I recently came across an online article inviting a group of business storytellers to take up the Hemingway 6-word challenge — that is to write their own story in only six words. [When he was challenged to do so, Hemingway famously responded: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”]
I read further to see almost one hundred 6-word posts from interested followers. The problem was, out of the 95 responses I read, I didn’t see a single story. And remember, these were all self-described business storytelling practitioners. There were responses like:
- Helping companies tell their story. Better.
- Turning facts into truths using stories.
- Be the change, see the change
- Take control, do what feels right.
- Read distill rethink collaborate create share
- Love life you’ll never get another
That prompted me to offer the following submission, which I hope will lead to better storytelling no matter how short (or long) the story. . .
“Not sure you’re doing this right.” No, that’s not my 6-word story. That’s just a 6-word comment. And that’s my point.
I went on to comment, “There were 95 responses to that post. I enjoyed reading them all, and commend you all for stepping up to the challenge. But at the risk of drawing your ire, I’m not sure anyone actually met the challenge presented in it. Done right, this challenge is very difficult.
Writing a 6-word mission statement is easy. A 6-word self-description is easy. A 6-word aphorism is easy. Writing a 6-word story is hard.
In very simple terms, a story is a narrative about something that happened (presumably something interesting or meaningful to the characters and audience). When Hemingway wrote “For sale: baby shoes, never worn” he tells a sad and poignant story of a couple eagerly awaiting the birth of a child, and preparing for that child by buying baby shoes, only to be devastated when the baby dies – perhaps still born, perhaps in childbirth, perhaps in a miscarriage. Then they sell the shoes. This is a story precisely because it conjures up in your mind a few main characters and something meaningful that happened to them.
But to say, “Be the change, see the change” is not a story. It’s lovely. It’s inspiring. But it’s not a story. To say “Turning facts into truths using stories” is not a story. It’s a pithy description of what you do for a living. To say “Read distill rethink collaborate create share” is not a story. It’s just 6 verbs.
E.M. Forster’s pithy definition of a story as a ‘fact plus an emotion’ gives the best insight into why Hemingway could write a story in only 6 words. And if I can paraphrase the example Forster gave to illustrate, I can fit it to the 6-word story challenge: “King died. Queen dies of grief.”
To say the ‘king died and then the queen died’ is not a story. It’s just a fact. But to say the king died and then the queen died ‘of grief’ now THAT is a story. It’s a story because the last two words ‘of grief’ (the emotion) conjures up in your mind what must have happened. The queen must have so loved the king that when he died she stopped eating and withered away. Or maybe she was so distraught that she took her own life!
The other thing brilliant about Hemingway’s method of telling the story in only 6 words was that he didn’t just tell the main story with 6 words, like this: “Bought shoes. Baby died. Sold shoes.” He described a very telling consequence of the main plot that happened after the real story ended. That consequence was a for-sale add in a newspaper. It’s easier to describe an ad in a newspaper in 6 words than an entire story.
So . . . my challenge to you is to try again. This is a group of business people interested in storytelling at work. As such, at a minimum we need to recognize the difference between a story and a statement.
For example, instead of “Be the change, see the change” I would suggest thinking of a particular time in your life when you did exactly that and write a 6-word story about it. Maybe you worked at a company and had a really bad boss named Bob. Everyone was afraid to do anything about it so you quit and started your own company. Then everyone came to work for you instead. You became the change that was needed, and then everyone followed, so you then could see the change in others you had made possible.
If that’s the case, your 6-word story could be: “Quit a bad boss. Droves followed.” Or maybe “Struck out on own. Now hiring.” Or maybe using Hemingway’s newspaper method you could come up with a really in-your-face version: “Now hiring anyone working for Bob.”
In 2006, SMITH Magazine (no relation) asked it’s readers for their own six-word memoirs and got some gems like “Cursed with cancer, blessed with friends” and “I still make coffee for two”. Those are stories! Both tell of something meaning that happened in someone’s life: battling cancer and finding friendship, or losing a loved one but still thinking of them over morning coffee.
Seeing how we could turn one of those great stories into a 6-word NON-story might be helpful. “Cursed with cancer, blessed with friends” might become: “Find real friends at darkest moments.” That’s not a story anymore. It’s just a statement — a generalization about the conclusion or lesson they learned from the experience. The experience is the story. A pithy distillation of the lesson you learned is not the story. Tell the story. Let the audience glean the lesson themselves.
A large part of why I think most people wrote pithy philosophies instead of stories is that they were trying to capture their entire life purpose in 6 words. That might be a meaningful exercise. But it’s not the same as the challenge to Hemingway. That is, it’s not the same as writing a story in 6 words. To write a story, you have to think about a specific instant in time. Something that happened. You can pick the most pivotal moment in your life and career. But the moment you start to try to distill the lesson out of it and write that instead of write about what happened, you’re no longer writing a story.
One last example. See the difference?
Not a story: “Be creative. Overcome even impossible barriers.”
Story: “Ran into brick wall. Tunneled under.”
Your turn. Make it a good one.