AP Lit and More Skill Spotlight: Sequence of Events

AP Lit Skill Spotlight: Sequence of Events

AP® Lit Skill STR 3.B asks students to explain the function of a particular sequence of events in a plot. This is settled between 3.A (how plot orders events in a narrative) and 3.C (function of structure in a text) and there’s clearly some overlap. In thinking about this skill and what it wants students to know, it mostly boils down to an awareness and analysis of plot, specifically exposition.

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Examining Plot Sequence With Expositions

To introduce this skill, I recommend redirecting students to some of the “classic” short stories that they read in 9th and 10th grade. I’ve made a list of what these classics are for my students, but supplement or change based on your own students’ experiences.

Common 9th and 10th grade short stories:

AP Lit and More - Plot Diagram
Students can create a plot diagram on any scratch sheet of paper, although there are many printable versions available online as well!
  • “Thank You, Ma’am” by Langston Hughes
  • “The Scarlet Ibis” by James Hurst
  • “The Necklace” by Guy de Maupassant
  • “The Sniper” by Liam O’Flaherty
  • “The Tell-Tale Heart” or “The Cask of Amontillado” by Edgar Allan Poe
  • “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson
  • “The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry
  • “The Most Dangerous Game by Richard Connell
  • “The Monkey’s Paw” by W. W. Jacobs

Ask students to select a short story they vaguely remember and enjoyed. Individually or in small groups, ask them to read their story once again. After reading, students should create a classic plot chart or plot diagram for the text (most students do this in grades 7-10).

When everyone is done, present them with these questions from the AP® Lit CED:

  1. How does a particular sequence of events affect the presentation and/or development of characters and conflict?
  2. How does a particular sequence of events and the manner in which a text presents those events to a reader affect a reader’s experience with the text? 
  3. What is the relationship between a particular sequence of events and a text’s structure as a whole?

To help them tackle these rather vague questions, direct students to the story’s exposition in particular. For example, here is the first paragraph from “The Scarlet Ibis.”

Summer was dead, but autumn had not yet been born when the ibis came to the bleeding tree. It’s strange that all this is so clear to me, now that time has had its way. But sometimes (like right now) I sit in the cool green parlor, and I remember Doodle.

These sentences introduce the beautiful setting of the story, but also introduces the central conflict and symbol in the text as well. Knowing how the story ends, what else can we glean by going back and re-reading the exposition? Ask students to share their answers, then use these strategies to analyze future texts as well.

Focus Text: “Everyday Use” by Alice Walker

I’ve been trying to use “Everyday Use” for a Skill Spotlight lesson for several months now, but I never could pinpoint the right opportunity. I just took a moment to reread it and realized I never paid much attention the exposition of the story. However, once I took the time to really analyze it, I was able to analyze much more about the story’s central conflict, the protagonist, and the impactful setting. It’s perfect for this skill (although fits it works with almost any skill-based analysis, really!)

With your students or for homework, read “Everyday Use.” Last time I checked, it was available online through Harper’s Magazine here. When finished, offer these questions to your students.

  1. How would you characterize or describe the plot layout of this story? Is it difficult or straightforward? Is it linear? Does it shift in and out of a linear plot?
  2. How does the plot layout and order or events affect your reading of the story? Consider the effect on its readability or complexity as well as your enjoyment of the story.
  3. What is the climax of the story? How do you know?
  4. Go back and re-read the first portion of “Everyday Use.” How does the exposition connect with the climax?
  5. What is the relationship between a particular sequence of events, such as the exposition or the climax, and the story’s structure as a whole?

Teacher’s Guide

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  1. The plot layout is fairly simplistic and linear overall. However, the exposition jumps and and out of Mama’s memories and musings that interrupt the actual plot of the story (e.g. Dee’s visit).
  2. This rather straightforward layout makes the story easier in terms of readability. It seems straightforward at first with complexity building upon a second read or analysis. Some students may find the exposition off-topic or boring, preferring the dramatic depiction of Dee or Wangero’s visit from later in the story.
  3. The climax occurs when Mama finally realizes that she will never be able to please Dee and that Maggie ultimately deserves her favor. This is the climax because it turns the plot from rising action (wondering what will the protagonist do about her two daughters and their conflicting desires) to resolution.
  4. Upon examining the exposition, students may notice that the focus is not on Dee or even on Maggie, but mostly on the feelings of the narrator. Since Dee is such a dramatic presence in this book she seems to dominate the storyline at first. However, this exposition reminds us that the story is really about Dee’s mother. We learn that even before Dee (now Wangero) arrives, the narrator is already preparing for how she will disappoint her daughter. She knows her failings, and Maggie’s too. And yet she still stands in expectation in her perfectly cleaned yard. She still makes an effort. Some may see this as evidence that she still hopes that Dee will return home for good. It may also signify how the narrator has taken Maggie for granted. This adds suspense to the story and makes the climax, Mama’s decision to honor Maggie’s wishes over Wangero’s, more powerful.
  5. The exposition and the conflict return the story to the main character: Mama, not Dee. The imagined interview on Johnny Carson from the exposition reminds us that Mama will never be enough for Dee, despite how many quilts she gives her. She doesn’t transform, but rather has an epiphany that Maggie is her best daughter. In fact the moment is visceral, described as something that literally hit her over the head. She hugs Maggie and flatly refuses Wangero, basically showing her the door. It ends in a feeling of acceptance of what both Mama and Maggie truly are, rather than the hope for acceptance that drove the exposition.

Suggested Texts for Studying Sequence of Events

Here is a list of suggested short stories or novels to excerpt for studying sequence of events.

AP Lit and More Prose Analysis Lesson: Sequence of Events
This standalone AP® Lit lesson contains ready-made notes and exercises to study plot sequencing in short fiction.
  • “In the Penal Colony” by Franz Kafka
  • “Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin
  • “A Haunted House” by Virginia Woolf
  • “A Rose for Emily” by William Faulkner
  • “Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut
  • “Lamb to the Slaughter” by Roald Dahl
  • “The Veldt” or “The Sound of Thunder” by Ray Bradbury
  • “White Heron” by Sarah Orne Jewett
  • “The Bet” by Anton Chekhov
  • “The Lottery”by Shirley Jackson
  • Paradise by Toni Morrison
  • “Incantations of Burned Children” by David Foster Wallace
  • Basically anything by Sandra Cisneros
  • “Lather and Nothing Else” by Hernando Tellez
AP Skill Spotlights, AP Lit & More
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