Reading the Fiction Passage

The Fiction Passage will always appear first, but that doesn’t mean you have to do it first. If Fiction is your stumbling block, consider saving it for later after you have warmed your brain up with the other reading passages.

The College Board will use edited excerpts from novels that could have been written anywhere from the 1700s to 2000s, and so you should familiarize yourself with the reading from a number of eras.


It is shocking to me how many students skip this vital piece of information. There are several reasons to read this part, particularly that of the fiction passage. First, it will tell you when the passage was written. This can be useful to anticipate what types of events may be happening in the story. Also, it can cue you to the writing style you will encounter. The older the passage the more likely it is to have long descriptions, flowery language and complex sentence structures. Secondly, the italicized information will give you the background plot necessary to understand the situation you are being given. Remember that these are pieces of novels that can be anywhere from 250 to 700 pages long, and the College Board has plucked out a page or so for you to read. Would you open a novel randomly, read a page, and expect to understand what it happening—of course not. So, the test provides you with some information to situate the scene.

The Basic Elements of Stories

Stories consist mainly (but not exclusively) of Characters, Plot, and Setting. While in a well-written novel all of these elements will play a part in the story, the SAT Fiction passage will tend to focus on only one of the three.


Setting Focus

The parlour was rather a small room, very plainly furnished, yet comfortable, because clean and neat. The old-fashioned chairs were very bright, and the walnut-wood table was like a looking-glass. A few strange, antique portraits of the men and women of other days decorated the stained walls; a cupboard with glass doors contained some books and an ancient set of china. There was no superfluous ornament in the room — not one modern piece of furniture, save a brace of workboxes and a lady’s desk in rosewood, which stood on a side-table: everything — including the carpet and curtains — looked at once well worn and well saved.

Mr. St. John — sitting as still as one of the dusty pictures on the walls, keeping his eyes fixed on the page he perused, and his lips mutely sealed — was easy enough to examine. Had he been a statue instead of a man, he could not have been easier. He was young — perhaps from twenty- eight to thirty — tall, slender; his face riveted the eye; it was like a Greek face, very pure in outline: quite a straight, classic nose; quite an Athenian mouth and chin. It is seldom, indeed, an English face comes so near the antique models as did his. He might well be a little shocked at the irregularity of my lineaments, his own being so harmonious. His eyes were large and blue, with brown lashes; his high forehead, colourless as ivory, was partially streaked over by careless locks of fair hair.

This is a gentle delineation, is it not, reader? Yet he whom it describes scarcely impressed one with the idea of a gentle, a yielding, an impressible, or even of a placid nature. Quiescent as he now sat, there was something about his nostril, his mouth, his brow, which, to my perceptions, indicated elements within either restless, or hard, or eager. He did not speak to me one word, nor even direct to me one glance, till his sisters returned. Diana, as she passed in and out, in the course of preparing tea, brought me a little cake, baked on the top of the oven.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (1847)

You might be inclined to quibble with me and say that this is character focused, but look closely. The description of Mr. St. John is all surface. What he looks like and how he appears to Jane. So in effect he is part of the setting surrounding our main character. Setting focused passages will be highly descriptive and students sometimes get lost because they are searching for the action (plot) where there is little to none.

Character Focus

Tess Durbeyfield at this time of her life was a mere vessel of  emotion untinctured by experience.  The dialect was on her tongue to some extent, despite the village school: the characteristic intonation of that dialect for this district being the voicing approximately rendered by the syllable UR, probably as rich an utterance as any to be found in human speech.  The pouted-up deep red mouth to which this syllable was native had hardly as yet settled into its definite shape, and her lower lip had a way of thrusting the middle of her top one upward, when they closed together after a word.

Phases of her childhood lurked in her aspect still.  As she walked along to-day, for all her bouncing handsome womanliness, you could sometimes see her twelfth year in her cheeks, or her ninth sparkling from her eyes; and even her fifth would flit over the curves of her mouth now and then.

Yet few knew, and still fewer considered this.  A small minority, mainly strangers, would look long at her in casually passing by, and grow momentarily fascinated by her freshness, and wonder if they would ever see her again: but to almost everybody she was a fine and picturesque country girl, and no more.


The basket was heavy and the bundle was large, but she lugged them along like a person who did not find her especial burden in material things.  Occasionally she stopped to rest in a mechanical way by some gate or post; and then, giving the baggage another hitch upon her full round arm, went steadily on again.

It was a Sunday morning in late October, about four months after Tess Durbeyfield’s arrival at Trantridge, and some few weeks subsequent to the night ride in The Chase.  The ascent was gradual on this side, and the soil and scenery differed much from those within Blakemore Vale.  Even the character and accent of the two peoples had shades of difference, despite the amalgamating effects of a roundabout railway; so that, though less than twenty miles from the place of her sojourn at Trantridge, her native village had seemed a far-away spot.

The incline was the same down which d’Urberville had driven her so wildly on that day in June.  Tess went up the remainder of its length without stopping, and on reaching the edge of the escarpment gazed over the familiar green world beyond, now half-veiled in mist.  It was always beautiful from here; it was terribly beautiful to Tess to-day, for since her eyes last fell upon it she had learnt that the serpent hisses where the sweet birds sing, and her views of life had been totally changed for her by the lesson.  Verily another girl than the simple one she had been at home was she who, bowed by thought,
stood still here, and turned to look behind her. She could not bear to look forward into the Vale.

Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy (1891)

This passage is a before and after look at Tess and her feelings. The “****” indicates that this passage is made up from 2 parts from different places in the text. If you read closely, you can see that there has been a change for this character. The first half she is a young woman who has held onto some of her child-like innocence. The second half references an evil act (the serpent hisses=Biblical allusion) that has robbed Tess of her innocence. 

Plot Focus

 A Group of men are playing cards in a gentlemen’s club and are discussing how a  bank robber has probably fled the country and will be able to avoid capture.

“I maintain,” said Stuart, “that the chances are in favour of the thief, who must be a shrewd fellow.”

“Well, but where can he fly to?” asked Ralph. “No country is safe for him.”


“Where could he go, then?”

“Oh, I don’t know that. The world is big enough.”

“It was once,” said Phileas Fogg, in a low tone. “Cut, sir,” he added, handing the cards to Thomas Flanagan.

“What do you mean by `once’? Has the world grown smaller?”

“Certainly,” returned Ralph. “I agree with Mr. Fogg. The world has grown smaller, since a man can now go round it ten times more quickly than a hundred years ago. And that is why the search for this thief will be more likely to succeed.”

“And also why the thief can get away more easily.”

But the incredulous Stuart was not convinced, and when the hand was finished, said eagerly: “You have a strange way, Ralph, of proving that the world has grown smaller. So, because you can go round it in three months—”

“In eighty days,” interrupted Phileas Fogg.

“That is true, gentlemen,” added John Sullivan. “Only eighty days, now that the section between Rothal and Allahabad, on the Great Indian Peninsula Railway, has been opened.

“Yes, in eighty days!” exclaimed Stuart, who in his excitement made a false deal. “But that doesn’t take into account bad weather, contrary winds, shipwrecks, railway accidents, and so on.”

“All included,” calmly retorted Fogg.

“I’d like to see you do it in eighty days.”

“It depends on you. Shall we go?”

“Heaven preserve me! But I would wager four thousand pounds that such a journey, made under these conditions, is impossible.”

“Quite possible, on the contrary,” returned Mr. Fogg.

“Well, make it, then!”

“The journey round the world in eighty days?”


“I should like nothing better.”


“At once. Only I warn you that I shall do it at your expense.”

“It’s absurd!” cried Stuart, who was beginning to be annoyed at the persistency of his friend.

“Well, Mr. Fogg,” said he, “it shall be so: I will wager the four thousand on it.”

“Calm yourself, my dear Stuart,” said Fallentin. “It’s only a joke.”

“When I say I’ll wager,” returned Stuart, “I mean it.”

“All right,” said Mr. Fogg; and, turning to the others, he continued: “I have a deposit of twenty thousand at Baring’s which I will willingly risk upon it.”

“Twenty thousand pounds!” cried Sullivan. “Twenty thousand pounds, which you would lose by a single accidental delay!”

“The unforeseen does not exist,” quietly replied Phileas Fogg.

“But, Mr. Fogg, eighty days are only the estimate of the least possible time in which the journey can be made.”

“A well-used minimum suffices for everything.”

“But, in order not to exceed it, you must jump mathematically from the trains upon the steamers, and from the steamers upon the trains again.”

“I will jump—mathematically.”

Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne (1873)

While there is a lot of character (quoted dialogue) in this passage, its primary function is to spur the plot. The author needs to send Mr. Fogg on his journey and this wild bet is just the way to do so. Don’t get too hung up on whether the passage is character or plot focused. The purpose of this step is to clarify what is happening or being described in the passage.

While Reading the Passage

  1. Pay attention to the type of focus the passage has. It is possible for there to be more than one focus. For example, the Around the World in 80 Days example could be a character focus as well.
  1. If there is more than one character in the passage, note the relationships between the characters. Are they friendly, antagonistic, competitive?
  1. Pay attention to shifts, particularly shifts in emotion in character-focused passages. Other shifts can be shifts in time or setting. Time shifts (flashbacks and flash-forwards) are particularly important because they can lead to misunderstanding.
  1. Watch out for Contrasts and Contradictions. Did something unexpected happen? Are two characters in opposition to one another?
  1. Don’t expect to understand everything. Because the passage is an excerpt, there might not be a clear end, but don’t let that confuse you. Accept that you have been given all the necessary information to answer the questions.

End Notes

After you have finished reading the passage, jot down the passage focus and the basic plot, character relationships or principal aspects of the setting to solidify those ideas in your mind. Remember that correct answers will have a better relationship to these ideas that wrong answers do.

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