Your World in a Six-Word Story
The Pythagoreans considered the number six to be a perfect number. In mathematical terms, it is perfect because when all of the number’s divisors are added together, the sum is the number (1 + 2 +3 = 6). As it happens, six also seems to be the perfect minimum number of words in which it is possible to tell a complete story. What will you choose to say in your six-word story?
History of the Six-Word Story
Ernest Hemingway is credited with having told the first six-word story. No one knows if he did or if it’s a literary myth. Whether he was the first or not, whether it was the result of a bet or not, since Hemingway actually penned the following words, he gets full credit for the world’s shortest story full of pathos and heartbreak. His six-word story? “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”
Smith magazine picked up on the idea in 2006, calling them six-word memoirs and inviting people to write and submit their favourites to the magazine’s website. Thousands participated, spawning many books, including two that I own: Not Quite What I Was Planning by writers famous and obscure, and I Can’t Keep My Own Secrets by teenagers.
Steps to Writing a Six-Word Story
Writers read…a lot. They read to learn, to be inspired, and to analyze what works and what doesn’t work in someone else’s writing. Here are a dozen six-word stories. Which ones work for you? What do they have in common?
- I leave. Dog panics. Furniture shopping. –Reed
- A thousand wrinkles. A thousand stories. –Gareth
- Longed for him. Got him. Shit. –Margaret Atwood
- “I love you, too,” she lied.–Unknown
- He read his obituary with confusion.–Steven Meretzky
- Father: “Anything but journalism.” I rebelled.–Malcolm Gladwell
- The miserable childhood leads to royalties.–Frank McCourt
- Bad brakes discovered at high speed.–Paul Schultz
- Changing mind postponed demise by decades.–Scott O’Neill
- It was embarrassing, so don’t ask.–Alex Lindquist
- Never really finished anything, except cake.–Carletta Perkins
- Five continents down; two to go.–Virginia Graham
Personally, I like six-words when they have the structure of a story, meaning there is conflict, action and resolution, or at least the sense of a beginning, middle and anticipated end. However, they are more difficult to write so lots of the six-word stories you see online are bits of thought-provoking advice, not stories.
The enemy of art is the absence of limitations.Orson Welles
Write and Rewrite.
Decide whether you are writing advice or writing a story. Either way, make it personal. If it’s advice, it’s your advice–how you see the world. If it’s a story, capture an experience or a memory from your life. (Unless, of course, you write fiction. I don’t know if Margaret Atwood–#3 above–was writing about her own life.)
Since you only have six words, they have to be the very best you can summon to mind. Try coming up with a focus word and then using a thesaurus to find synonyms. Keep exploring until you find the exactly correct words.
Once you find your words, you need to put them in the best order. If you have a magnetic poetry kit available, use that. You can also write words on bits of paper, but be careful. Magnetic poetry kits were invented by Dave Kapell, a struggling songwriter, when he sneezed and blew all of his little bits of paper across the room.
Extend or Share if You Wish.
You will know that you have written a six-word story if you can use it as a prompt to write a longer piece. I think I’ll try extending #5 above–He read his obituary with confusion.
Consider sharing your six-word story or six-word advice with others–in the comments below, imprinted on a t-shirt, or layered on a photograph. Negative Space is a good website for copyright-free photographs with room (negative space) where you can insert text.
If you need a bit more inspiration to get started, let’s give the second-to-last word to Larry Smith, owner of Smith magazine. It’s a two minute video.
Here’s an idea. Let’s make this a tribe challenge. I’ll try to write some six-word stories or six-word bits of advice if you will. Send them to me at email@example.com or put them in the comments below. I will gather up all of our contributions and will put them together into a post or video. It will be fun and creative. Are you game? Let’s do it!