Baby Shoes: How to Write a Short Story
One of the shortest stories ever written has only six words:
“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”
This extremely short story is sometimes attributed to Ernest Hemingway. In merely half a dozen words, we begin with the intrigue of a deal, are excited by the prospect of a newborn, and are shocked by the tragic ending. Being able to construct a beginning, middle, and end in a limited number of words is essential to writing your own short story. By taking the time to plan, write, and edit, you too can create your own mini-masterpiece.
There is no strict definition for how many words make up a short story. The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America put the limit at less than 7 500 words. It is important to keep that in mind when planning what your story will be about. Choose a theme that speaks to you. Since your word count is so restricted, focus on no more than or two characters. The six-word story is from the perspective of a grieving parent, the only essential character. Inessential roles should be eliminated, no matter how interesting they are. Take the time to flesh personalities out. Create lists of their characteristics and information about them. Make sure there is a clear but simple problem for your main character. Limit the others in your story to just a few minor roles.
Author Kurt Vonnegut recommended starting stories as close to the end as possible. Short stories cannot afford to delve into backstories or much setup. Immediately give readers the information they need to understand who they are reading about, what is happening, and why it is important. The six-word story hooks you in with a sale, which instinctively attracts attention in a consumerist culture, and then immediately informs you what item exactly is being sold. This leads directly to the heart-breaking ending. The events in your story should build in excitement, leading to the most exciting part known as the climax. The ending should offer resolution to the characters and problem – whether good or bad.
Many writers spend hours upon hours devoted to edits and rewrites. Vonnegut recommended that every sentence either reveal more about your character or move the action forward. Even if a sentence with a joke or descriptive details is well-written, it may need to be sacrificed to better serve the overall flow. The six-word story needs every six of those words, but not a word more, in order to tell its tale effectively. This should be the same approach for a story with thousands of words. Reread your work again and again, cutting down long sentences and removing unimportant dialogue. Focus on using a variety of nouns and verbs instead of relying on adjectives. The latter can be very descriptive, but can also bog down the pace.
Writing a story of any lengths is done in baby steps. The planning, writing, and revising process can take anywhere from days to years. Practice by writing as many stories as you can and reading as many tales from various authors as possible. In doing so, you will discover your voice, the messages you want to share with the world, and how to effectively bring together your strengths with your ideas. All stories, whether they have six words or six thousand, require time, dedication, and passion.
Haglund, David. “Did Hemingway Really Write His Famous Six-Word Story?” Slate. http://www.slate.com/blogs/browbeat/2013/01/31/for_sale_baby_shoes_never_worn_hemingway_probably_did_not_write_the_famous.html
Popova, Maria. “Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 Tips on How to Write a Great Story.” Brain Pickings. https://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2012/04/03/kurt-vonnegut-on-writing-stories/
Renner, Jodie. “25 Tips for Writing a Winning Short Story.” Kill Zone. https://killzoneblog.com/2014/07/25-tips-for-writing-winning-short-story.html
Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. “Awards FAQ.” http://web.archive.org/web/20090319043837/http://sfwa.org/awards/faq.htm