Just about everybody’s heard this famous six-word short story:

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

It’s often regarded as a work of exceptional literary talent—so much emotion packed into six simple words. In fact, it’s so famous that it’s launched its own brand of imitators, and perhaps its own genre, the “six-word memoir.”

But, maybe you’ve heard by now that Hemingway didn’t actually write it as a result of a bet that he couldn’t write a story in six words. In fact, he didn’t write it at all, and the famous six-word phrase actually seems to be a real ad placed in a newspaper in the early 20th century.

So, that was easy, right? It clearly wasn’t written by him. Article . . . over?

Aww. You know I’m not done there.

You see, I don’t think those six words are a story, either.

And while I don’t like to start things off with definitions (because I think it’s a cliché on the Internet, and not necessarily all that informative or helpful), I think have to here. If I just make up a definition of what a story is and then tell you that something isn’t one, I haven’t actually proved anything.

Merriam-Webster defines a story as “an account of incidents or events” or a “fictional narrative shorter than a novel.” Dictionary.com defines it as “a narrative, either true or fictitious, in prose or verse, designed to interest, amuse, or instruct the hearer or reader.” I then asked it what a narrative was, and it told me that it was “a story.” Thanks, Dictionary.com.

Even if we discount that our definitions of story tend to be circular, we’re still left with vagueness. While I think it’s easy to agree that both stories and narratives are collected ‘series of events, either true or fictitious,’ one has to wonder if the distinction between story and narrative might be relevant. After all, there’s a chance ‘Hemingway’s story’ is one or the other, but not both.

And after perusing the internet, there doesn’t seem to be a super-strong delineation between the two, other than how they relate to character. A narrative is the telling of a series of events in a manner that is character-agnostic. There might be people in the narrative, but it is not told through their eyes. It is merely a recounting of events as they happened. If you’re still confused, think about a government accident report. It just detailed what happened, what actions people took, and what environmental factors influenced the outcome. If it varies from the literal truth at all, there’s a problem.

A story, on the other hand, is a narrative filtered through the lens of characters, especially the protagonist. There may not be a strict adherence to the truth because the characters themselves are not omniscient. Furthermore, emotion will play a larger role, as not only do readers discover what happens, they are told how it makes people feel.

So, let’s reexamine our six-word story.

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

For some reason, many people’s initial reaction, including my own, is to feel sad. Someone’s baby just died.

However, we have no reason to believe that. It’s just something we’re inferencing off of the phrase “never worn.” In fact, the phrase “For sale: baby shoes, brand new,” has almost the same literal meaning as the original, but doesn’t produce the same feeling of sadness.

Why do I bring up emotions here?

Because the baby doesn’t exist in the text. And neither does the person who is placing the ad in the newspaper. The first strike against this phrase being a story is that it has no characters. We could assume, and do assume at first glance, that they exist, but anyone’s claims about their nature are equally good because they don’t exist.

And furthermore, we don’t even know that the thing we’re looking at is a newspaper ad. Sure, it has the form of an ad, but it itself contains no evidence that it is an ad, in the same way that a children’s car ride at an arcade has the form of a car, but is not itself a car.

Consequentially, I’m not sure that the phrase can be labeled a narrative either because it fails to have any concrete events.

Now, if it read “Ad seen in a newspaper: For sale: baby shoes, never worn,” then you have a better case for a narrative than for a six-word short story. Because an unidentified person saw the ad, an event has occurred. And, if a narrative is just a series of events, you can make the case that it is one. On the other hand, it still might not be a story, because the character remains undefined, but there’s at least part of a narrative.

So, how short can the shortest story be?

Well, it depends on what we mean when we say story.

Here’s how I think it should be defined:

A story is

  1. A complete narrative. That is a narrative with a well-defined beginning, middle, and end. (Well-defined meaning that if multiple people read the story, they could agree on what the beginning was, what the end was, and that there were things in the middle called “the middle.” Narratives that possess less than all three of these parts should henceforth be referred to as “narrative fragments”).
  2. Told through the eyes of well-defined characters. (Well-defined meaning in this case that multiple readers can agree that there were things done in the story that were done by specific characters).

If I put it into an easier-to-read format, a story is a complete narrative told through the eyes of well-defined characters.

Off the top of my head, the shortest conceivable story I can come up with is eight words long: Sue was born. Sue liked living. Sue died. 1 This is not a terribly good story. It’s boring. It has nowhere near the same emotional punch as “For sale: baby shoes, never worn,” but it does contain all of the parts I’ve argued are necessary.

So, what does it matter?

It doesn’t. It really doesn’t.

The only reason I’m even remotely aware of “Hemingway’s Phrase” is because it comes up a lot in literature and writing classes, often as an example of “what brevity can do for you.” And perhaps I’m showing my true cynical side here, but I don’t think it lives up to all of the claims that surround it, and I’m pretty sure that if something at the same level of quality went on much longer we would quickly grow tired of it.

If you liked this piece, you should check out:
Children of the Lost World
The Limits of Literary Theory
The Problem with Genre

  1. If someone could “be born” in the active voice, it would be a word shorter.