Contrary to what some like to claim . . . 6-word “stories” aren’t really stories.
The myth began, I believe, with a blithe (and clearly inaccurate) statement by Ernest Hemingway that this 6-word “story” was possibly “his best prose ever”:
For sale: baby shoes, never worn.
Okay, that’s interesting. It’s a concept. It’s a start of a good story.
But it’s not a story on its own.
What happens after that? The 6-word purveyor has offered a clever prompt. The reader of those six words then fills in more of the story. A lot more. I.e., the reader uses this little emotional springboard to become the real storyteller.
(Or not. Just as likely, the reader is intrigued, amused by the cleverness, flashes on a image or two, and goes on without being in contact with a real story.)
Hey, it’s a cute way to get us thinking about effective prose and brevity. I have no problem with the 6-word challenge as a fun and intriguing exercise. Fine with me if Hemingway wants to cite it as a good example of what a few well-chosen words can unleash in the imagination. It’s just not a story.
(It’s been suggested this was in response to a bar bet. Sure enough, it has all the depth of things said while leaning on a bar after a few drinks and only a cocktail napkin to write on. Lots of emotion and sincerity, not so much a showcase of the complete craft of literary storytelling. Good thing Hemingway went back to his flat and wrote some real stories.)
Wired Magazine did a 6-word story writing exercise in 2006, based on the Hemingway bit, asking famous science fiction, fantasy, and horror writers to submit 6-word “stories.” The results are a lot of fun. Here are a few examples:
The baby’s blood type? Human, mostly.
– Orson Scott Card
Dinosaurs return. Want their oil back.
– David Brin
Heaven falls. Details at eleven.
– Robert Jordan
Corpse parts missing. Doctor buys yacht.
– Margaret Atwood
Fun for the writers? You bet!
A story simply needs to do more. It needs to offer more, provide more substance.
What’s the shortest possible story? Is that a useful question? A story is as long as it needs to be to fulfill its promise.
But if someone sat down with a promise to share a story, and said, “For sale: baby shoes, never worn” and walked away . . . I’d feel cheated. If I went to a page in a book expecting a story, and read “Heaven falls. Details at eleven” and that was it, I’d be annoyed. I’d hope the author wasn’t paid in full for writing a story.
(For more on writing a great piece of fiction, see the book How To Write Your Best Story.)