The Six Word Story

Hemingway's passport photo, circa 1923.
Hemingway's passport photo, circa 1923.

Rumor has it that Ernest Hemingway, already a master of brevity, bet a group of his friends ten dollars that he could write a short story in ten words or less. His friends took him up on the bet and Hemingway wrote this story, simply titled Baby Shoes:

"For sale: Baby shoes. Never worn."

According to legend, Hemingway won the bet and the genres of flash and micro fiction were born.

There is dispute over whether this actually happened, though it does seem to be in keeping with Hemingway's character and style. Anyone who's read stories such as Hills Like White Elephants and the Old Man and the Sea knows that Hemingway has a knack for leaving depth and meaning beneath the surface of the literary iceberg (more on that in the next section). The story's origins however, cannot be traced much earlier then the mid 1990's, leading many to conclude that the story about the story originated with Papa, a play about Hemingway, but not from Hemingway, nor his archive, himself.

Snopes.com officially lists the status of the story as undetermined and goes further in asking cleverly: "Which is the literary fiction-- the six word story itself or the claim the Hemingway wrote such a story?"

Unfortunately, with Hemingway's suicide on July 2nd 1962, the truth about this story was likely lost forever.

Putting that aside, whether or not the story above was actually penned by Hemingway, does it constitute a story? Does it have the elements of a story? Should Hemingway have won the rumored bet, or were his friends duped and bedeviled out of their money?

When is a story too short to be considered a story?

"For Sale: Baby shoes. Never Worn"

What do we have here?

We have a plot. Someone is selling baby shoes, presumably via a classified ad. This was a century before craigslist, so we'll assume they used a traditional newspaper classified ad, or maybe something like the Nickel Ads. Either way, someone is trying to get rid of something unneeded and/or unwanted. This is what drives our story and likely our protagonist(s). But who is our protagonist and why are they selling baby shoes? This is the hook of the story. This is why we keep reading. This is what we want to know and what Hemingway is choosing not to tell us. Hemingway stated in Death in the Afternoon that

If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.


That's what Hemingway has done with this piece. the story hinges on the "who" and the "why" and he lets the reader write the story in their head.

First, who is selling the baby shoes? Is it a woman, a man? A mother, a father? A grandparent? Perhaps a thief or maybe a sibling? Could it be the baby him or herself? What about a shopkeeper? A cobbler? In each of these potential protagonists, we have a potentially different story and a different level of interest,different mood and different tone. I challenge your to read the above story again with each of these characters in mind. what story do you come up with? What situation do you envision? What kind of mood are you in?

After the question of "Who", we need to ask "Why". Each of the above character options offers different possible scenarios for why the baby shoes are being sold and, moreover, why they have never been worn. Possible scenarios I often think about are:

  • Was a baby still born?
  • Was a baby never conceived and after years of frustration, a parent sells baby shoes intended for a hoped for baby?
  • Was a baby born without legs?
  • Is the person placing the ad a liar just trying to up the value on an item?
  • Did the mother die giving birth to the baby along with the baby?
  • Did a baby live into infancy but pass away before learning to walk?
  • Did the baby simply grow too fast to ever wear that pair shoes?
  • Does a shop specialize in new baby shoes, or is there a cobbler out there looking to drum up some business?
  • Any other reason (fill in the blank here_____________)

As you can see, whether or not the story actually was created as the legend says, it's still a story and is full of richness and possibilities. Imagine if Hemingway had fleshed out such a story and told us what to see what to think, what to feel, who was involved and what their motives were? How much less would our enjoyment be if we could see the whole glacier rather then just the tip.

Elissa Minor-Rust, an author and creative writing instructor at Portland Community College, says that what you leave out is more important than what you put into a story. This is especially important in flash fiction and poetry. This story is a true example of this.

Further, Hemingway doesn't insult the readers' intelligence by telling the reader too much. He assumes an astute reader will understand and create their own story. Let that be a lesson. Showing vs. Telling, overstating vs understating, assuming your reader is intelligent vs assuming your reader is dumb,

We all overwrite in our first drafts. It's human nature and it's in our nature as wordsmiths. My challenge to you is to write a story and pare it down. take out all the unnecessary detail and information. Leave as much to the imagination as possible and assume your readers can fill in the blanks.

Challenges/Prompts:

1. Take one of the characters and scenarios listed above and write a story about it.

2. Write your own complete six word story.

Let me know, and I'll link it here.


Do you think the above is a complete story?

  • yes
  • no
See results without voting

What's the shortest complete story you've ever written?

  • Less than 250 words
  • 251-500 words
  • 501-750 words
  • 751-1000 words
  • 1001-1500 words
  • 1501 or more words
  • I don't write short stories
See results without voting

Thanks for Reading.

A FREELANCE WRITER, HONORS STUDENT AND GOVER PRIZE FINALIST, JUSTIN W. PRICE (AKA, PDXKARAOKEGUY)is a POET, SHORT STORY, BIOGRAphy AND HUMOR WRITER. HIS POETRY COLLECTION, DIGGING TO CHINA, WAS RELEASED FEBRUARY 2ND, 2013 BY SWEATSHOPPE PUBLICATIONS AND IS AVAILABLE ON AMAZON.com, Barnes and Noble and through YOUR LOCAL BOOKSELLER.

HIS WORK WILL ALSO BE FEATURED IN BEST NEW FICTION (2014 EDITION), AND HAS APPEARED PREVIOUSLY IN THE RUSTY NAIL, EFICTION, THE CRISIS CHRONICLES, THE HELLROARING REVIEW, BURNINGWORD, SEE SPOT RUN AND THE BELLWETHER REVIEW.

HE WORKS AS A FREELANCE WRITER, EDITOR, AND GHOST WRITER, AND IS WORKING TOWARDS HIS PH.D. HE LIVES IN A SUBURB OF PORTLAND, OREGON WITH HIS WIFE, ANDREA, THEIR LABRADOODLE, BELLA, SCHNOODLE, SAUVEE AND BLACK MOOR GOLDFISH, HOWARD WOLOWITZ.

PLEASE VISIT HIS PROFILE PAGE FOR MORE INFORMATION. THANKS!

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Comments 54 comments

PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

PDXKaraokeGuy 3 years ago from Portland, Oregon Author

Thank you, flourish. I like your analysis!


FlourishAnyway profile image

FlourishAnyway 3 years ago from USA

Marvelous! I absolutely think it's a short story, one that invites the reader to project his/her own wants, needs and pesonal history into the interpretation.


PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

PDXKaraokeGuy 3 years ago from Portland, Oregon Author

Thanks for commenting, Tayisha. Hemingway was pretty brilliant


Tayshia profile image

Tayshia 3 years ago from Seattle

Hi Justin! That was very interesting. I have always been fascinated by Hemmingway, he was quite a character. My favorite is A Moveable Feast, it's delicious...


PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

PDXKaraokeGuy 3 years ago from Portland, Oregon Author

Gypsy... I think that's more of a poem then a story... it tells why the ducks no longer swim... it doesn't imply. There's nothing to ponder. The ducks don't swim on the river because it's frozen. Try it again and only imply that the river is frozen :-)


PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

PDXKaraokeGuy 3 years ago from Portland, Oregon Author

Thanks for sharing Whonu... and thanks for reading


PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

PDXKaraokeGuy 3 years ago from Portland, Oregon Author

Thanks Donnah. As a future college professor, it pleases me that you deem this worthy of a college level class. Thanks for sharing and let me know how your students like the article and the competition :_)


Gypsy Rose Lee profile image

Gypsy Rose Lee 3 years ago from Riga, Latvia

Voted up and interesting. You are right about this six word story it really makes one consider so many things just from six little words. Don't know if I could tell a real story in six words though but it's is interesting to think about. Don't know how this one passed me by but now and then I do try to catch up. Trying to not freeze in this land of snow and ice. How's this? Any potential?

Ducks no longer swim. River frozen.


whonunuwho profile image

whonunuwho 3 years ago from United States

My short story: My life story... work in progress! Interesting hub. whonu


donnah75 profile image

donnah75 3 years ago from Upstate New York

This is brilliant. I am going to share this idea and concept (and article link) with my HS seniors who are taking a freshman college English class this year. This could be a fun in class competition :) Voted up and sharing.


PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

PDXKaraokeGuy 3 years ago from Portland, Oregon Author

Rosemay, it totally seems within his character and style to do so. He was one of the masters of brevity.


PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

PDXKaraokeGuy 3 years ago from Portland, Oregon Author

Thank you Rodric!


PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

PDXKaraokeGuy 3 years ago from Portland, Oregon Author

I'm glad you enjoyed this, Phyllis. Are you going to take me up on my challenge?


Rosemay50 profile image

Rosemay50 3 years ago from Hawkes Bay - NewZealand

I've heard of this story before and would believe hemmingway actually wrote it, it is worthy of such a creative mind.


Rodric29 profile image

Rodric29 4 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

voted up and shared.


Phyllis Doyle profile image

Phyllis Doyle 4 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

This is a really good hub, Justin. I love the way you involve the reader and motivate the reader to delve deeper into the topic by challenging with

1. Take one of the characters and scenarios listed above and write a story about it.

2. Write your own complete six word story.

Then you further involve the reader by offering to post a link to their story. This is an awesome and very clever thing to do.

Well done, Justin, well done!


PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

PDXKaraokeGuy 4 years ago from Portland, Oregon Author

Till... you should delve into flash. It's a great way to make every word in a story count. Try it and let me read it!


PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

PDXKaraokeGuy 4 years ago from Portland, Oregon Author

Nice clarification, lonestar. Implication is very powerful. I tend to think every story is as long or as short as it needs to be. Hemingway was a master of painting sketches, and letting the reader fill in the blanks.


PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

PDXKaraokeGuy 4 years ago from Portland, Oregon Author

Wesman, agree. He's a fantastic author. Who cares about hsi personal life :-)


PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

PDXKaraokeGuy 4 years ago from Portland, Oregon Author

Stacey, I would argue that a good writer will give you enough to form an idea of the story, but not enough to fill in all the blanks. Just my opinion :-)


tillsontitan profile image

tillsontitan 4 years ago from New York

We know writers have a twisted sense of what is...we're writers ;) I said no at first to this 'story' but after reading your explanation I re-thought, it could be a story. Looks like I'll have to delve deeper into flash fiction.

Voted up, useful, and interesting.


lone77star profile image

lone77star 4 years ago from Cebu, Philippines

I've read this story before and thought it was a really sweet piece of work.

I've also learned the "show don't tell" maxim of writers. But one that came upon while reading more on the craft of writing about 6 years ago was that of a more powerful direction in storytelling -- "imply don't show." And I think Hemingway does this quite nicely with his 6-word micro-story.

I've written fiction, myself, but I'm still learning brevity, implication and showing.


Wesman Todd Shaw profile image

Wesman Todd Shaw 4 years ago from Kaufman, Texas

Thanks for this.

I'd forgotten about this legend...and though Hemingway was far from being the most noble person of his time....he was one of the single best authors of his day, brave as hell, and ...very copied.


barbergirl28 profile image

barbergirl28 4 years ago from Hemet, Ca

I heard of this before and actually, I think the idea behind a story is up to interpretation. I am kind of on the fence about this because while you could pretty much make up the story in your head, it is up to you to do so, and therefore the author never really finished their task.


PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

PDXKaraokeGuy 4 years ago from Portland, Oregon Author

LOL @ Debby!


PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

PDXKaraokeGuy 4 years ago from Portland, Oregon Author

Deborah... I agree. And he's great for my short attention span. i like opening a book and seeing a lot of white space.


PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

PDXKaraokeGuy 4 years ago from Portland, Oregon Author

Thanks Funom. I appreciate that!


PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

PDXKaraokeGuy 4 years ago from Portland, Oregon Author

Paul, like poetry, good flash fiction is a great way to hone your craft and use words carefully and selectively. I find limiting myself to a word count really helps my writing. Thanks for stopping by!


PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

PDXKaraokeGuy 4 years ago from Portland, Oregon Author

Thanks Stessily. Will do. I've always loved the medium of film so the idea of turning lime green buddha into a short film is really exciting for me. I know a few film students looking to work with me on creating the film. I may end up doing a kickstarter so I can help fund the project.

I appreciate all your kind support. Please e mail me and I'll send you a copy of my poetry book. I'd love to give that to you as a gift!


PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

PDXKaraokeGuy 4 years ago from Portland, Oregon Author

Jill... sounds like a great exercise at brevity. Did you publish that story anywhere?


Debby Bruck profile image

Debby Bruck 4 years ago

Hemingway's Twitter premonition. Just 108 characters.


Deborah Brooks profile image

Deborah Brooks 4 years ago from Brownsville,TX

Justin I love this.. how interesting. i do believe it is true.. Hemingway still has a reputation dead or alive of being of telling a story ..with hardly any words. and you understand.. it is awesome.. I do believe

great hub

sharing

debbie


Funom Makama 3 profile image

Funom Makama 3 4 years ago from Europe

So interesting and engaging. Thanks for the share


Paul83 4 years ago

Very interesting piece. Being a short story and flash fiction writer myself, Hemingway never ceases to humble me and make me feel utterly inapt. I can't think of many authors who can give such enormous depth to the superficialities of everyday life.


stessily 4 years ago

Justin, You at a loss for words? I'll be waiting eternities!:-)

I think that Papa Hemingway would be --- is! (in writers' heaven) --- one of your greatest fans. You couldn't ask for too much more than Papa writing your blurb!

I'm so pleased that you also have wanted to see LGB in film ~~~ that increases its eventuality. If the O Henry collection you saw is in 5 parts and features Marilyn Monroe in one of them, then I saw it as reruns in childhood; at the time it was magical for me, especially because it included two of my OH favorites, "Gift of the Magi" and "Last Leaf". Deedee (Derdriu) reviewed it as part of her interesting plot-summary film review series on Triond; I watched some of the episodes which she included, and, yes, they seem somewhat cliched and dated, but still have their charm, a lost innocence I suppose. What they show, though, is that short stories can be translated effectively to cinema.

I am so so so so pleased at the prospect of LGB as a film! It can and will happen!

Appreciatively, with best wishes and kind regards to you and your family (including Baby and Bella),

Stessily


jill of alltrades profile image

jill of alltrades 4 years ago from Philippines

So interesting! First time I heard of this six word story by Hemingway.

The shortest story I've ever written is 100 words. I wrote it for a challenge because I love challenges.

Hmmm, maybe I'll try this one?

Voted up and interesting!


PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

PDXKaraokeGuy 4 years ago from Portland, Oregon Author

Bri... I'm not sure. I need to find out ;-)

godo seeing you. Thanks for the visit.


PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

PDXKaraokeGuy 4 years ago from Portland, Oregon Author

Moonfroth... I love the alliteration in that story. Sounds more like a poem to me. Thanks for stopping by!


PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

PDXKaraokeGuy 4 years ago from Portland, Oregon Author

Stessily,

I just might. Maybe one day when I'm at a loss on what to write.

I hope Hemingway would like my work. if he weere still living, I'd want him to write my blurb.

Btw, been seeking out folks for possible film version of lime green buddha. I've always wanted to see it in film. I also went to the library and checked out an o'Henry collection. i didn't care for it much, but I saw the brilliance. It was probably groundbreaking in it's day, but seems so cliched now.


PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

PDXKaraokeGuy 4 years ago from Portland, Oregon Author

Thanks MHatter


PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

PDXKaraokeGuy 4 years ago from Portland, Oregon Author

Thanks Kelly,

we all have different strengths. I much prefer short form and poetry to longer pieces. If you want to write short stories, though, you should read them. That's the best way to learn. Immersion


PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

PDXKaraokeGuy 4 years ago from Portland, Oregon Author

Hyphenbird, thanks for your comment. Give it a shot. The worst that could happen is you enjoy the effects of whiskey ;-)


PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

PDXKaraokeGuy 4 years ago from Portland, Oregon Author

Thanks Kelley. we writers love words so much that sometimes it's hard to cut them out... but extraneous words are just useless noise.


PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

PDXKaraokeGuy 4 years ago from Portland, Oregon Author

Thanks so much, Audrey!


PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

PDXKaraokeGuy 4 years ago from Portland, Oregon Author

Judi,

different people are good at different things. That being said, anything can be taught... especially if you keep reading my articles on writing ;-)


bri36 4 years ago

The old man climbed down. Drowned, Why?

Is this a complete story PDX? Dude it's been awhile but you still have a sharp style and a keen eye for great writing. thanks for sharing")


moonfroth profile image

moonfroth 4 years ago from Rural BC (Canada) & N of Puerto Vallarta (Mexico)

Grear post -- thanks! In WW II, US warships were adjured to keep radio transmissions very short, to minimize code and thwart German decoding efforts. I'm reminded of the famous radio transmission, sent by a Navy pilot in January 1942-- "SIGHTED SUB, SANK SAME" -- which might stand as the shortest short story ever told!


stessily 4 years ago

Justin, Interesting presentation! "Papa" Hemingway definitely left his mark on the world. Who has not read "The Old Man and the Sea" without being in that boat, drenched, muscles straining, traversing the arc from hope to exhilaration to despair? Your scenarios are imaginative and sensitive. Any chance that you'll pursue one of them? Well done.

Appreciatively, Stessily

P.S. I think that "Papa" would be impressed with "Lime Green Buddha".


Mhatter99 profile image

Mhatter99 4 years ago from San Francisco

Thank you for sharing your insight on this with us.


RealHousewife profile image

RealHousewife 4 years ago from St. Louis, MO

I had never heard that story - very interesting this evening PDX!

I do not write Short Stories - I just haven't been able to ever complete one that makes me happy or that I would even justify calling a short story. It really takes a lot of talent to do it well...I am still working on learning to crawl:) Maybe I should buy those baby shoes, eh?


Hyphenbird profile image

Hyphenbird 4 years ago from America-Broken But Still Beautiful

Very interesting indeed. I love to think and find a personal scenario to a story. Hemingway sets the bar sky high and I have not found anyone who can touch Baby Shoes.

I certainly am no Hemingway but I do love whiskey so I shall go have a drink and dream of words that make imaginations soar. I shall return when I think of a worthy contribution


kelleyward 4 years ago

I think writing summaries and short stories has been one of my biggest challenges as a writer. I enjoyed reading your take on this. Especially your point on how we are so use to this type of writing today. Voted up and interesting. Kelley


AudreyHowitt profile image

AudreyHowitt 4 years ago from California

Wonderful post Justin!


Judi Bee profile image

Judi Bee 4 years ago from UK

I've heard about Hemingway's six word story before, but thanks for adding the detail - very interesting. I would love to write fiction, but I'm afraid it's a talent I am sadly lacking.

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