Writing Six Word Stories

“Brevity is the soul of wit” — W. Shakespeare

If you’ve been following Penstricken for any length of time, you’ll know that I appreciate the delicate art of the six word story (don’t worry though, today’s post isn’t going to be another instalment of 6 Six Word Stories). When I first encountered this phenomenon several years ago, I wasn’t sure it was possible to cram any meaningful kind of narrative into so restrictive a word limit. Even if it could be done, I wasn’t convinced of its artistic or literary value.

I was wrong. And really, I should’ve known better. Ernest Hemingway’s(?) six word story about the death of a baby and the subsequent sale of his/her clothing proves that you can pack a mighty punch with very few words indeed. It’s no small task, however. Some of the traditional rules of writing need to be bent or artfully re-imagined to make it work.

I’ve said before that all good stories, no matter how short, must have a beginning, a middle and an end. This is also true of six word stories, however unlike in longer prose (even 50 or 100 word stories), it’s almost impossible to make each stage of the story arc explicit. Instead, you need to do what Hemingway(?) did and imply the beginning, middle and end.

Let’s take one of my own six word stories for example: ‘KING FELIX DEAD: Nine assassins executed.’

This story takes the form of a newspaper headline. It includes only two specific statements:

  1. The king is dead.
  2. All nine of his assassins have been executed for the crime.

However, from these words, we can glean a whole lot more. For a start, this story is set in a felinocracy (a world ruled by cats). Not only that, but there is a whiff of revolution in the air. Nine people have conspired together to end the king’s life (that’s our beginning). They succeeded (middle), but were finally caught and executed (the end).

Unsurprisingly, the format in which you decide to write your six words will be pivotal in determining whether or not you succeed in implying a full story arc. In King Felix Dead, I decided to write in the style of a newspaper headline for two reasons.

  1. When world-leaders get assassinated, it tends to make the news. It therefore seemed an obvious way to draw my readers into my feline fantasy world.
  2. Newspaper headlines, by their very nature, are designed to imply a story in a few short words.

This second reason was the most important. Real newspaper headlines grab a prospective reader’s attention by making them say to themselves, ‘Surely they don’t mean such-and-such has happened…?!’. In short, the reader instantaneously makes up a story based on the headline, then reads the actual story to find out if they were correct. It implies a big story in a small way; the very thing we six word story writers hope to accomplish.

Of course, the newspaper headline is only one possible format. It is certainly not always the best option. The Hemingway(?) story we referred to earlier takes the form of an advertisement. Alternatively, you might opt for something more simple, such as a single line of dialogue as I did in ‘”I shall avenge thee!” Bambi vowed.’ or a single line of narrative, such as ‘Remembered and avenged every unicycle “performance”’. It’s worth spending time trying out a few different formats to see what works best.

For example, if Hemingway(?) had decided to write his story in dialogue format (instead of as a newspaper advert) he might have written something like “I’m selling these unused baby shoes”. However, it wouldn’t have been nearly as effective. It’s still six words long and it communicates the same explicit information (someone is selling brand new baby shoes), but it doesn’t imply anything beyond that. While technically, it could be the words of a bereaved parent, the matter-of-fact conversational tone makes it sound more like a door-to-door salesman who is trying to make a quick quid selling baby clothes. But a short advert, probably published in a local rag somewhere… that sounds far more specific. There is one person out there with one pair of unused baby shoes they want to get rid of as efficiently as possible (but perhaps can’t bear to simply throw them in the bin). All the grief of bereavement is implied by this simple choice of formatting.

The other thing you need to think more creatively about than usual is characters. Under normal circumstances, your story would have a handful of characters (each with their own biographies), who would gradually be developed throughout the story (your so-called ‘character arc’). You might give a little description of their physical appearance but most of their personality and backstory will be revealed by what the characters do and say. But – uh oh! – we’ve not got nearly enough words for all that!

If you want characters of substance (and who wouldn’t?), less is definitely more. It’s highly unlikely (though not impossible) that you’ll create excellent characters if you have more than one character in a six word story. Even so, six words still doesn’t give you much scope. Formatting your story as a line of dialogue or first-person narrative will certainly make it easier for the reader to encounter your character directly, and therefore, get to know them better (if that’s the effect you’re going for, of course). For example, here’s two six word stories about a man enquiring about his evening meal:

  • John asked what was for dinner.
  • ‘Woman! What’ve you made for tea?’

The first one tells us sod all about John except that he’s curious about dinner. The second one may not tell us John’s name, but it it implies much more important information about him: specifically that he’s a chauvinist pig who expects his dinner on the table when he gets home (or else!) and that he’s curious about dinner. Not only is he curious about dinner, but there’s an implied threat in his question. What if he doesn’t like the answer? We can only imagine, but that’s the point: we can imagine. In six words, we’ve created a bad guy. But as for the guy in the first story… we don’t know anything about him. He’s just a name and a question without substance.


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Until next time!

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A Quick Review of Hemingway Editor v.3.0

You may recall (if you’ve got a photographic memory) that I published a post last year reviewing the Hemingway Editor. This snazzy little app analyses and grades the simplicity of your writing style and I’ve used it plenty over the last year to help edit my own writing. Well, it so happens that I got an e-mail this week informing me that v.3.0 is now available with a whole bunch of new features. These include:
  • The ability to publish or save drafts to WordPress or Medium from the Hemingway App
  • More choice of what you can import and export from Hemingway. This includes, among other things, the ability to export PDF files with all Hemingway’s highlights intact)
  • Distraction free writing and editing
  • The ability to have many documents open at once
  • A pretty new splash screen
  • Various bug fixes
Like its predecessor, Hemingway 3 aims to help you write in the most clear and simple style you can by highlighting any instances of adverbs, passive voice, complex language or cumbersome sentences. It will also give details of readability, word count, letter count, approximate reading time and so forth. In this sense, nothing much has changed (though the new version seems to be far more willing to suggest specific corrections, which is a big plus) . It uses the same system of colour coding, grading and gives exactly the same information. There have only been a few minor changes to the layout of the sidebar. I won’t waste too much time here reviewing features that are common to both versions. You can read the old post for that. Instead, let’s have a look at some of the new features.
 
Being a WordPress user, the ability to save your work to WordPress or Medium caught my attention straight away. I don’t use Medium so I haven’t been able to test it, but I did have a go at saving to WordPress. See this post that you’re reading now? This is it; this is the test. I wrote and edited this using Hemingway Editor 3.0. And my verdict is this: it would be great if I could only get it to work. The window that appears when you click ‘Publish on WordPress’ is very clear and easy to use, but whenever I clicked ‘save’ this kept happening:
error1
 
Do let me know if you think I’m doing something wrong. I’ve spent the last fifteen minutes trying to figure it out and it’s still not working.
 
So, let’s move on to look at exporting and importing. In the old version, you could only import Word documents and export Word or Markdown documents. Hemingway 3 gives you much more choice. Now you can import:
  • Plain text (.txt)
  • Markdown (.md)
  • Web pages (.html)
  • Word documents (.doc)
And you can export:
  • Plain text
  • Markdown
  • Web pages
  • Word documents
  • PDF documents (.pdf)
  • PDF documents with all Hemingway’s highlights included.
unabletoconnectThis is all a massive improvement, but the last item on that list is the most exciting for me. This allows you to quickly and easily share edits with colleagues. The only downside? Nowhere on the PDF file does it tell you what each coloured highlight means. Unless our hypothetical colleague has the Hemingway Editor himself, you will need to provide him with details of the colour code. Still, it’s a handy feature to have.
 
The distraction free environment is one of my favourite new features in Hemingway. The previous version included a bulky toolbar along the top of the screen and an even bulkier sidebar if you were on ‘edit’ mode. The new version allows you to hide the sidebar even in ‘edit’ mode. It also has a ‘full screen’ function which hides your taskbar. It’s not a completely distraction free environment, as it does still have the toolbar at the top (which, to be fair, is now much less intrusive). On balance, though, I would still call it a big step in the right direction.
 
One thing I was particularly curious about was the spellchecker. You may recall from my previous post that I was none too impressed with the spellchecker in the old version.
 
‘Have they improved it!?’ I hear you cry.
 
I suppose, technically… no, not really. They’ve cured the disease by killing the patient. There is now no spellchecker whatsoever as far as I can see.
 
Another thing I was curious about was a particular bug I had discovered in the previous version, which I mentioned in the last post. Text I had copied from other apps overlapped with pre-existing text making the document unreadable. I’m pleased to say this is now resolved.
 
All in all, I would have to say version 3 is definitely an improvement. The new features are useful and they work well (publishing to WordPress notwithstanding). Things that didn’t work before, now do work, while things that worked well before now work even better. There is still room for further development, of course. It would be nice to have a functioning spellchecker for instance and the toolbar could be even more discreet than it is now but all in all, Hemingway Editor 3.0 gets a thumbs up from me. Go get it!

‘Hills Like White Elephants’ – A Masterclass in Dialogue

There is an old and for the most part true adage among writers that a good writer will ‘show and not tell’. In other words, a good story ought not to be a technical report of events; rather, the reader should be made to mentally witness the events and understand for themselves what meaning there might be hidden behind them. In my opinion, there are very few authors who do this quite as well as Ernest Hemingway, and for the sake of this post I want to take a look at the way he accomplishes this using character dialogue in the short story, ‘Hills Like White Elephants’ (first published in Men Without Women 1927).

‘Hills Like White Elephants’ is set in a bar at a train station in the middle of nowhere and focuses on a very awkward conversation between an American man and a girl who have been apparently having an affair. The girl is pregnant and is travelling for an abortion. She is having second thoughts about it, or perhaps more accurately is having second thoughts about the affair she is having with this (perhaps older) man. He, on the other hand, is desperate for her to have the abortion so that their life can continue as it was before she got pregnant. What is so remarkable about this story is that absolutely none of this is explicitly stated. It is simply implied, not only through what the characters say but what the characters are also not saying. Indeed, there is very little narration in the story at all (only three or four short paragraphs); the vast majority of the story (which is just shy of 1500 words long) is made up of dialogue between these two (ex?)-lovers.

This is ‘showing, not telling’ at its very finest. There’s lots that can be said about this tiny little gem but the thing I really want to talk about is Hemingway’s extraordinary use of dialogue through-out this story.

The first five hundred words or so of the story feature the two characters having the most trivial of discussions: what they are drinking. They simply do not mention their relationship, their feelings about each other, the pregnancy, the abortion or anything else of significance before this point.

Five hundred words! That’s almost a third of the story done with already and they haven’t given any hint whatsoever that they are anything more than casual acquaintances. I should also mention that during this time, the characters knock back no less than three drinks each. This is a long, drawn out conversation about nothing punctuated by awkward silences. Hemingway doesn’t need to describe the awkward silences. They’re apparent to the reader through the fact that they get through so many drinks while saying so little. If we had any doubt that the silence was a tense one, we only need to look at how quickly their trivial conversation turns into conflict:

‘Yes,’ said the girl. ‘Everything tastes of liquorice. Especially all the things you’ve waited so long for, like absinthe.’
‘Oh, cut it out.’
‘You started it,’ the girl said. ‘I was being amused. I was having a fine time.’
‘Well, let’s try and have a fine time.’
‘All right. I was trying. I said the mountains looked like white elephants. Wasn’t that bright?’
‘That was bright.’
‘I wanted to try this new drink. That’s all we do, isn’t it – look at things and try new drinks?’
‘I guess so.’

~ E. Hemingway 1927

Maybe I’m just more laid back than most, but it strikes me that these two characters are having anything but a ‘fine time’. This is a tense and awkward discussion about anything other than the one thing that’s on both of their minds.

When the conversation finally does come around to ‘the operation’, the two characters continue to dance around the subject and each other. They never once talk about a baby or an abortion, or even the fact that they have had any kind of physical relationship. Instead, Hemingway nudges the reader towards an understanding of what is going on for these two characters through their vague and awkward dialogue. The best clue we have that the girl is going for an abortion (rather than some other kind of ‘operation’) is that they are both clearly very uncomfortable about it. They talk about it with euphemisms, like how it is a ‘simple operation’ to ‘let the air in’ and so forth. This euphemism itself also gives us a clue that the girl is having something removed from her body… something they’re both embarrassed to talk about but are both desperately concerned about.

Hemingway goes on to make it apparent, through the characters’ dialogue, that these two characters have very different feelings about their situation. The man consistently tries to goad the girl into going ahead with the abortion using reassuring phrases such as ‘It’s perfectly simple’ and ‘You don’t have to be afraid. I’ve known lots of people that have done it’.

There is one interesting point where the girl explicitly asks him, ‘And you really want to?’

Does he give a straight answer? No. Instead he tries again to persuade her:

‘I think it’s the best thing to do. But I don’t want you to do it if you don’t really want to.’

Even in the middle of this conversation about the actual issue they are both facing, the two characters utterly fail to communicate. They’re playing verbal tennis with each other but it is clear that they are on different wavelengths entirely. The man continually tries to persuade her that everything will be all right and that their relationship will go back to how it was when the abortion is complete; the girl, on the other hand, increasingly realises that this is not the case. When she does, she drops the conversation. She’s no longer interested in hearing his persuasions; her mind is set. Again, this is not explicitly stated by any narrative; it is simply made clear by the dialogue:

‘I don’t want you to do anything that you don’t want to do -‘
‘Nor that isn’t good for me,’ she said. ‘I know. Could we have another beer?’
‘All right. But you’ve got to realize – ‘
‘I realize,’ the girl said. ‘Can’t we maybe stop talking?’

~ E. Hemingway 1927

Notice how the girl interrupts the man by finishing his sentence for him. She knows what he’s going to say. She’s heard him spin this line a million times before (he certainly spins it often enough during the story and goodness knows how many times before the story actually begins!). She isn’t interested in hearing it any more. In spite of his assertions that he cares about her needs, the man actually has no idea what the girl needs and is more occupied with his own fear that she might actually have this baby. The girl, on the other hand, seems to mature in wisdom almost immediately before our eyes.

This is all made clear to the reader with the narrator barely uttering a word through-out the entire story. Instead of simply being told the facts, the narrator leads us to this train station in the middle of no where and leaves us there to eavesdrop on a private conversation so that we can glean all the details for ourselves as we go.

Now that is what I call showing, not telling.

Being Ernest

For those who don’t know, Ernest Hemingway was the author behind such classic novels as For Whom The Bell Tolls, The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms. To say his style of writing has been influential over the years is an understatement. He is renowened for his use of short, clear, easy to read sentences. His philosophy was as simple as his writing style:

‘Write the best story you can and write it as straight as you can.’

(E. Hemingway)

I know that I’ve found that a pretty difficult skill to master. I have commented in the past that I have a penchant for long-windedness. Unfortunately, lengthy or complex sentences can be frustrating to read and easy to misunderstand. That’s a sure way to put your reader right off. That’s where the Hemingway Editor, created by Adam and Ben Long, comes in.

There are, of course, millions of apps out there designed to help writers. There are specialist text editors, plot generators… I even found an app that ‘Rickrolled’ me if I stopped writing! But the Hemingway Editor stands out for me as something quite unique. It will help you improve your writing style by highlighting:

  • Any long or complex sentences
  • Fancy word choice, where something simpler would suffice
  • Adverbs
  • Passive voice

The great thing about Hemingway Editor is it does not fix your writing for you. That would be cheating. It would also be unlikely to work. But like all good teachers, it forces you to improve your style by marking and grading your work. If you have been using fancy words, it will suggest simpler alternatives, a bit like a spell-checker, but that’s where the interference ends. It’s up to you to change (or not change) your style accordingly.

The grading system is simple to understand… if you’re American. It works by telling you what grade of the American school system your reader would need to be in to have a reasonable chance of understanding your work. As I write this now, the Hemingway Editor is telling me that I am writing at a level someone in eighth grade would understand. As a British person, I’ve no idea what that means, since we use a different system but that’s nothing Google can’t help with. Besides, it’s not really necessary to know. The grade is displayed on a simple gauge that even a baboon could understand and is colour-coded to indicate how well you are achieving your goal of simplicity.

For those of you who are interested in the technical details, according to the Editor’s own help document,

‘Hemingway judges the “grade level” of your text using the Automated Readability Index. It’s a reliable algorithm used since the days of electronic typewriters.’

So there you go.

If I had to pick one feature of the Hemingway Editor I don’t like, it would be the spell-checker. To be blunt, it is inferior to most other spell-checkers I have come across. The main problem is that it seems to struggle with identifying what word you were trying to spell. For example, earlier on in this post I misspelt ‘influential’ as ‘influental’ (I should add that this was a typo; I know that’s not how you spell it). Hemingway Editor spotted the error but could offer no suggestions as to what it should have been. OpenOffice, on the other hand, gave me no less than seven possible alternatives for the same error and Scrivener gave me five. Also, if you don’t speak English, you can forget about checking your spelling with Hemingway. The spell-checker only seems to only work for Australian, British, Canadian and US English. While it is possible to disable the spell-checker, I am left wondering if the other features would work any better in different languages.

One other problem: it doesn’t seem to be entirely bug free, as you can see from this screendump. I’m not 100% sure, but I think that bug came about as a result of me copying and pasting text into Hemingway Editor from OpenOffice but I could be wrong.

Additional features of the Hemingway Editor include:

  • Basic text formatting, such as bold, italics, bulleted lists, indentation, etc.
  • Letter, character, word, sentence and paragraph count, as well as an estimation of the time required to read your document.
  • Import and export to and from Microsoft Word.
  • Export as HTML or Markdown.
  • Toggle between ‘write’ and ‘edit’ mode. Using ‘write’ mode allows you to write without the app checking your work for you. When you’re ready to edit, you just toggle to ‘edit’ mode to see it highlighted in a million different places.

The Hemingway Editor is available as a desktop app for Mac and PC. It will set you back $9.99 (that’s £7 on this side of the pond), which isn’t too bad. However, before you get your wallet out, I’d recommend you go to www.hemingwayapp.com. There, you’ll be able to use almost all the app’s features for free, so it’s maybe worth trying it out that way before you fork out your hard earned money for this useful (but not quite perfect) little app.