Sunday, October 16, 2011

Writing Tiny Stories

A little world exists in a few words. The most famous tiny story is the six-word story: "For sale: baby shoes, never worn."* While the word choice is important to create the story, the spaces between the words are actually what gives the story life. The reader must infer or imagine if this story is a plain advertisement or a tragic tale. Because the story has gotten so much acclaim, we must infer that it is a tragic tale.

Many people have seized upon the gimmick of a six-word story and written what they think is a story, but not as many have actually succeeded encapsulating a world. Breaking it down, bit-by-bit we have first "For sale." Someone doesn't want or need something, s/he desires to either make money and/or get rid of the shoes. "Baby shoes" is next. We assume that either the shoes have been outgrown or someone has a shoe store. "Never worn" tells us the shoes are new. The reader realizes that either the baby was never born or that the baby has died. A relative must be selling the shoes, perhaps the mother or the father. Change has occurred. Tragedy in six words.

One reason it works is that a conflict is set up and developed. The concepts rub against each other and create a scene. "For sale" is general and familiar and gives us the desire. "Baby shoes" gives us a person to imagine, either the baby or a parent. "Never worn" creates the context and tells us that something actually happened.

Peggy Gotthold of Foolscap Press recently created a book of six six-word stories by six writers. I also think that just one six-word story has great potential to become book art. The book itself can provide the setting and the tone with color, texture, binding, and pacing.

Let's see how writing a six-word story might work. We'll try for subtext: we should be able to read the story on more than one level of meaning. Let's start with three questions:
  1. what is desired?
  2. who/what is involved?
  3. what is the outcome or consequence?
This is harder than I thought it would be. Some kind of gain or loss seems to work.
  • Airport shuttle has broken clock. Sorry!
  • Hungry cat meets skunk at dinner.
  • Horse falls. Winner by a nose.
  • Old boat. Wet shoes. Date over.

Fabricated, 2010

*This is attributed to Hemingway. The story is that he wrote it on a napkin, but no one has been able to verify that these were actually his words and that the event actually happened. In any case, we do have the six-word story, which has sparked much imagination and many contests. Snopes.com has one explanation.

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