When Is a Story Not a Story?

There is a particular short “story” (sometimes hilariously referred to as “a six-word novel”) that is often attributed to Hemingway (though almost certainly not his invention) that consists of only the following words: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

This trifle of words is often lauded as being a masterpiece of flash fiction (which, to me, is an oxymoron). Now, I’m certainly not the first to point this out, but this bit of fluff is without any inherent meaning.

The only actual meaning contained in those words is that there are baby shoes for sale in new condition. Any meaning beyond that is given to it by the reader. And perhaps because stories are supposed to be about conflict, we assume the worst. A child who died not long after birth. A miscarriage, perhaps. An adoption that fell through. Or whatever. But those are all assumptions by the reader. There’s nothing in the piece that gives us any reason whatsoever to conclude any of those things, or anything else. Perhaps the shoes didn’t fit. Perhaps they were a gift for a friend, but were forgotten at the back of a closet and never given. Or any of a hundred other things.

Seriously, they were the ugliest fuckin’ shoes.

It’s all well and good to allow your reader some involvement with your work. There is no need for you to spell out everything in great detail. Once upon a time, a test reader of mine complained that I never stated what color eyes my protagonist had. “It’s important,” she said. “You can tell a lot about a person from the color of their eyes.”

Velcro? You’re joking, right?

Disregarding her obvious delusion, the fact was that there was no reason for me to state what color his eyes were. It had no effect on the story. I was perfectly fine letting my reader give him whatever color eyes they wished. Similarly, in most circumstances, I find it okay to let the reader imagine what sort of clothing my characters are wearing. Or what they like on their pizza. Or any of a thousand other things.

Leather!? You bought me leather!? I’M VEGAN, BITCH!

But the actual meaning of an event is rarely open to speculation. See, that’s my job, as a writer: to tell a story. I’m not here to write a puzzle that someone is to figure out (at least, not without giving the answer at the end).

Yet, that’s exactly what this piece does. It forces the reader to “write” the story, filling in the conflict themselves. But stories aren’t just about conflict. They’re about characters and how they change (or refuse to) due to the story’s events (or in spite of them). And there is no character, here. And that’s why I put “story” in quotes in the first sentence. Because it isn’t a story. It’s a scenario, nothing more.

Posted by vmwales

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