Ernest Hemingway, as a young newspaperman in the 1920s, bet his colleagues $10 that he could write a complete story in juts six words.
He won the cash with this: “For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.”
As an example of brevity this is unsurpassed, but is it actually a story? Does it fulfill all the rules of drama which I tend to harp on about?
Admittedly there is no plot, no structure, no protagonist or antagonist, but this is a story because it evokes an emotional response in the reader, and that is the prime aim in creative writing.
What Hemingway does, and in a masterful way, is leave out everything apart from those words which are going to trigger emotions and leave the reader to fill in the story. It’s a cheat, but a brilliant one. His story doesn’t answer questions, it poses them, and the main one screams ‘What happened to the baby?’
What happened to this baby for whom shoes were bought but which are not now required? Why would a baby no longer require shoes? The responses all seem tragic, death, illness, kidnapping, every one a parent’s nightmare. The parents then, or those who placed the advertisement, are the protagonists. The antagonist is unknown, the question of what took the baby. By the time we get to the story it is over and we are left to use our own imaginations to fill in the pieces. We must create, in our own heads, the beginning, middle and probably tragic end.
But is this the only conclusion one can draw? I tried to think up alternatives and they are admittedly weak. A drug addict parent buys the shoes, but then sells them when his craving becomes too much. Possible, but the gap between advertising the shoes and getting any money for them to buy the drugs would seem too great. Another option is if the shoes were bought as some kind of practical joke and, having fulfilled that purpose, are no longer required. This could be plausible but stretches credibility, because the poignancy of those six words is lost. Hemingway didn’t make them ‘baby’ shoes for no reason.
Each word here is carefully chosen, and especially 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. That word ‘never’ is the key, because it is like a lament for what will ‘never’ be.
Like the competent director of a horror movie, Hemingway does not show us his monster, he leaves it to our imaginations, and there is a lesson for us all here. Less is, indeed, more. Finding the balance between what exposition to give the reader and how much to conceal places the writer in as precarious a position as any tightrope walker.
I’ve always advocated rewriting and brutal editing of your own work. All superfluous words should be jettisoned as soon as possible. Hemingway takes my credo to the limit.