I have recently entered a competition on http://www.readwave.com to emulate Ernest Hemingway’s famous exercise in writing a story in 6 words. One of the Readwave editors then asked me to become an editor for this format.
The first thing to get clear is that the object of this exercise is to write a fictional narrative – a story. Many of those I have seen so far on the Readwave website are not stories. They are not even bad stories: they are philosophical statements, or motivational slogans. The basic rules of narrative fiction are bound to be squeezed when we are dealing with such an impoverished format, but they are still to be observed as closely as possible. That is the point.
Of the competition entries which are at least fictional narratives, the next biggest group of failures are the ones which are completely generic. “There was a man, he lived, and then he died,” – even when condensed into 6 words – will not do. Pieces in this category tend to be the beginning of a story, or the end of a story, but not a whole story. Hemingway’s classic: “For sale: baby shoes. Never worn” leaves a great deal to the reader, as much of modern literature does, but it does not require the reader to re-write the whole story. The story must engage the reader. To do that, it needs either details, or a narrative twist, or both – probably both. The twist in Hemingway’s comes in the last two words.
My approach when I began this exercise was to begin by trying to get as far away from Hemingway’s classic as possible. Rather than something in the form of a personal ad, I began to think about whether it would be possible to squeeze more subject matter into the story by only using nouns. This is what I came up with:
Milk. Beer. Whisky. Meths. Milk. Morphine.
As a first attempt, I was quite pleased with this, because it has enough detail to engage the reader, and it has a narrative arc which would be obvious to most readers. The idea of selecting 6 nouns with a discontinuity between neighbouring words struck me as quite a powerful technique. This is my next attempt:
Scissors. Stone. Paper. Machete. Shears. Bin-bag.
Entrants to the Readwave competition may notice that you can cheat like mad because the format of the Readwave website gives you a title and a strap-line, neither of which is counted towards the 6 words. Many of the weaker entries are trying to set the scene or explain the point of the story through the title and the strap-line. Hemingway’s piece has no title and no strap-line, and so I have left those out of the examples in this article.
The only other one I have posted so far is a variation of the sub-title of my solo performance at the 2013 Ilkley Literature Festival.
Abandoned in woods. Raised by lawyers.
“Woods” provides (just) enough detail to engage the reader, and the narrative twist is provided by substituting “lawyers” for “wolves”, which also triggers the reader’s cultural view of the legal profession.
One consolation of this format is that, like writing a villanelle, you at least know almost straight away whether you are on the right track.