Mermaid Hooks – Less than a Perfect ‘Hemingway’

2010/02/24 § 1 Comment

Some months ago I was very surprised to receive an email which can only be classed as ‘fan mail’.

I said thank you.

Could you write about mermaids?

Sure, can you give me another element?


This is as far as I have got with it:

Mermaid hooks were sold in old jam jars. Tourists bought them as gifts. Their friends and relatives went swimming. Never heard from again.

Now it has been through many iterations, and many of these re-writes included a glowing reference to Bikini Atoll. It’s close but I still can’t call it done. Why?

The end is bit clunky, forced by the lack of remaining characters (138/140). The twist, which is that the ‘hooks’ are not for catching mermaids but for turning humans into mermaids I feel is too obvious. Overall, I find it a bit pedestrian, lacking ‘magic’ which such a topic of fantastic creatures requires, which is why I took out the mutating reference to Bikini Atoll’s atomic bomb tests. The cross genre thing wasn’t working.

Another reason why it is pedestrian and lacks magic is that the elements of the story do not do a lot of double work like Hemingway’s famous six word story.

Worse, even though it’s pedestrian its twist may not be obvious to all.

And while the twist at the end works by resolving the first element’s ‘mermaid hooks’, nothing is done with jam jars at all.

I have been unable to weave these altogether to my satisfaction, but I cannot give up, I will keep trying.

And other days they just trip of the end of one’s fingers onto the keyboard.


2010/02/19 § 1 Comment

Saccades are quick, simultaneous movements of both eyes in the same direction.

In a writing a twitter story it may help to know how people read in terms of the biophysical mechanics of eye movement. One of the things people’s eyes do is to skip around while reading. This is because we can only take in so much in one chunk, and we like to jump ahead, or check back to what has gone before.

This picture shows the acuity of foveal vision in reading (during one eye stop). The lower line of text simulates the acuity of vision with the relative acuity percentages. To do a test close one eye, fixate the upper line at the fixation point and try to read the words to the right and left without moving your eyes. The result should be similar to the incrementally blurred lower line of text - except that you never have the impression of a blurred text. The reason: Your visual perception is already the result of a massive computational analysis made by your brain. Your system "knows" that the upper line is not blurred, so you don't see it as blurred. But the difficulty of recognition increases with the distance from the fixation point.

In terms of a twitter story’s elements it means that hiding things in pain sight is a bit difficult as people will tend to jump ahead of where they are reading, and a more predictable ending may well be saccaded over before they get there consciously. A non-cliched use of words will help here to maintain the surprise.

In terms of saccading back, readers will flick back to the beginning to check that they’ve ‘got it’. It will help readers reinterpret those first elements, and help them to build the story from the hints.

(If I look at the fixation point above I can actually see from ‘only’ to ‘five’ quite well. Does that mean my acuity is above average? Do people vary in acuity? Does this explain why some people find it harder to read?)

Hemingway’s six word story.

2010/02/16 § 5 Comments

Eanest Hemingway wrote a story in six words. It’s famous ultra-short fiction.

For Sale: Baby shoes, never worn.

UPDATE Feb 2013: Attribution to Hemingway is possibly apocryphal. Analysis still stands though.

In terms of what I wrote in How to Write Twitter Stories this well-read story has all those five stages, but in only six words.

  1. setting
  2. disruption
  3. recognition
  4. response
  5. resolution

But then Hemingway is famous for implying what’s going on rather than directly telling the reader why something happened. His genius lies in getting the reader to do a lot of work.

The biggest part of the whole story isn’t even mentioned. You don’t even find out about it until you have actually finished reading. When a reader reflects on what has just been read. At this moment the reader’s pattern recognition habits connect the dots, and it all goes ‘click’.

One could mechanically outline the story like this analysis:

  1. (setting) We are expecting a baby, so we prepare for a baby. Buy shoes, etc.
  2. (disruption) We lost a baby.
  3. (recognition) We grieve.
  4. (response) We decide to clear up and sell our preparations, and move on.
  5. (resolution)(return) We place an advert to sell the baby’s shoes.

For Sale: Baby shoes, never worn.

There is a lot the reader has to fill in from the five-point outline above in those six words. But first, before that, the reader has to first recognise and understand the formal requirements of a classified advert for a classified section of a newspaper, or what might be pinned to a noticeboard somewhere.

‘For sale:’ does all of that. It also sets up an expectation that the advertiser will try and describe the goods for sale to their best advantage. Also, people unused to advertising forms will have trouble seeing any story at all.

In the outline above the element ‘For sale’ is the fifth stage of resolution or return (though things are not exactly they were before). But it also doubles up, quite brilliantly, as the first stage of the story; the setting (by way of expectations bound up in buying for and putting up for sale).

The doubling up means it’s one of those two-faced elements I mentioned in How to Write Twitter Stories. Here it also triples up by delineating the format or genre, a short story masquerading as an advert. (Elements do not just carry narrative stages.) The opening few words of a twitter story will often do that, though it’s not always necessary.

For example @tweetthemeat‘s stories are always some gut-churning tale so there’s little need to tell it’s readership that what’s coming is a horror story.

So, this first element does at least three or four different things, even if the reader hasn’t recognised them yet.

For Sale: Baby shoes, never worn.

Basically everything spins around on that one word ‘baby’. It’s a story about a baby. Babies have mothers, fathers, grandmothers, and complicated social systems for organising marriages and mothers-in-law. People make lots of decisions once a baby is expected, and they do a lot too. The word ‘baby’ lets the reader make a lot of safe assumptions, once they get the key.

This ‘baby shoes’ is the middle of the story as written but is actually a part of the setting (1) and the resolution (5). This element also let’s you know, possibly, who is writing, just as ‘for sale’ says what they did. Once you know this you will most likely make those safe assumptions of how they recognise, respond, and resolve the situation. But you can’t do that until you know what the disruption (2) is.

(I say ‘you’ but I mean the reader. Somehow, you know what I mean.)

Hemingway’s choice of shoes rather than bonnet or nappies (diapers) is a very important part of the element. Shoes indicate are certain willingness to invest, particularly for fast growing baby feet. Expectations are high, and so, perhaps, the need to recoup that loss, whereas a new bonnet might just be handed on.

For Sale: Baby shoes, never worn.

And here the last element ‘never worn’ provides the key which allows the reader to connect the dots and fill in all the missing stages that the word ‘baby’ indicates, and to put them in order, creating the story in the reader’s ken.

The baby lost is the disruption to the setting, the expectations. But it is not mentioned directly. Neither is the response, one assumes, of grief.

(Perhaps the baby is fine and the shoes merely forgotten about until they were outgrown, but, if so, that’s not a story, and is not the immediate reaction of a human who is used to telling and hearing stories. People go for a story everytime.)

Immediately on reading these last two words, in the element carrying resolution (5), and almost in place of that unmentioned pain, we grieve. We see that expectations were not met; a baby was lost. We, as readers, recognize everything about that situation, and this is the strength of the story. That empathy is not a fiction, we feel it, suddenly and terribly. We feel sad for the lost baby.

As readers it affect us so strongly, in part, because the recognition (stage 3 in the outline of the story) is combined with our own recognition of the entire story, thus reinforcing it, tellingly. At this point we enter the story ourselves, as potential buyers the advert seeks to entice. Emotion suspends our disbelief.

And then we too may respond, but not in relief.

“Oh, but I don’t think I could buy…”

And thus elements of the story become a part of us, just as the story structure has been a part of our habits since we were babies ourselves.

For Sale: Baby shoes, never worn.

Hemingway’s story directly inspired the twitter story of mine that @thaumatrope published. (Had to use a few more words though. Very annoying.)

For sale. Spacesuit, dry cleaned inside. Used once.


How to Write Twitter Stories

2010/02/14 § 6 Comments


I assume you know what twitter is. As a microblogging service it began as an idea that would let people webcast their SMS text messages from their phones. As SMS were limited to 160 characters and the message then had to include info to get it through the system and on to the web as a tweet, as it became know, they were limited to 140 CHAR.

I’ve never done that, and it’s possible that most people who use from their phone do so through a dedicated twitter client over their data plans. So, even people tweeting from their phones don’t tweet as the original idea was envisioned.

Anyway, some people write twitter stories, some people publish what other people write in twitter based magazines, and sometimes they even pay to publish stories written in 140 characters. Crazy!

140 CHAR

You are lucky to get three sentences in 140 characters. You could map a beginning, a middle and an end to those sentences but, obvious as it sounds, it does not always work. Not exactly.

A nano-sized story that fits into the twitter format of 140 CHAR, needs at least three elements to work. It is around these three elements that the story is written. These are the seeds around which a story grows in the telling, even if one or more of the pieces are not mentioned directly.

To explain this I’ll use Tzvetan Todorov ‘s five stages of narrative from his Narratology stuff.

Stories can be structured, explained, analysed, as moving through five stages of narrative:

  1. setting
  2. disruption
  3. recognition
  4. response
  5. resolution.


In super small fiction this structure of five stages will not fit into 140 CHAR, it is not possible to actually move through them one after another. Not directly. Directly some are going to have to be left out. Indirectly it is the work of the reader, if they can, to add the missing stages from what you do put in.

So, it’s your job as a nano fiction writer to help the reader interpret and fit in the missing pieces of story structure from your clues, such that they ‘get’ the story. Similar to getting a joke, indeed, jokes are probably a good place to start practicing.

Actual elements can almost be picked at random and thrown together but it is their ordering as structural pieces, and their revelation that creates the story. A particular story.


You must have all stages though. If this is not done, then one has merely intimated a scene or a thought or a feeling. But a mere gesture, however gracefully done, towards something (which is not actually hinted at) does nothing. If nothing happens there is no story.

BUT in 140 characters it is very very hard to do this. Because you can’t do all the five stages. No. It’s barely possible to list these structural stages of narabbitology or whatever it was.

So, pick three to keep. Or pick two to hint at. Subtly or not.

The resolution

So how do you hint at them? This is the real trick of writing nano fiction, you have to get the stages that you do use, the structural pieces, to do double time. Each element has to be able to carry two of the stages of the narrative (doesn’t have to do it, but be able to). That’s why I call them elements, as they appear to be indivisible, but really they are two things, (two structural stages of narrative). (This is why jokes work, e.g. an assumed reference is overturned by a change in context to an incongruent reference.)

Thus a stage does both their direct work (say the first stage: the setting of the story) while cleverly pointing at the indirect element (say, stage 4, response to the disruption). The reader works this out when they get to that stage (having read stage 3 suddenly stage 1’s direct reference is pushed aside for another meaning).

The simplest way is in fact to use the beginning, the middle and the end. But the middle element, in such a naïve format, has to do three of those narrative stages mentioned above. That is a lot for it to do: one direct and two indirect, so you might as well spread the load a little, and have two elements do some indirect work. The naïve form is actually harder. (Traps for young players.)

Now, readers, even if they have never heard of the Franco-Bulgarian writer Tzvetan Todorov nor of Narratology will expect that structure of five stages mentioned above, if unconsciously. It’s a habit we all learnt when we were making sense of the world as young children. (The search for meaning is a childish thing, perhaps only exisiting much like how the grammars of language get that way because babies learn them.)

This is both good and bad. It means you can rely on their narrative experience past to read between the lines and so imagine these other structures and stages. Readers expect them, they hunger for them. Thus, they will be able to join the dots of the stages they expect to see, and overlay them on what has been given.

It’s bad because there are no rules as to how to do it exactly, what to leave out, when. So now, every story will differ in its omission. How you deal with this is the true challenge of the twitter story writer. For it’s these holes the reader fills in which make the story whole. Once they make it whole, then they ‘get it’. This is your primary job, if you don’t enable this, then your story will not entertain, educate, edify or rouse.

If the writer stops these holes up wrongly, or fails to hint at them, there will be no story at all.

There might be some other beautiful things created and enjoyed, that’s not what this post is about.


So what’s in a a story? Generally, it is agreed, that basically, something has to change. It might only happen in the reader’s mind, the old “change comes from within” response to panhandlers, but without change there is no story.

But that’s enough for this post.

I hope this helps, but I only worked it out in hindsight so let me know if is useful at all.

Crossposted on Form21.

See Hemingway’s Famous Six Word Story for the structural method above used to analyse a very short story.

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