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.



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