Unlike a book report or summary, an explication goes much deeper. These papers afford a close reading of the story's themes by analyzing each character's role and providing relevant examples of the theme throughout the plot. Refer to your teacher's instructions to ensure your explication paper matches the assignment. In most cases, though, an explication paper addresses one substantive topic the short story covers.
Before you begin writing your paper, identify the theme of the story. Some stories have several subthemes, so depending on the instructions for your paper, you can pick the theme that speaks most to you. Understanding the story's historical context can help you master the theme. Consider also how individual characters support the theme. For example, George Orwell's "1984" addresses themes of social control and the ways in which such control can affect interpersonal relationships. Winston and Julia represent opposition to control and provide examples of how social control can undermine relationships, pitting one person against another.
Writing Your Thesis
Your thesis is a succinct statement of the central argument of your paper, and every line in your paper should support this thesis or address arguments against it. A good thesis offers a clear, narrow argument rather than a broad, generalized statement. For example, "To Kill a Mockingbird is about racism" is a bad thesis, while "To Kill a Mockingbird analyzes the way racism intersects with white privilege" provides a more refined argument.
Support your argument by citing the development, thoughts and plot role of the story's main characters. Some characters may act as antagonists to the book's theme, arguing against the author's philosophy or revealing its limitations. Your paper should show how these characters' roles ultimately support or undermine the book's theme. Give specific examples from the plot rather than making broad, sweeping statements about a character. In James Joyce's "Ulysses," for example, the characters represent characters from Homer's "Odyssey," and the journey around a small Irish town represents the epic journey Odysseus takes.
Explicating the Plot
Devote several paragraphs of your paper to explaining the plot of the story. This not only gives you an opportunity to support your thesis; it shows you read the story. Rather than simply summarizing the plot, show how the plot fits into your thesis and supports the theme of the story. Anticipate opposing viewpoints by explaining common objections to your argument and then citing evidence showing that these objections don't actually undermine your argument.
Van Thompson is an attorney and writer. A former martial arts instructor, he holds bachelor's degrees in music and computer science from Westchester University, and a juris doctor from Georgia State University. He is the recipient of numerous writing awards, including a 2009 CALI Legal Writing Award.