Short story: 5 features + 5 important tips for interpreting short stories

The genre short story or short story is often and gladly used in education to practice interpretations. That’s why we have the five most important features for you to recognize a short story and five great tips for a successful interpretation.

The short story is a well-known and popular genre that leaves much room for interpretation due to its brevity. In the following, we’ll tell you what a short story actually is, what its basic features are, and what you need to keep in mind when interpreting it.

What is a short story?

The term “short story” is borrowed from the English short story. The literary genre of the short story falls into the genre of epic (narrative literature) and is one of the prose texts. So these are running texts without metering. Further prose magazines are novels, novellas, narratives, biographies and so on. As the term suggests, it is a short story compressed in its content. So there is a lot of information in a small space without great embellishments.

Short stories became popular in particular through the rise of magazines. From the 19th century, numerous short stories were found mainly in English-language magazines. Known representatives are Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849), Ernest Hemingway (1899-1953) and William Faulkner (1897-1962). In Germany, the genre of the short story was not picked up until around 1900, among others by well-known authors such as Alfred Döblin (1878-1957), Robert Musil (1880-1942) or Ilse Aichinger (1921-2016).

5 characteristics of a short story

Short stories can not be strictly forced into uniform features. They often differ from each other in their design. Nevertheless, we tried to put together some general categories. Of them, not all features must always apply to a short story. Often it is sufficient to find some of them in order to classify the text as a short story.


A short story has a rather small scope compared to other epic genres. For comparison, a novel usually has about 70,000 words, a short story to about 15,000 words. Many short stories cover only a few pages, but there are also some that reach up to 30 pages and still meet all the characteristics of a short story. The goal of this genre is to be able to read the entire story in one go.

interpretation potential

A short story lives from the fact that much has to be read between the lines. It compresses their information and therefore requires some brainpower to be fully understood. There are many metaphors, symbols and leitmotifs to interpret. For this reason, short stories are often used in school for practicing interpretations.

Speech style and narrative technique

The narrative perspective can vary from short story to short story. Often, however, the event is played back by a personal narrator. The reader usually goes straight into the action, rather than being prepared for the plot by a long introduction.

The action is shown condensed. The reader should get as much information as possible in a small space. It dispenses with embellishments and instead hints, symbols and metaphors serve as interpretable sources of information. The storytelling speed is thereby accelerated. However, time jumps are rather avoided.

It is often told in the past tense in a matter of a few seconds, minutes or hours. Inner monologues or inserts sometimes serve to create simultaneity and thus integrate different dimensions into a snapshot.

The language style is usually similar to the everyday language, it also colloquial, jargon or dialects are used. The ending is usually open or has a punch line. Valuations or interpretations are avoided in a short story by the author in the rule. The unfinished act is to encourage the reader to reflect on and interpret the story.


Short stories usually only have space for a few main characters. Often there are one or two figures in focus. A transformation of the character usually does not take place: the characters are characterized in aspects and are more static than dynamic. Often they do not even have names, but are titled “she” or “he”. Moreover, they only move in a few places where one or more crucial cuts in their lives have occurred. The figures are not heroic, but designed everyday oriented. The scenery should give the impression that she was torn from the middle of life.


Short stories are often dark. They can have fantastic and scary elements, they are conflictual, sketchy and emotional. Edgar Allen Poe, for example, focused on detective or crime stories, which tended in the direction of Schauerliteratur. The topics often include problems of the time, which are based on everyday life. Short stories are a flexible genre, which is why it is not uncommon for genre overlapping with fairy tales, fables or legends. There is often a central theme or issue around which the whole story revolves. Most short stories have a surprising turning point.

Interpretation of a short story: 5 tips

Short stories are about the reader interpreting them and thinking about their meaning. Many details are deliberately omitted or only hinted at. There is a lot of scope for your own thoughts, which, however, if properly interpreted, must be documented in the text and incorporated into an argument. In the following tips we will tell you how your interpretation will succeed with certainty. Here you can learn to write better.

The right structure of an interpretation

When you write an interpretation, you should always keep to a clear structure. Not only does this help you keep track of writing, it also helps sort your thoughts. Introduction and conclusion should be like a framework for your analysis. First you start with the rough topic, then you go into your interpretation in detail and finally you call your own opinion and the quintessence of the text.


You start with the introduction and write in the present tense. First, in the introductory sentence, you name the text type, title, author, year of publication, main characters, and topic. Summarize the plot briefly and precisely.


The main part contains your analysis. You’re going to take a closer look at the short story. Imagine the characters, their characters and problems. How does the plot develop and how do the characters behave? Recognize and use leitmotifs and rhetorical means for your argumentation and always prove with page lines, better with lines. Describe the narrative perspective (narrator or narrator, authorial or personal narrator) and give an overview of the temporal structure: In what period and at what time / in which epoch does the event take place?


Which statement does the short story have in your opinion? Think about what the author might have intended and whether there is any moral or food for thought worth mentioning at the end. Also suitable is a final sentence that summarizes the most important results of your interpretation. Do not forget to read your interpretation again at the end.

First, look at the headline

Often people start reading quickly without paying attention to the headline. Especially in tests under pressure, everything wants to be done quickly and important information is overlooked. The headline can often be an important clue to better understand the story from the start. Sometimes the author even assumes that the headline is read and the information is in the reader’s mind. Next time you’re reading a short story and you’re stalling more often, remember to read the headline first.

Just read, mark passages and divide them into sections

Concentrate on reading a short story and mark important passages. Do you notice a certain word, is a motive particularly common, or do you recognize rhetorical means? Mark the text and use different colors.

Divide the short story into rough sections and briefly summarize each section in a few sentences. This works best if you have the story printed out in front of you and write your short summary next to the passage to the edge.

Answer the five W questions

As you read, take notes and try to answer the five W questions. They can then help you to better remember the plot and interpret the short story. Concentrate on the following questions:

  • Where? (Where does the plot take place? Is the location relevant to the story?)
  • Who? (What characters are in the story, what do I learn about them?)
  • What? (What happens, what problems are described?)
  • When? (When and in what time frame does the story take place?)
  • As? (How is it told? Are there special language features?)

Recognize puns and rhetorical devices

There are countless rhetorical remedies (tropics). We have selected the most popular ones for you, as they are quite likely to be included in a short story. They help you with the interpretation, as they are deliberately used by the author to emphasize important aspects of the story. You can use them as a guide in your analysis to argue why you interpret the story in a certain way. The following are commonly used rhetorical devices, their meanings and examples:


Definition and use:

Few words are used to convey information. This shortened comparison, often in figurative language, goes beyond its actual, literal meaning and refers to the figurative meaning.


  • Tränenmeer
  • (This term indicates that many tears flow – so many that the exaggerated comparison can be compared to the fluid volume of the sea.)
  • Break someone’s heart
  • (Of course, this does not mean a real action, but a transferred one.) The broken heart is symbolic of the failed love, for example, it could be that the person who broke his heart was abandoned or betrayed.)
  • Wall of silence
  • (The wall symbolizes the impenetrability of silence.) Silence in itself clarifies the rejection of a verbal utterance of other people.)