Most people have heard this short, six-word story, usually attributed to Ernest Hemingway. The way I first heard the story behind it was that, when challenged to write a super short story with a beginning, a middle, and an end, he scribbled this on a napkin and handed it over. This story has fairly well been disproven by Garson O’Toole of The Quote Investigator, who wrote a blog post on the possible history of this legend, a very interesting post at that.
Advertisements closely matching the abbreviated text above did appear in classified sections over the decades. Here is an example published in 1906. Intriguingly, this section of short ads was labeled: Terse Tales of the Town:
For sale, baby carriage; never been used. Apply at this office.
In 1910 a newspaper article about a classified advertisement that was thematically similar and twelve words long was published:
Baby’s hand made trousseau and baby’s bed for sale. Never been used.
The article is great. You should go read it after this.
However, I don’t think that the fact that Hemingway didn’t actually write this lessens in any way what it can teach us. While I know authors who are masters of the story story art, I also know authors who feel that a short work, commonly known as “hint fiction” “drables” flash fiction” and other things, (which can be indeed 6 words if an author so chooses) isn’t “really a story.” They argue that you can’t really tell a story in that short of space.
I tend to disagree with these sentiments. As an author who both writes and reads short works, sparse wordage can convey emotion that is just as intense as a longer piece. Think about it – how haunting it is to think of a pair of little baby shoes, for sale for unknown reasons, although the instant reaction is the death of the infant. There is no lack of emotion, and we get exactly what the author is trying to tell us.
It is a challenge to write this short – every word must count in a way that isn’t as critical as in a longer piece.
“I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” – Mark Twain.
Writing short is like putting together a puzzle, where every piece has an exact place to go. One wrong piece and the composition of the whole thing is off.
As the author of stories from under 25 words to novels I don’t think any particular length of story is the best. I enjoy reading and writing them all, but recognize the challenges that come from writing short work.