How to Write a Six-Word Story

Back when I was quite the lazy storyteller who believed my one short story would pave the way to my greatness, I stumbled upon tumblr where people write short, easy little paragraphs that sound pretty and made me feel deep and interesting. I felt very comfortable in this area because I could slay away on one sentence until it was perfect and then people would comment on my talents and I would try to appear very modest like it just came to me naturally. 

Six Word Story Rebrand

In a way it was much akin to our modern selfie. In fact, writing in general is a lot like taking a selfie. It takes many takes to get it right, but once you do, you make it look easy and hide all the effort behind it so that people think these things come naturally to you.

Selfies aside, given the tumblr world I lived in for most of my teenage years, everything I wrote was "great" because it was three sentences long and secretly took me an hour to write. Sure, I wasn't writing anything more than a page - I would get there - but I was doing something I loved and that happened to be writing very short paragraphs that would do little for my great novel I hoped to one day write. 

It should come as no surprise then that over time I stumbled upon the famous "six word story" in my pursuit of tiny literature and I was ecstatic. Everything I had been working for had been legitimized! It was totally okay to write tiny stories, and even famous people were writing them, so it had to be a real art!

For those of you who might have missed out, the six-word story is exactly what it sounds like: a six-word sentence that is written to tell a story. This story later evolved into the "tiny story" as well, something Joseph Gordon Levitt's coined on his website, where he compiles books of tiny stories. As you might have guessed, these stories are also very popular on tumblr due to their conciseness. But what you might not have guessed is that I am a published tiny story writer.

Yes. That's right. My one and only publication as a writer (thus far!) is that one of my own tiny - somewhat pretentious - stories is featured in Joseph Gordon Levitt's Tiny Stories Vol. 3. If you're looking for it, you can find my story on page 48, though I did not draw the accompanying illustration. It certainly is nothing to boast about, though I cannot deny the angsty tumblr girl of my teenage years did not jump with excitement upon finding my story in a real book.

However, the thing is, despite all of my self-mockery earlier in this article, these tiny stories are actually quite delightful because they manage to tell beautiful stories in just a few words. This in turn teaches many young writers - like my teenage self - how to tell a story in a quick way without subjecting them to years of failed draft torture.

It should not surprise you that the most famous six word story is attributed to Hemingway himself, though history suggests that these stories existed long before he did. However, reality aside, who better to teach us the craft of simplicity than the guru himself? After all, even if he didn't originate the type of story, he certainly embodies it with his reverence for concise, clean sentences.

For those who are unfamiliar, here is his famous six word story:

"For sale: Baby shoes, never worn."

Maybe if you read this six word story really fast, you'll miss how poignant it is. I encourage you to read it again - slowly - be it out loud or in your head, so you can fully absorb the story. Truthfully, to me this is one of the saddest stories I've ever heard - and it's only six words long! And since it's so short, we can look at it closer without committing too much time like we would for a novel.

A Tiny Analysis

The first two words of this six word story set you up to think it's just another item for sale. Think of how you react when you read a sign that starts with "for sale." Maybe you become curious, or maybe you shy away because you don't like being sold something. Or maybe you're so used to signs selling things that you don't even bat an eye. No matter how you react, it's likely a very different reaction than how you'll feel by the end of this very brief story.

Next there are the middle two words which catch you off guard. Baby shoes aren't usually the top thing we'd think of when we hear someone is trying to sell something. Regular shoes, maybe, but baby shoes? Well that almost seems funny, doesn't it? And if the story ended here, there would be no story, just an advertisement selling shoes, likely for future mothers to buy.

But then we get to those last two words and suddenly we feel nothing short of sadness. All the words before it have a new meaning, perhaps bringing to mind images of a sullen family weeping over an empty space in their home. It's so depressing, and yet you managed to feel that way just in six words. And that's pretty amazing.

A Tiny Structure

You'll notice that much like epics scaling 1,000 pages, this story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. It is just as much a story as Moby Dick is in that way, and therefore should be taken equally as seriously. That does not mean we therefore disregard all the work and the magnitude of Moby Dick, but instead appreciate why both stories are stories at all.

To get a better feel fort the tiny story structure, here is another six word story I love:

"Mom taught me how to shave."

Much like Hemingway's, this six word story hits you in its final two words, though it is a bit more ambiguous because it is from a first person perspective. I tend to read it from a boy's perspective because it tells more of a story in that way than if it were by a girl, in which it would feel more like a statement to me, though just like any story, it's up to the reader's interpretation.

But that's what's great about six word stories. They teach us writers to think more deeply about what our syntax actually does and to play with it like poets do. We stop thinking just about the words said, but also those that are left unsaid. After all, with only six words or a sentence or two, there is a lot being left out.

Look at this famous horror story by Frederic Brown. You'll notice it's longer than the six words we've been working with, making it more of a tiny story.

"The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door."

This story is more of a cliff-hanger, like all good horror stories in my opinion, but this time the beginning, middle and end are divided by the sentences. The beginning and middle fill the first sentence and then the period afterwards is a sort of "climax" if you will, followed by the ending which still to this day causes me to shiver in fear. In fact, I have seen horror films filled with far more words than these two sentences that struck far less fear in me, a testament to how powerful just a few words can be.

How to Use the Six Word Story

The real trick with tiny stories or six word stories is the beginning, middle and end like I've mentioned. Like any real story out there, tiny stories include them too, but a micro version of them. As a result, you can crank out a ton of stories without putting in the effort of writing a full novel and see how you like the arcs of each story. They'll teach you how to feel out the key parts of your story as well and also help you understand if your own story is a story at all or just a statement because it's missing a piece.

As for how to go about it, there is no right or wrong way to use the six word story - just give it a shot! You can use it to hone in on your prose and make it more purposeful, or to look at the broad scope of storytelling without diving into the project. Or, you can switch it up and find a tiny story you love and write a lengthier version out for writing practice! The sky's the limit with tiny stories, and that's just what makes them so great.

Furthermore, these tiny stories help young storytellers become okay with the notion of giving away their best ideas, something not many of us are comfortable with. The reality with most tiny and six word stories is that the authors rarely receive credit. My own tiny story is a great example as the editors of the book mistyped my username, discrediting my work to some extent.

But that's okay, because no idea is really original and given that your sentence is so short, it's likely it's already been said! As a storyteller, it's nearly impossible to have a completely original idea. Instead, it's what you do with that idea that makes you unique, and the more comfortable you are with that idea the more inclined you'll feel to share ideas with other people, something I think all artists should be comfortable doing.

After all, you can't sell these six words for much, if anything at all, nor can you really put one story all by its lonesome in a portfolio. Instead, use these stories more as a form of practice for you to be selective with your words, blending poetry with prose in a simple, brief exercise. Though who knows? Maybe you'll write a six word story so great it'll be featured in a collection of tiny stories like Not Quite What I Was Planning or a future Tiny Stories compilation by hitRECord!

Do you have your own six word stories or tiny stories to tell? Comment below!