Some Questions for Tim O’Brien’s “How to Tell a True War Story”
1) How would you describe the plot of this story? Remember that “plot” is the sequence
or order or structure of events. Is this story’s plot chronological or linear? Episodic?
Circular? A montage? What plot devices is this writer using? Flashbacks? Framing?
Multiple, parallel, or intersecting plots?
We’ve only just touched on plot in our class discussions so far, but do as well as you
can with this question. The story obviously does not have a traditional plot—see what
you can come up with.
The plot structure in this story is best described as episodic. The small stories inside
this story are all linked together by the same place or setting, which is the Vietnam
War. Flashbacks and intersecting plots are also used as plot devices when the stories
are being told.
2) Thinking as a fiction writer, and considering the kinds of choices writers must
inevitably make, WHY go with the kind of plot you’ve described above? Why would
a writer chose such a structure for his/her narrative?
I would use the type of plot described above because it is a way of showing many
different examples in the story. It also more easily helps show what the author is trying to
portray in the story.
3) Who are the story’s main characters? What is the main character’s chief form of pain?
What’s his issue? Who is the main character?
The main characters in this story are the narrator and Sanders. The main character’s chief
form of pain is the war, and not being able to tell a story about the war that people are
able to accept and believe. His main issue with this is just trying to deal with the reality
of that fact. I believe that the narrator is the main character in this story.
4) The title of this piece suggests that the story will ultimately explain or give
instructions for telling a true war story. So—how DOES one tell a true war story?
What are the particular difficulties, according to this narrator, in telling the events of
war? What is this narrator saying about “truth” and how we understand it?
In order to tell a true war story, you must tell a story that people can take something away
from. Some particular difficulties in telling a true war story is really getting the reader to
believe it. According to the narrator, people usually do not believe true war stories
because of the real craziness.
5) How important is setting in this story?
Because this story is trying to tell us how to tell a true war story, I definitely think that the
setting is important. I think it would prove to be very difficult to tell any war story
without any war.
6) What are some interesting, strange, moving, thought-provoking, or otherwise
resonant details of the setting?
Some details of the setting that resonated most with me were the demeanors of the some
of the soldiers. The way they handled death and destruction would be unnatural in any
other setting, but the fact that the story is set in war plays a big part in all of this.
7) Why does the writer include the details you identified in #7 above? Out of all the
possible details in that particular setting, why has he allowed us to see (or hear, or
smell) THOSE details? What is the effect of those details on the reader? Again: read
like a writer.
I think the writer chose to let us see those details so that we could better understand what
the soldiers went through and how it affected them after the war.