On social media, in writer’s forums, and probably in cheap yet stylish cafés that smell of bergamot and desperation, writers gather to find something they can do together. Writing, after all, is usually a thing we do all alone.
There’s only so much technique talk you can handle. There are only so many times you can explain to a new writer that, “Yes, it really is OK if you use an adverb once in a while.” So, people share writing means to come up with fun little writing games to play.
One I see pop up exhaustively is the, “Write the happiest/saddest/scariest story you can in 3/4/5/6 words.”
These games kinda make me twitch because the vast majority of the things that people write in response are not stories. Now, before you accuse me of being a story elitist or not letting people follow their creative flow, the twitch is very small and I get over it quickly.
It just seems to me that people call themselves writers should know what a story is.
One random online dictionary defines a story as the telling of a happening or connected series of happenings, whether true or fictitious. Conventional wisdom states that every story must have a beginning, a middle, and an end.
The most famous short story people drag up every time they play these games is attributed to Ernest Hemingway.
For sale: baby shoes, never worn.
Does this have a beginning, middle, and end? No. Your mind fills in all sorts of beginnings, middles, and ends, which makes the six words quite evocative but not technically a story.
You could go on to argue about how much of any story is mind work and how much is from words on the page. If you bought a novel and it had no character growth, conflict, setting, situations, or change, you would probably feel a bit cheated the matter how evocative it was. At least, I would be.
Turning that snippet into a story be done in various ways.
Parents weep. Box unworn baby shoes.
I came up with that in about five seconds, so forgive me for not being eloquent. Is this thing a story? It has a beginning and an end or middle depending on how you look at it and everything else is filled in with your mind. It is the telling of a connected series of happenings, as per the dictionary definition listed above.
What a lot of people seem to do when faced with the challenge of a 3 to 6-word story is deliver a launch statement such as “She let him go,” or “The door creaked open.” For my perspective, it’s pretty challenging to get a beginning, middle, and end to six words. Three is nearly impossible unless you just actually write out beginning, middle, and end. Not that riveting.
Why am I going on about this? I’m not trying to pick on people who do their best when faced with games like this. My point is that writers should understand story. They should know what is needed in each one to create interest to take their readers on a journey that stays interesting from the start to the finish.
Our words have to give enough of a springboard for people’s imaginations to spark and fill in the rest. To really experience all the extra stuff that the writer wants them to experience but doesn’t put in the narrative. Being evocative is not enough.
Stephen King famously said, “Books are uniquely portable magic.” It is the writer’s job to make that magic happen for as many readers as possible. But you can’t make magic out of thin air. You can’t make magic planting an idea in someone’s head. You need the eye of newt and toe of frog. You need structure and story parts that the reader can cling to while going on whatever mind journey you create for them.
Can that be done in six words or less? Sometimes, but in my experience, not usually. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try though.