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Intermediate Reading Course. Section 1: The Basics

Main Ideas in Storytelling

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Typically, we learn and practice finding main ideas in paragraphs. How about stories such as novels, short stories, poems, and so on? Do they have main ideas, too?

How Stories are Formatted

Paragraphs are groups of ideas organized around a main idea. Paragraphs are formatted in “blocks of text,” or groups of related sentences. However, you usually do not see typical paragraphs in storytelling.

Ideas are organized in storytelling too; otherwise, it would be difficult to understand the story. You may not have “blocks of text,”" each with a main idea, but the story does have a main idea.

You may see a “paragraph” that has a description of a character or location, followed by several lines of dialog between the characters. That information may be followed by more descriptions and more lines of dialog. Even though the information is not organized as typical paragraphs, together they create “scene” in the story. In a way, that works as a paragraph.


It is highly recommended you complete The anatomy of a paragraph. It has the basic concepts we will extend in this lesson.

Similarities between Paragraphs and Stories

Although they may look different, paragraphs in narrative texts (stories) share similarities with descriptive or expository texts.

Topics and Themes

Paragraphs have central ideas. Stories have a central message.

Paragraphs have topics, and so do stories. In storytelling, we refer to the theme (or themes) of the story. Main ideas in stories are rarely stated clearly. You must read the details in the plot to infer the ideas and themes. For example, a story can be about love, betrayal, reconciliation, or separation. Another story can deal with family issues, hope or disillusion, life and death, or the conflict between change and tradition.

Themes can be as varied as the issues we deal with in real life. These themes can be found in portions of a story just as paragraphs present topics throughout a long text.

Main Ideas and Supporting Details

Paragraphs have details that support a main idea, and so do stories. In stories, the details are descriptions, dialogs, and the writer’s narration. Events in the plot also provide information about what motivates the characters.

The main idea of a paragraph summarizes all the details the paragraph. The main idea the main point the writer wants to make. In storytelling, the main idea also summarizes all the details and plot in a portion of the story. When we talk about the main point of the whole story, we often refer to it as “the moral of the story."

Central Ideas, Main Ideas, and Implied Main Ideas

In paragraphs, the writer often writes a stated main idea sentence. Sometimes the writer opens the story with a general statement about the story. In a short story, that can be the main idea of the story. For example, I could start a short story with “I learned a difficult lesson about trusting people when I was in third grade.” The details are then presented in the rest of the story.

Other times, the writer waits until the story is finished to give away the main idea. After telling you the story about what happened to me in third grade, I can finish the story by revealing that “This is how I learned a difficult lesson about trusting people.”

Stories also have implied main ideas. Often, the writer leaves it up to the reader to figure out what “the moral of the story” is based on the details in the story.

Figuring Out the Main Idea of a Story

What to focus on while reading a story

What is the theme of the story (the “topic”)?

What do the characters represent in the story?

In stories, characters engage in actions that move the plot. Those actions are driven by the character’s motivations, so characters evoke ideas that are used as the theme of the story. For example, through actions, one character may represent trust while another may represent betrayal.

What words or concepts are mentioned repeatedly in the story?

Repeated words or concepts reveal the theme, which is the “topic” of the main idea.

What main point does the writer want to make?

Summarize the story in one sentence, including the theme but leaving out details. That is the main idea of the story.

Important Note about Literary Analysis

The main purpose of this page is to show that paragraphs come in narrative texts are typically different from those in other modes of writing. It is in no way a complete guide on literary analysis.

Narrative texts are subjective, creative, and very complex. When scholars analyze narrative texts, they come up with different interpretations. They support their analyses by going deep into elements of the story. Entire books can be written about the analysis process.

Up Next: Transition Words and Relationships between Ideas

Go to the next lesson to learn transition words.

Congratulations! You’ve finished “Main Ideas and Supporting Details!”

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Start the next portion of the course to learn about the relationships between ideas.

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