Reading Passages
Tackling the Fiction Passage
Fiction passages will only appear as long RPs. The only major difference between fiction and nonfiction passages is that fiction is not structured as hierarchically as nonfiction. By “hierarchical,” we mean the rigid structure of passages we described at the beginning of this section:
  • Paragraph 1: Introduction/Proposition
  • Paragraph 2: First point in support of proposed argument with supporting data. Transition sentence.
  • Paragraph 3: Second point in support of proposed argument with supporting data. Transition sentence.
And so forth.
Even though you can’t rely on the hierarchical structure you find in most nonfiction passages, fiction passages do contain an analogous “skeleton” that you can use to guide your reading. The key thing to keep in mind is: “Who is doing what to whom and how does it make everyone, including the narrator, feel?” This question focuses your attention on the key elements of conventional prose fiction. Let’s review these briefly:
  • The narrator. Think of the narrator as the “voice” that’s telling the story. The SAT uses first- or third-person narration (first person: “Call me Ishmael…”; third person: “He sat on the bench bemoaning his lost love…”). It doesn’t get cutesy or experimental with second-person narration (“You go to the store. You see a black cat. You freak out.”) or with unreliable narrators who “lie” to the reader about what’s actually happening in the story.
  • The characters. Again, no one’s going to get cutesy on you. You won’t find characters disappearing into the ether because you find out in the last line that they were figments of the imagination of an unreliable narrator who turns out to be an escaped mental patient. Just keep in mind who’s who, and what their relationships are (mother/daughter, friends, husband/wife, etc.).
  • The plot. Not much can actually transpire in a passage of 800 to 850 words. If fiction scares you, let this fact calm your fears. Events will be apparent. The most you’ll be asked to do is read between the lines of what characters say to one another, which is a skill you already use every day. (“Jane said I look good today. Does she really mean this, or was it a sarcastic dig?”)
  • The way the author uses language to convey states of mind and events. The section on literary techniques and rhetorical devices (pages –33) is more than enough preparation to handle what the SAT will throw at you.
There are two basic steps to approaching a fiction passage:
Step 1: Read the italicized introduction.
Step 2: Read the entire passage, word for word.
One advantage of SAT fiction passages is that they are usually interesting and easy to read. They’re mostly about human relationships, so they don’t introduce unfamiliar information or jargon, as nonfiction passages usually do. In general, go ahead and read these word for word, but read them quickly, and always be prepared to skim when you’re pressed for time. If what you’re reading seems like unnecessary information, skim ahead and pick up the story again. As you can see, you’ll need to let your own strengths and experience guide you on test day. If, on the one hand, you’re a fast reader who feels comfortable with fiction, go ahead and read the passage quickly (with little or no skimming) and tackle the items. If, on the other hand, you’re a slow reader who’s not comfortable with fiction, first do all the other items in the section and then come back to the fiction passage and try to get what you can out of a quick read/skim.
As you read, circle names of characters, key dialogue, crucial images—anything that keeps you physically and mentally engaged. Aim to get an idea of what happens where in the passage so that when you hit the items you’ll have some idea of where you might need to go in the passage to puzzle out a particular item.
Above all—don’t sweat it! Fiction is no big deal. Practice will help you.
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