Grandma's Tales

November 14, 2006

How short is a “short story”?

Filed under: Language — Geeta Padmanabhan @ 9:23 pm

Long ago, when I was in college, one of the teachers told us this story about Ernest Hemingway, the American novelist and short story writer. I never found out if it was true. It didn’t matter. It was a great short story by itself.

Ernest Hemingway was once challenged to write a complete story in six words. He did. Many feel it is the best prose he ever wrote. Now, this is debatable, but read the story.

“For sale: baby shoes, never used.” Great, isn’t it?

Some people say it was written to settle a bar bet. Others say it was a personal challenge directed at other famous authors. But it proves that it is possible to create a short story with just six words. You choose the right words, and leave the rest to the imagination of the reader. And that is excellent writing.

In my office, an employee wrote against the “marital status” column:  Still married.
That is a short story in just two words! She beat Hemingway! (I think) asked readers to compose (or contribute) “six-word” short stories. Here are a few from among those that flooded the pages.

[1] Lucky, yes, but my twin wasn’t.
[2] I loved; I lost; I’m sorry.
[3] In Gore Vidal’s book “The City & The Pillar” he writes in the opening chapter: “He was home. He was lost.”
[4] For sale: halves of a bed.
[5] That’s how winter came that year.
She loved again. I never did.
Our love survived time, not cancer.
Life’s end: Sadly recalling opportunities lost. (Are sad ones easier to write?)
[7] Reminds me of something I once read – I forget where. The shortest sci-fi story ever:”The last man on Earth sits in his house. There is a knock at the door.”
[8] Switched lifestyle from planet to satellite.
[9]  Adam, apples are delicious! “Uh oh.”
[10] Downloaded it, learned truth, gave up.
[11] It wasn’t her fault. Not entirely.
The audience applauded, as he wept.
[12] Oh no, I think I’m lost.
[13] Time passed, lives changed, I withdrew.

Interesting, aren’t they?

Why don’t you try your hand at this? Write in your very own six-word (7-word, 8-word …) stories here!  I’m sure it will be fun.

Here is my favourite. It is not strictly Hemingway-ian, but great, nevertheless.

A college class was asked to write a story in as few words as possible. And the story had to have three elements in it –  sex, religion and mystery. This is the work that got top marks.

“Good God, I’m pregnant! Wonder who did it.”




  1. Mary’s was shorter:
    “I’m pregnant, God. Who did this?”

    On marital status, I’ve always liked:
    Married but looking.

    By the way, I think the proper length for a novel is 299 words.

    Comment by davidbdale — November 15, 2006 @ 1:28 am | Reply

  2. Hi davidbdale,
    Thanks for stopping by. That’s an excellent take on the story. And I love “Married but looking” too. BTW, how do you arrive at that number, 299?

    Comment by Geeta Padmanabhan — November 15, 2006 @ 8:54 pm | Reply

  3. Years of practice and careful editing put me in the 300-word range. Then, one day, a mandate: Very Short Novels shall be 299 words each. I’ve posted more than two dozen examples.

    Comment by davidbdale — November 15, 2006 @ 10:34 pm | Reply

  4. they came, plundered, and went back.

    they expected to accept the expert’s words, without exceptions

    Comment by Varun Chablani — November 16, 2006 @ 4:14 pm | Reply

  5. Hi davidbdale,
    I shall certainly check them out. But tell me this, when you write these shorties, do you keep looking up to see the word-limit sword hanging above you? Or do you just write it out and then start condensing it?

    Comment by Geeta Padmanabhan — November 16, 2006 @ 6:23 pm | Reply

  6. Hi Varun,
    Good tries, those. Think you can write a story around each?

    Comment by Geeta Padmanabhan — November 16, 2006 @ 6:24 pm | Reply

  7. Hello, Geeta,

    There are times when I think the story has been well and fully told long before I get to the word limit. But usually I do a longish draft and then pare down to the essentials. It’s a painless process. I never hesitate to cut.

    Comment by davidbdale — November 16, 2006 @ 7:36 pm | Reply

  8. Grandma’s Grammar

    How short is a short story?

    Trackback by — November 16, 2006 @ 7:40 pm | Reply

  9. Good ones. Just curious, from writing perspective, what are the attributes a story should neccessarily have to qualify being called a story?

    Comment by Rajesh Kumar — November 17, 2006 @ 5:36 pm | Reply

  10. Hi David,
    Lucky you! I can never let go of a word or a phrase without reaching for a tissue. Would you give me permission to use one of your stories for a future grammar lesson?

    Comment by Geeta Padmanabhan — November 17, 2006 @ 9:20 pm | Reply

  11. I would, of course. I only hope it’s as an example of exemplary grammar.

    Comment by davidbdale — November 17, 2006 @ 10:16 pm | Reply

  12. i like number 7 & 9!

    i wrote a similar post in my book blog too.

    Comment by sulz — November 18, 2006 @ 6:40 pm | Reply

  13. Absolutely, David. It will be. And I love the way you put it.

    Comment by Geeta Padmanabhan — November 19, 2006 @ 11:06 pm | Reply

  14. Hi Sulz,
    Thanks for stopping by. Great to know you thought of it too! I’ll certainly check it out.

    Comment by Geeta Padmanabhan — November 19, 2006 @ 11:09 pm | Reply

  15. You are right, am not wrong.

    Comment by Rajaram — November 30, 2006 @ 10:56 am | Reply

  16. Good, Rajaram! A lot of possibilities there!

    Comment by Geeta Padmanabhan — November 30, 2006 @ 10:09 pm | Reply

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: