Short pieces of fiction can challenge a reader’s comprehension as much as an epic novel. A concise short story like “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe, for example, might require multiple readings before a reader can fully understand and appreciate every aspect of the piece. Applying a few strategies before, during and after you read, can improve how you comprehend a short story.

Set Purpose

Readers may approach a short story for a variety of purposes. For example, you might read the story for entertainment, or you might read to learn something specific about the story, such as how the writer depicts the setting. According to Denver-based literacy consultant Cris Tovani, having a clear purpose in mind will help you comprehend and remember the story accurately. If you are reading for a class, the teacher may set the purpose by assigning specific questions or tasks to complete after reading. If you are reading the short story on your own, you can make predictions based on the title of the work or you background knowledge about the author or topic, then read to confirm your predictions.

Monitor Comprehension

Good readers keep track of their thinking and understanding as they read. It’s perfectly natural for a reader to get confused or even distracted while reading, but when this happens, skilled readers are aware when they reach difficult passages in a text. To clear up confusion or misunderstanding, you may need to go back and reread portions of the short story multiple times to gain a better understanding. Many readers find it helpful to take notes while they read so that they have a record of the important ideas they discover.

Follow Story Structure

Knowing how writers structure short stories can help you identify the important parts of the story. Stories have a setting and usually a few major characters you should be able to identify as you read. The characters generally face a problem or conflict, usually with another character, but sometimes with elements of nature or social rules. A main character might also face an internal or emotional struggle that is easily recognizable. A short story usually has a few episodes or scenes in which tension is defined and built, leading to a climax or turning point. After the climax, the characters will generally reach a conflict resolution, signalling the end of the story. You should identify each of these elements as you read.

Analyze and Interpret

A complex short story may require multiple readings before you understand it at a deeper level. For example, writers don’t always make the themes of a story obvious to the reader. To find them, you may need to recognize elements like symbolism, characters and objects that stand for abstract ideas that are not explicitly stated or explained in the text, such as love, revenge or honor. You may need to interpret figurative language, like similes, metaphors and idioms, and understand their purpose in the story and identify how they figure into the theme of the work. Be patient, full analysis often takes time and patience on the part of the reader.