S4 English Short Story Unit 1 Introduction to features using “At the Bar”

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S4 English

Short Story Unit 1

Introduction to features using “At the Bar”
Mr Jewell

In this unit you will learn about the features of the short story genre .We will look at an example of a short story and analyse how the writer constructed their tale. At the end of this unit you will produce your own short story that may be included in your S4 Folio. In August, we will also study two more short stories in more detail.

Let’s get started…

What is a short story?

  • A short story is a brief work of prose fiction that has the same features and uses similar narrative techniques as the novel.

What distinguishes a short story from a novel?
A short story covers a very short time scale – it can be as little as 850 words - and this affects the way the author deals with the plot, structure, characterisation, language, setting and themes in the story. It is important to make every word count.

Features of the Short Story Genre

  • Deals with only one event / incident / day in detail.

  • Simple and uncomplicated plot focusing on the central incident / protagonist.

  • Must be gripping and interesting to catch the reader’s attention from the onset.
  • No lengthy run-up or wind-down – gets right into the plot from the first sentence.

  • The story begins close to the climax or crisis.

  • Recognisable climax and satisfying ending which often includes a twist in the tale.

  • Four characters or less and not too many points of view.

  • Less time for analysis and development of characters.

  • The main character is often forced to face up to a conflict or challenge of some sort and is forced to resolve that conflict.

  • Use of dialogue to reveal relevant, key aspects of the protagonist’s character and help with plot development.

  • Use of powerful, descriptive and emotive language for dramatic effect.

  • Skilled use of narrative techniques such as imagery, metaphor, personification throughout.

  • Descriptions are brief and to the point – gets the maximum effect from the minimum amount of words.

  • Sets the scene quickly and concisely.

William McIlvaney’s ‘At The Bar’

Read and answer the following questions in sentences:

  1. You wouldn’t have fancied whoever the suit might fit to come against the man who wore it.’ What impression of ‘the big man’ do you get from this sentence?

  1. His pallor suggested a plant kept out of the light. Prison the barman thought.’ Give three examples which suggest that ‘the big man’ may just have been released from prison (or at least seems unfamiliar with ordinary day to day life).

  1. The first sentence in the story, ‘The pub was quiet.’ Sets the scene quickly and effectively. Give three examples from the text which reinforce this picture of the bar.

  1. When the man in denim is introduced, what impression do we immediately get of him? How does Mcilvaney achieve this?

  1. What do you think is the underlying theme throughout this story? Give reasons for your answer.

  1. McIlvaney refers to ‘Rafferty’ as ‘the big man’ all through the story until after the violent climax when he leaves his name with the barman. Is this deliberate? If So, why? What does it achieve?

  1. Identify two similes which seem to introduce the violent climax to the story.

  1. The barman was grateful but contemptuous.’ Why do you think the barman has these conflicting feelings about ‘the big man’?

  1. Give your opinion on the language employed by McIlvaney to describe the final violent climax to the story. Give reasons to support your opinion.

At The Bar
Characterisation – plays an important part in William McIlvanney’s short story ‘At The Bar’. Characterisation is part of the writer’s craft, which allows the author to build a picture of the characters in the story. This is achieved in a number of ways:

  • Description of the physical appearance of a character

  • Description of their movement/gait

  • Description of their actions

  • Description of their thoughts and feelings about themselves and towards others

  • The reaction of other characters towards them, and their interaction/ treatment of other characters

Introduce characterisation through teacher led discussion of how writers build pictures of their characters. You might incorporate this into a mind-map.

Task 1
1.In pairs note down the words and phrases from ‘At the Bar’, which help, build a picture of ‘The Big Man’.
2. Now describe what sort of impression/picture these descriptions leave you with.

Set this task out as shown in the table below



3. In pairs repeat activities 1 & 2 for ‘the man in denim’



The story is told from the barman’s viewpoint for much of the story. How does the barman’s viewpoint, thoughts and opinions help shape our impression of both ‘The Big Man’ and The Man in Denim’?

The Man in Denim

The Big Man

Barman’s views, thoughts and opinions

Task 2
1.The setting in ‘At the Bar’ is used as a contrast to the violent events that take place. Pick out the details from the story that build our mental picture of the pub.
2.What overall impression of the pub is built up from this description?
Create a mind-map like the one on the next page to answer these two questions

Task 3
In pairs, find the evidence from the text, which highlights the underlying theme of violence.
1. How many clues can you find in the text that hint that something violent is about to happen in this quiet pub?
2. When the violent climax occurs, how does Mcilvanney maximise its violent nature?

You are now going to write your own short story. If you feel confident enough to come up with your own plot then that is fine, providing that you adhere to the features of the short story genre which we have studied.

If however, you feel that you need some help getting started, you could choose one of the following scenarios as the basis of your plot:

Scenario A

Your main character is urgently awaiting an important letter that will change his or her life forever.
Scenario B

Your main character is in the final year of a vocational course (medicine/teaching/priesthood). He/She is having a career crisis until something happens one afternoon that reassures him/her that they have chosen the correct career path.
Scenario C

Your main character is in a City Centre café on an ordinary Monday morning. He or she is lost in their own thoughts when a mysterious stranger approaches them and asks them to look after a package, promising to return. However, after an hour, the stranger has not returned and your character’s curiosity gets the better of him/her. After much deliberation, he she decides to open the package…

The term plot refers to the systematic chain of events that make up the short story. Each link in this chain helps to build suspense and to solve a problem. The main character is presented with a situation that presents a problem or conflict that he must resolve. The largest part of the story will deal with the main character’s struggle to resolve this problem or conflict. The story will often begin close to the conflict. The point in the story in which the conflict is resolved is the high point or climax of the story. This can sometimes be a twist in the tale ( a surprise to the reader).

Something of significance must happen in a short story but it is usually a good idea not to have too many events happening in the plot. Keep it simple. A significant event does not have to be particularly dramatic, unusual or violent. Your characters do not have to be abducted by aliens or involved in international terrorism. If you try to make your story too exciting it can become "over the top".

We come to know the characters in the short story through the indirect method of 1) physical description, 2) the character’s thoughts, feelings and words, 3) the comments and reactions of others and 4) the actions of the character and the direct method of the author’s stated opinion about the character.

You should never have any more than five characters in a short story. There just isn’t time or space in a short story to meet an army of new faces.

In describing the characters of your short story, you should give the very minimum background information. We’re only going to spend five minutes or so with the characters of a short story so it’s not necessary to know everything about them. Only give the background information that is relevant to the plot. The trick is to maintain a good balance between keeping information tight and giving enough relevant facts about a character so that the reader can visualise him/her.

The setting of a short story helps the reader to imagine what the place is like. The setting of your story will be very important because it will have to capture the reader’s attention and entice them to read on.

The setting of your short story will also have a definite impact on the character development and plot. The setting is often found in the exposition of the plot and readily establishes time and place. Frequently it plays an important role in the conflict giving credence to the rising action as a climax or turning point is approached.

Setting can describe:

  1. What the place looks like
  2. If the place was light, dark or had certain colours

  3. What sounds there were

  4. What the weather was like

  5. What feelings the place aroused in the character

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