How to Write a Story in Just Six Words

Originally written by Nicola Auckland, and reproduced with kind permission:

Anyone who follows my blog will know that I publish a weekly ‘just for fun’ Six Word Story Challenge. For some, this type of micro fiction is a familiar concept even if their stories had never been released into the world. For others, the discovery of my challenge is a new and exciting way to practice the art of condensing a plot and theme to just six words.

‘Just six words? Is that even possible?’ is a question I get asked quite often and my answer is always a resounding ‘yes!’. I also get a number of detractors who will argue that six words is not a story at all, it is a sentence, a construct, an idea. If you are one of them, let me see if I can convince you otherwise.

The perfect start to any story of evolution is generally the beginning, in this case, the origin of the six word story. It’s a tale oft recounted that the originator of the six word story medium was Ernest Hemingway. He is said to have offered his table of writerly compatriots a wager of ten dollars each that he could write a fully crafted story in just six words. They readily accepted his bet so with the pot having been thus assembled, Hemingway wrote the now famous six word story on his napkin:

For sale: baby shoes. Never worn.

The story goes that his companions could not deny he had written a fully formed story and Hemingway collected his winnings. Now, there is some debate as to whether this is any more than urban legend since there are several sources of similarly themed tales, albeit of more than Hemingway’s six words, but whether substantiated or not, it’s still a good yarn.

Other famous authors and novelists have turned to six word stories over their careers, here’s a selection:

Mind what gap … … …?  Hillary Mantel

Megan’s baby: John’s surname, Jim’s eyes.  Simon Armitage

Served the pie, watched him die.  Maggie O’Farrell

The pillow smelled like my brother.   Patrick Neate

Funeral followed honeymoon. He was 90.   Graham Swift

So what makes a good six word story? I have given this much thought and I shall let you into the secret of what Ithink goes into creating the stories that really reach inside your head, grab your imagination by the scruff of the neck and lead it to the promised land.

  1. Be concise. Be precise. 

Be concise – Every word counts when you’ve only got six words to get your plot, theme, conflict and characters across! Don’t use three words where one will do the job. There’s no room for verbosity, connectives or adverbs in these stories. Write a longer story, choose the best six words and put them in the best order.

Be precise– writing micro fiction is great for writers who need to practice selecting words to pack a punch. Just like in your longer prose, don’t use ‘tree’, use Oak, Cedar or Pine. Use words that promote your theme, onomatopoeia is your friend, as are contractions, homophones, double entendres and any manner of linguistic magic tricks you can lay your hands on. Your job is to create a picture in your reader’s mind, choose your words wisely.

  1. Promote Participation

For me, this is the most important aspect of a successful six word story. The best examples give the reader enough information to spark their own imagination into filling in the gaps themselves. In Hemingway’s story, we read, we gasp, we instantly conclude a baby was lost and the heartbroken parents are selling reminders of the child they’ll never see grow up. We imagine we see their demeanour, the sorrowful looks passing between them and the pain as they pass the items onto new owners looking forward to their new arrivals. We’ve written the rest of the story based on real life experiences and our own memories of books we’ve read, films we’ve watched and people we’ve known.

Read through the below examples of other heartbreaking six word stories and see if you don’t do the same with each one:

  • Goodbye Mission Control. Thanks for trying.
  • The smallest coffins are the heaviest.
  • Introduced myself to mother again today.
  • He hit send, then a tree.
  • I once called him my brother.
  1. Include theme and genre

This one may sound impossible when you only have six words but you’ll be surprised at just how easy it is when you choose the right word combination or even make references to well known stories or characters.

These are some examples of entries to my challenge, see if you can see tell what genre they belong to and what the theme of the story is:

  • Today would have been his birthday
  • Blood splattered shoes in neighbours bin.
  • Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary
  1. Movement. Conflict. Resolution

This is the hardest to achieve. Your job is to tell the reader what the conflict in the story is, move it along (either explicitly or by suggestion) and provide an ending. Tough isn’t it? What you want to avoid is writing six words that just make a statement, as Truman Capote once said about the work of fellow author Jack Kerouac, ‘That’s not writing, that’s typing.

Here’s a couple of examples:

  • His obsession. Her mistake. Their funeral.
  • An only son. A folded flag.

I often get asked for examples of bad stories. I would never label any story as bad, only as not meeting the above stipulations. I’ve crafted a few below to demonstrate what I mean, they don’t quite hit the mark and I’ve given you my opinion as to why:

  • When your child takes first steps.

This is not a story, it’s a statement, a memory, an opinion. It has no conflict, no movement and all it does is make me think of a baby walking and falling.

  • She looked at him and smiled.

This is a point in time observation. I don’t know what the story is about (other than someone smiling about something). It’s just a sentence from a longer piece. My mind constructs nothing in response.

  • The grass needs mowing again today.

Whilst this could be used as a story to demonstration monotony, I don’t feel any connection to it as a reader. I see no storyline emerging, I only see a person looking at their grass. It feels like there’s more there, I just don’t know what it is, the author isn’t leading me anywhere.

So there you have it, my thoughts on what makes a good six word story and I hope you will craft stunning micro fiction in response.

Happy writing!