Originally published 10/09/2017
“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:
- The king is dead.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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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