I’m fascinated by six-word stories. Telling an entire tale in so few words… it’s magical what we can do with language. They’re fun to write and satisfying to read. So I decided to explore these mini marvels in more detail, and see if I could pick up some tips along the way.
Six-word stories at their best
For sale: baby shoes, never worn.
– Ernest Hemingway
The above is possibly the most famous example of a six-word story. Legend has it that Ernest Hemingway wrote this story in response to a bet (although it appears the bet was a work of fiction itself, by Hemingway’s agent). To me, this example shows the six-word story form at its best. So, what does it take to create a tiny tale like this?
Conflict, action and resolution…
Narrative Magazine tells us that six-word stories should provide: ‘a movement of conflict, action, and resolution that gives the sense of a complete story transpiring in a moment’s reading’. This makes sense. Just as with a longer story, there needs to be tension; there needs to be a beginning, middle and end. In the six-word story’s case, of course, they won’t all be made explicit.
So to kick-start my own story, I put the word count to one side temporarily and thought about storylines that intrigued me. I needed to capture that sense of movement in my mind, from tension to resolution. For these early drafts, it didn’t matter how many words I used.
At the time, I was travelling home from London on a train. I gazed out of the window. A busy high street dominated by a local pub, cars waiting at traffic lights, a cemetery… my mind began conjuring up scenarios. I chose three and mapped out their conflict, action and resolution in my notebook. It was a start.
…In a moment’s reading
I had some story ideas. Now I needed to condense my tales down to ‘a moment’s reading’.
Hemingway’s story starts with the phrase ‘for sale’ – an advert, immediately recognisable, and bringing with it plenty of associations. Adverts are public, they require effort. They can be very final, once the transaction is complete. So there’s plenty of food for thought in just those two words. In turn, using the symbol of ‘baby shoes’ is highly evocative. Tiny toes, tiny feet, all those steps ahead of them… Hemingway could have used many other phrases here (‘baby clothes’, for example), but how many would have been so clear, so easy to visualise, and so laden with meaning?
Using these symbols allowed Hemingway to say a huge amount in a very short space of time. Well-known symbols and sayings used by other authors in their six-word stories include:
- A DNA test (Helen Fielding) – a concept which is loaded with potential angst
- A shadow (Jim Crace) – an ominous symbol of fear and danger
- The phrase ‘mind the gap’ (Hilary Mantel) – a familiar warning with serious consequences
What symbols or sayings could I use for my own stories in order to convey big concepts in just one or two words? I jotted down ideas. Then I reduced my various storylines to just a handful of strong words and phrases.
Now, there was one final ingredient to weave in.
As I was digging for info on six-word stories, an article in the Denver Post caught my eye. It includes an interview with author and professor Jeff Lockwood. He says that good six-word stories have “something in common with a joke. There’s a moment of, ‘Ah ha, I get it.’”
Lockwood is talking about the punchline. The twist. The ‘big reveal’ at the end. Hemingway’s story does this beautifully with the line ‘never worn’. As we realise the implication of these words, that’s when everything comes together.
I looked back over some of my favourite six-word stories by other writers to see how they deal with this big reveal. Some of them mirror Hemingway’s format of three parts, with the first two providing context and the third offering the twist. Others do a similar thing in two parts, and yet others in six – each individual word standing alone (whether separated by full stops, commas or other punctuation marks).
Returning to my notebook, I asked myself: What’s the most poignant part of my story? What’s going to make the reader go ‘Ah ha!’? Whatever it was, it needed to go in that final section.
The end result
So here they are, the two six-word stories that came out of my train journey home:
One drink. She never drove again.
Here lies John’s only friend: Woof.
Have you written a six-word story of your own? Do share it in the comments below, or get in touch via social media. I’d love to read your stories.