Hemingway’s Six-Word Story

Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) is regarded today as one of the most influential novelists of the 20th century. His works include several short stories, especially the Pulitzer Prize-winner novel The Old Man and the Sea, published in 1952.

Hemingway indeed reported for a local newspaper in Kansas City shortly after high school, where he was taught to “use short sentences”, a principle for concision and clarity that he followed to the letter during his whole writing career.

Beardy Ernest. (Source: Babelio.com)

But where reality and myth overlap, another short story from Hemingway achieved posterity: the legend goes that, while lunching with a bunch of writers (supposedly at Lüchow’s in Manhattan, NY), the author bet ten dollars that he could write a story using no more than six words. Then, after everyone had agreed to follow the bet, he passed a napkin around the table, on which was written:

“For sale: Baby shoes. Never worn.”

And he won the pot!

This is remembered as a classic case of ‘flash fiction’ which consists in conveying a whole story in a very short format, using a limited number of words. Although some trace the origin of this type of literature back to Aesop’s Fables in Ancient Greece or Jātaka Tales in India, the concept has been widely developed in the past years thanks to the Internet.

A telling example is “twitterature” gathering short literary works of fiction broadcasted over the famous social network, which cannot thus exceed the 140-word maximum.

In short story literature (also called ‘micro narrative’), the challenging part is that its authors must thoroughly set up the plot without going into much detail – the interpretation role is thus left to the reader. This is all about suggesting: Hemingway’s evocation of a tragic newborn death is enough to get the hard feelings implied across without preliminary buildup.

Nevertheless, it has to be said that the paternity of the story remains contested, a similar one having been published in a local newspaper in the early 1910’s.

Whoever its author was, this story is another lesson illustrating the fact that constraints can help us to be more creative, and that new writing styles arise from our fast-paced world… And whatever its length, a good story is still a good story.



Author: Nicolas

Ingrédients : 33% d'anecdotes insolites, 19% de livres poussiéreux, le reste de curiosité névrosée. Auteur du Petit dictionnaire des sales boulots (Vendémiaire, 2022). Chroniqueur chez Slate et RetroNews.

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