What is a Short Story?

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Think you know what a short story is? How about this?

“For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.”

Ernest Hemingway, when he was a young journalist in the 1920s, bet his colleagues ten dollars that he could write a story in just six words and the above was what he came up with.

But does it qualify as a short story? Is there a plot? Characters? Conflict? A resolution? Yes, but they are hidden and left to the reader’s imagination.

An Emotional Response

Hemingway. Image by radiomitre.cienradios.com

This is a story because it evokes an emotional response in the reader, and that is the prime aim in all artistic endeavour.

What Hemingway did, and in an incredibly clever way, was to omit everything apart from the words which were going to trigger the emotions and left the reader to insert the story for themselves. It may be cheating, but it’s brilliantly done. The story doesn’t answer questions, it asks them, and the main one that demands answering is ‘What happened to the baby?’

The baby has no name, no parents, no place of residence. All we know is that shoes were bought for it and are no longer needed. This implies some sort of tragedy has befallen it. Why would the child no longer require shoes? The responses all seem to welcome some tragic end such as death, illness or in a more dramatic vein, kidnapping. The parents, or whoever placed the advertisement, are the protagonists. The antagonist is unseen, the mystery of who or what took the baby. We are required to use our own imagination to fill in the pieces. We must imagine for ourselves the beginning, middle and, probably, tragic end.

What is a Short Story?
What is a Short Story? Image by americanlit215.weebly.com

But is this the only conclusion the reader can draw? There seem to be few alternatives when the facts, as given by Hemingway, are taken into account. Someone has baby shoes which have never been worn and wishes to sell them. Every alternative possibility seems positively comedic; the baby’s feet sprouted in size suddenly so he has already outgrown the shoes. The shoes were a gift from someone who misheard that there was an addition to the family that turned out to be a puppy.

This is Tragedy

It doesn’t wash. Hemingway’s intent is clear from the very style he uses, this is tragedy. Each word he puts down is carefully chosen, and particularly the last two. ‘Hardly’ worn doesn’t do it, and neither does ‘unworn’ though it would have served to reduce the story to five words. The word ‘never’ is the nub, because it is a lament for what will ‘never’ be, the child is dead.

the difference between short story and novel writing
Hemingway’s intent is clear from the very style he uses, this is tragedy. Image by liminalpages.com

Like the accomplished director of a horror movie, Hemingway does not reveal his monster, he leaves it to our own imaginations, and there is a lesson for every writer here. Less is, indeed, more. Deciding on the correct balance between how much exposition to give the reader and how much to conceal gives the writer an unenviable task. The novice would lay it on thick, trying to drag tears from the audience, the master leaves well alone.

All creative writing should be brutally edited to remove extraneous words and phrases. Yes, you’re making the reader work for their return but many enjoy it. The credo should be ‘a word to the wise’, but only one.


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