The Six Word Story

When I heard about the ‘six-word story’ in my university years, I questioned how anyone could write a meaningful sentence, let alone a ‘story’ whilst being restricted to just a few words. Where was the literary or artistic value in that?

Ernest Hemingway had something different to say. He once declared that his best work was a story he had written in just six words, a reminder to authors that we can say a lot by saying little.

He was apparently challenged to write a story in just six words by a group of fellow writers who wanted to test him as part of a bet.

“For sale: baby shoes, never worn,” became his famous story that captured the imagination of the English-speaking world. Each of us can reflect and come up with an interpretation different to the next.

There is so much scope for imagination both in creating the story and for what we can conjure up in our minds on reading it. We can all try it and see! Just throw it out there and leave it open to interpretation.

Tonight’s big match - Alcohol v Will-Power.
Found true love, married someone else.

New York authors Larry Smith and Rachel Fershleiser co-edited “Six-Word Memoires on Love and Heartbreak.” When Appearing on the Leonard Lopate Show in February 2009, a listener shared her own six-word memoir…..“I found my mother’s suicide note”

A long discussion followed on how the caller coped with her mother’s death. What was interesting and sad was the significance that the actual note played in this.  The note itself was also just six words expressing a sense of meaninglessness, despair and futility.… “No flowers, no funeral, no nothing.” A few carefully chosen words can go a long way in telling the whole story.

In school, we were taught that all great stories have a beginning, a middle and an end as well as some of the other attributes – emotion, detail and interest. These are the basics that Hemingway and the mentioned authors captured.

When we write a story, we use our imagination to express our ideas and communicate to the reader all that we wish to say. If the story is 300 or 400 words, we can use words to build characters, create ambience, show emotion and direct the reader’s mind as we would like them to think.

Creating characters by implication is the secret of the six-word story. Using a first-person narrative or a line of dialogue can offer a lot more insight and help us to know more about a character. Consider the difference between these two lines:

‘Steven says the door was unlocked.’  
Idiot - who left the door open?’

The first is simply a ‘statement of fact.’ What we learn from the second is that the speaker (although we do not know his or her name) is upset or even angry, asking a question as to who was responsible for the door being left open. The use of the term ‘Idiot,’ tells us more and so we can imagine the circumstance – Did something untoward happen that resulted in such expressive remarks.

With six words, all of this is left to the imagination of the reader. We provoke and tease and imply in how we construct and shape our few words. The format in which the words are written is pivotal in determining whether or not one succeeds in implying a complete story arc.

Often, on reading a headline in a newspaper and without continuing to read the article, we can ‘make up our own’ story as to how we believe things unfolded. Headlines can be misleading and the full story may or may not take shape the way we thought it would. The headline is meant to imply the fuller story, but in a small way.

Hemingway was clever in that his ‘story’ was presented as an advertisement and the construction of the advert with punctuation well used opened a world of possible interpretations.
Was it about bereavement and the advert was a selling of the shoes because a parent couldn’t bear to have them around?
Was it simply because the shoes were never worn, forgotten about amongst many, lost and found or an incorrect size?
Was it due to some particular reason that the baby was unable to wear shoes? And who is actually speaking these words?

The words ‘never worn’ could imply that there was no opportunity to wear the shoes or maybe that the mother or parent simply didn’t like them. And why ‘For sale’? Why not just discard them?

To sell something requires effort and poverty could hardly have been the reason? Most conclude that it was unbearable for the holder(s) of the shoes to continue to have them in ‘their’ possession.

The point is that our imaginations are working in trying to figure out what is going on.

Today, many newspapers and magazines hold competitions and offer prizes for the best ‘six-word story.’ Maybe this is a good place to begin to engage young minds and imaginations by thinking of the next ‘story’ and having some fun in the process.


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