The Algonquin Hotel. 59 West 44th Street, Manhattan.
It’s 1920 something.
Ernest Hemingway sits at a table in the hotel’s restaurant. He’s having lunch with members of The Vicious Circle, a group of New York writers, actors and critics.
After a long, boozy meal, he proposes a wager:
“I bet everyone here that I can write a story – with a beginning, middle and end – using only six words.”
His companions exchange wry glances.
“Ten dollars each. If I’m successful, I keep the pot. If not, I’ll pay each of you individually.”
Keen for the easy money, and eager to see their friend’s solution to the seemingly preposterous challenge, members of The Vicious Circle pile up their ten-dollar notes at the centre of the table.
Hemingway sets down his Daiquiri and leans back in his chair. He takes a pen from his jacket, uncaps it, and writes six words onto a paper napkin.
He folds the napkin, hands it to the person sitting next to him, then stands, collects the money, and leaves.
As the napkin is passed from hand to hand and people read Hemingway’s story, there is no doubt that he has won the bet hands down.
The story reads:
For Sale: Baby Shoes, Never Worn.
Although the precise details surrounding the conception of this famous six-word tale are hazy, it’s true that Hemingway later referred to it as the finest story he’d ever written. It’s a masterful use of language, a lesson in economy and understatement from one of the finest storytellers of the twentieth century.
But what does it tell us?
- Stories don’t have to be long to be effective.
- Sometimes, the implications of a story are more powerful than the story itself.
- Simple language and clear narrative progression make stories easier to understand, which in turn makes them more impactful.
Ernest Hemingway died in 1961, but the art of writing six-word stories is still alive and well. Here are some of our favourites from professional and unpublished writers:
He read his obituary with confusion.
- Steven Meretzky
Chapter One: Coughin’. Chapter Two: Coffin.
- Mike Johnson
I went travelling, found my home.
- Thomas Massey
It can’t be. I’m a virgin.
- Kate Atkinson
Mistook grenade for cigarette lighter. Smoked.
- Junaid Ali Khan
Man finds immortality. Names it Abigail.
- Amit Kapoor
Brilliant aren’t they?
We’re currently working on our own six-word story, which will be beautifully designed by our very own Danii. In the mean time, we’d love to read your attempts at the Hemingway challenge.
The rules are simple: tell any story you’d like – but it must be six words long.
Tweet your entries with the hashtag ♯aesop6 or e-mail email@example.com with “Six Word Story” as the subject. We’ll publish the best!
UPDATE: You can find the second part of this post here.