6-Word Stories Aren’t Really Stories. Sorry, Mr. Hemingway.

6-Word Stories Aren’t Really Stories. Sorry, Mr. Hemingway.

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

Intriguing? Surely.
Creative? Very!
Fun for the writers? You bet!

Stories? No.

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.)

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