.) Why, for instance, does the story leap ahead fifty years in the last two pages? Why are the sentences so long in this story? Why would a writer risk confusion by introducing so many characters in the first two pages?
Below is an example of a craft analysis of an entire story collection—Kate Braverman’s Squandering the Blue—from an advanced fiction course; for beginning and intermediate courses, the craft analysis should be limited to a discussion of only one or two stories. The following analysis serves as a model because it is (at only two pages) very focused and precise; because it offers ample evidence from the text to support the claim; and because the topic seems to have been generated by engaging one of the difficulties of Braverman’s story collection—the seemingly problematic over-use of repetition in language.
The Aesthetic of Extremity in Squandering the Blue
In Squandering the Blue, Kate Braverman's stories unfold in atmospheres of almost palpable density. The settings in her stories are thick with heat (or cold) and very densely colored. Braverman's protagonists move through red air and cold blue air (36; 38); through "humid, green, stalled" air (40); through yellow air that is "charged and disturbed" (99); through air that is "glassy" (12) and "ambered" (28) or comprised of "failed neon and exiled particles" (114). They walk under intensely blue skies, or under a sky like "cold gray slate" (105), or a sky like "the interior of an abalone shell" (59). Braverman creates such smothering physical climates--drenching rains or dense, lowering skies or thick, gelid air--as metaphor for the internal climates of her protagonists, mostly women who are smothered and trapped in their own lives. The author seems to “overuse” setting details to convey this feeling of claustrophobia.
Indeed, Braverman seems in this collection to overdo in other arenas of craft as well, to a remarkably audacious extent. All of her stories, for instance, are virtually about the same character. She is Suzanne in two stories; she is Diana in three stories; she is Erica, Laurel, Maggie, Jessica, or nameless. But she is, in virtually all of them, a woman in her fortieth year, with children. She is divorced, or thinking about it. She is an addict in recovery, engaged in a daily struggle to get to midnight without smoking a cigarette or buying cocaine or tossing back a vodka martini. And she is--with the single exception of her encounter with Lenny in "Tall Tales from the Mekong Delta" (a story that sits--significantly or not--right in the middle of the collection)--an intensely reflective protagonist. She is constantly reviewing the past, placing it in juxtaposition with the present, and striving for some causal connections between the two, trying to understand how who she was brought her to who she is. Indeed, she is a character who thinks too much, overdoing the interior thought process such that it kind of drives the reader crazy.
She is in many of the stories a writer, a poet, keenly hyper-aware of her environment and delineating it with language and imagery that makes it both physically immediate and abstractly surreal, that imbues it with a complexity and weight that is oppressive. Each story in Braverman's collection takes us relentlessly and obsessively through the same torpid landscape. Each story seems a variation of the same story, about a woman in extremity--viewing the wreckage of her life, assessing her responsibility for the damage inflicted, and seeking some reason--any reason--to continue. The repetitiveness of this virtual character in the same drama, in stories thick and smothered with oppression, oppresses the reader.
And as each story delineates a woman in extremity, so does Braverman craft all of these stories from an aesthetic of extremity. The stories are not merely consistent in theme and tone, but so recursively similar as to risk becoming tedious and repetitive. But to the author’s credit, the stories become somehow not repetitive of each other but resonant with each other, each variation of the same story revealing some texture or nuance of the same character struggling with the same conflict. It’s like looking into a crystal in your hand and seeing a different pattern of light with every slight movement. The result is a remarkable density of tone and characterization that does indeed overwhelm the reader. All the stories in Squandering the Blue--which seem a repetition of the “same” woman in the “same” story--demonstrate Braverman’s aesthetic of extremity, conveying to the reader the obsession and claustrophobia that her virtual protagonist must feel, as she engages the same struggle repeatedly, as she turns it over in her mind, and in these pages, again and again and again.