‘So how long should a short story be?’ says Natalie. It’s week two with a new class, and a glance around shows me eleven faces expecting some neat definition.
‘As long as is necessary,’ I say, failing to recall if there was one particular writer I could attribute this to. That sounds flippant, so I add. ‘The rule, if there is one, is that you should use only as many words as convey your meaning, and no more.’ Was that paraphrasing Katherine Mansfield, or HE Bates? Dare I offer one of them, as ballast for my claim? It might be Hemmingway, so many truisms are attributed to him.
I’m not even sure when I read it, but I have, several times. Besides, the words are said, now.
How much easier these conversations are when I’m building them on paper, and can break off to check my facts, or better still, cut the tricky reference bit out altogether.
Natalie is frowning. I don’t think she’s disagreeing, this looks like another question forming.
I jump in quickly. ‘The shortest story is often said to be, For sale, baby shoes, never worn.’ I repeat the six words, slowly.
Bill says, ‘Is that really a story?’
I draw a theatrically deep breath, and say, ‘Well, it’s got the key elements, a situation that raises a question in the mind of the reader, the suggestion of something unexpected happening… There are a raft of possibilities lying behind this sentence. For instance, who is selling the shoes?’ I pause, to let that fester. ‘Possibly the bigger question is, why have the shoes never been worn?’
There is a moment while most of us contemplate the bleak answer to this. Then Bill says, ‘Perhaps they’re just the wrong size.’
Penny says, ‘Or there was a baby shower, and everyone bought shoes, so the baby’s wardrobe looked like it belonged to Imelda Marcos.’
‘What about,’ says Natalie, ‘everyone thought the baby would be a boy, but the scan turned out to be wrong.’
‘Can six words really count as a short story?’ says Reta.
It’s a good question.
‘It depends on how much more you expect from a short story,’ I say. ‘You, the writer, have to decide how much characterisation, setting, dialogue or action it takes to convey your idea.’ How vague this all sounds.
‘It’s time for pens,’ I tell the group. ‘Think about those six words.’
There’s silence. Some have shut their eyes.
‘Write a description of the shoes,’ I say, ‘in detail.’
‘Now, imagine this: No one has answered the advert. After all, it’s not the best wording to produce a sale. Eventually, the owner gives them to a charity shop. There no one knows anything about them, or their history. Picture the shelf, in the shop. That’s the background. Now write about what happens next.’
I set my five-minute timer, and we do that thing that always amazes me: we write.
Given a whole afternoon and a blank page, I might string together six words that I’m happy with. Set me in a group, with an unlikely trigger subject, and a deadline, and ideas fly from the nib of my pen.
When I call time, and we read back, we’ve produced twelve narratives with only one thing in common: the shop. Some of the stories have reached conclusions, others are the beginnings of something longer. Between us, we provide a range of genres and emotions. They’re raw, first drafts, but we listeners are hooked, intrigued.
‘Most stories,’ I say, ‘are distillations. What I’ve found, when I read about writers, is that few complete their story in one sitting. What they’ve done is capture the impulse. Some bits might need expanding, others cutting. The story is still immature. Sometimes it will get pared down, until it feels distilled. Other times, it will need rounding out. That decision lies with the author.’
I tell them that the six word shoe story may have been written by Ernest Hemmingway. If it was, he might have known about one of two articles in American newspapers
The first was a news story published when Hemmingway was about seven years old. The headline was, Tragedy of Baby’s Death is Revealed in Sale of Clothes.
About seven years later, an editor wrote an article in which he explained how a journalist might write about a similar situation. The title he suggested for such a story was, Little Shoes, Never Worn.’