Legend tells of an ordinary napkin on which the first six word story was written.
It’s said that Ernest Hemingway and some of his writer pals had rallied in the dining car during their train ride from Manhattan to Tucson. The conversation stooped to poke fun at Hemingway’s short, straightforward writing style. Being himself, Hemingway wouldn’t let the ribbing pass lightly. He looked all six men in the eyes (at once) and declared “foot my bill, as an apology.” Let it be known that his friends were quite unwilling to pay for dinner, because they knew how much he made in royalties. By this time, the car had grown to an enormous silence. The men faced each other as if standing in a shuttered-up town. In that day, there was only one way to settle such a matter: a writing duel. One by one, the writers proposed increasingly difficult feats (although no one mentioned sestinas). Finally, Hemingway declared “we will write six word stories.” The others laughed nervously, and one harrumphed. Six words? Preposterous. It couldn’t be done. As quick as a lightning bug, Hemingway put his manly pen to the nearest paper he could find: a napkin. They say that none of those men ever laughed again. A few of them vowed silence, for their defeat was too shameful. Hemingway had won resoundingly. On the napkin were these six words: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”
That napkin has been lost to time, but the words remain.
Since then, generations of writers have re-enacted Hemingway’s victory. Some of these attempts are by amateurs, some by auteurs renown. There are those who would dismiss writing-duel-reenactors as histrionic history buffs, clinging to the fading embers of a long-past patriotic glory. However, they’re probably referring to Civil War reenactors. To avoid further confusion, we’ve begun to refer to writing-duel-reenactments simply as writing exercises, which is a bit clearer.
Let me be clearer still, because I think that many people have misunderstood what “Hemingway” accomplished in six words. These six words are a story. This story does more than suggest a lot with a little. This story does more than throw a surprise party in your brain. This story does more than present an example of less is more. This story is a story.
This story has acts. We can identify three acts, each consisting of two words. “For sale” throws the reader into the classifieds section of the newspaper. With these two words, he gives us the setting. This story takes place in a time when newspapers exist. It’s contemporary. Most importantly, this setting justifies the six word form. In the context of the classifieds, a six word entry makes sense. Even without restricting this sentence to the classifieds, after reading “for sale” we aren’t expecting a lot elaboration. In our culture, we’re used to advertisers (i.e. people who sell things) being concise. With just the first two words, the story has laid a setting, explained its own brevity, and taken advantage of our shared culture to prime us for the next four words.
This story has characters. There are arguably four people that the story creates. “Baby shoes” suggests a baby, of course, and a baby always has parents, so that makes three people. Lastly, there is the person reading the classifieds ad, or who might read the classifieds ad at some time after its printing. There isn’t a lot of information about these people, but the story still manages to suggest relationships. The parent/s of the baby doubtlessly care about it, and one or both of them has put the ad out (the baby couldn’t have put the ad out). The ad’s audience is a stranger, and most likely a stranger who lives in the area, depending on the newspaper’s distribution. This second act establishes characters. By “characters” I mean three things: (1) people who must exist because of the words in the story, (2) people who have relations to each other in the story, and (3) people who experience a change within the story.
This story has genres. The second act established a mystery. Surely baby shoes are an unusual item to be for sale. First of all, baby shoes aren’t that common. Babies don’t walk–didn’t ya know? Some parents buy these ornamental items, but rarely sell them. The baby shoes set up the mystery. The third act resolves the mystery and shoves the story into tragedy. “Never used” suggests that the parents had bought the shoes for their child but the child died, or were perhaps expecting a child that never came. I think I can safely assume that infanticide is almost universally qualified as a tragedy. We feel for the parents, of course. We expect the character reading the paper to feel the same. At the same time, the mind rails against the idea that these parents would put out an ad amidst this devastation. Are they improbably poor? Is this a necessary conceit of the story? The only explanation I came up with is that these are sentimental people. The shoes have become a symbol of lost potential. They want to be rid of this reminder but they can’t bear throwing away the shoes their child would have worn. If some other child would wear them, that would soften the blow. I can buy grief twisting them this way.
So, there’s an analysis of the famous “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” In attempting a six word story, I want to keep this analysis in mind.
Here’s my six word story:
Here’s my process:
My first step was to consider the setting. In what situations are we concise other than the classifieds? My immediate thought was of texting and instant messaging. Okay, so my story is a text message or instant message. That means I’m open to text speak, internet lingo and slang terms.
My second step was in coming up with a reveal. Nothing will be as shocking as infanticide but something sexual in nature might be memorable. My reveal should flesh out my characters. Also, it should involve something most people are familiar with, but twist it in a way that is surprisingly sexual. After some brainstorming, I realized a camera phone situation was my best bet.
My third step was in thinking about my characters. The easiest way to go was to imply that my text sender is a guy who is surreptitiously taking a picture of a girl. So I have three characters. A guy who is sending the text, a girl he is taking a picture of, and another person (probably a male friend) who is receiving the text. So are the guy and the girl involved, or is he just a voyeur? How can she not notice that he is taking a picture of her? Is the situation sexy or sexual? Well, there are a couple of sexual acts/positions which can work. I want to push the limit, but preserve realism. What kind of guy would do this? The first thing I thought of are those guys who rate girls. These people exist. Maybe my story can also be educational and reveal this culture to any ignorant readers.
My fourth step is in writing! My first two words are “[hair-color] [1-10 rating]”. I use square brackets in my rough drafts to suggest indefinite words or a range of possible words. These guys often describe girls by their hair color. We have a culture that for some baffling reason divides women mostly by hair color. In researching this, I came across a lot of discussion of redheads in England. Apparently, it’s become a problem. I want to use this. On top of misogyny and voyeurism, my situation now highlights gingerism. Now my characters are British, so I scour the internet for contemporary British slang.
A couple words strike me. “Fit” is slang for good-looking/sexually desirable. “Knob” is slang for penis. Ginger is slang for redhead, as is “gingy” (and “ranga” in Australia). So there’s that.
Step five is in polishing. I go for assonance/consonance, and decide on “fit gingy” for my first two words, “knob job” for my second two, and “pix attached” for my third. The first act will be the description of the girl (which also describes the guy by his word choice), the second establishes the action, and the third is my reveal. I had some trouble with “pix” because it implies multiple pictures. I wanted to do “pich” but a quick check with my phone’s T9 and “pix” won out, as well as proper punctuation (which most phones do automatically).
Not award winning, but more evocative than most, in my opinion. Both the slang and the situation are niche, so I lose out on barrier of entry, but I still like it. I’d rather have that specificity to avoid being another vaguely tragic imitation of the original “For sale: baby shoes, never used.” I imagine it in a British accent, of course. (Actually, a note on the pronunciation: both gees in “gingy” are hard, as in “geese.”) What a splash of culture!
As far as authorial intent goes, I’d hope that this “story” can be interpreted as roundabout criticism of, or at least alerts the reader to, the issues involved. Objectifying women is a problem, certainly. Unsolicited photography is an injustice. New technology allows us to infringe on each others’ rights in all kinds of ways, and being aware of the possibilities is just the first step. There are girls out there who have been taken advantage of/treated in this way, and who aren’t even aware of it–not as horrifying as infanticide, but still not something to just shrug off.
I hope this has been enlightening, whether you “write” or not. I’ve wanted to do an in-depth deconstruction of a writing exercise for a while now. For that purpose, the six word story is well-proportioned.
The writing process is very often presented as impenetrably obscure. It is often questioned whether writing can even be taught. Of course, writing is a very personal thing, and people will have different processes, and even within a single person these processes can vary by time of day. For this and many other reasons, it makes sense to doubt whether writing is teachable. People have an idea that it is something we all just know, or learn naturally.
However, if we are optimistic enough to believe that anything is communicable, then I think we can believe that everything is communicable. All we need to do is hit on the right combination of sounds, or representations of those sounds. In many cases, this will amount to more than six words. In this case, around eighteen hundred have been hitched together and sent your way. As with any large shipment, some cargo may be lost en route.