Reading & Writing

Writing Challenge: One-Sentence Stories

shoes-pregnancy-child-clothing-47220.jpegMaybe you’ve heard this one: Somebody (Fitzgerald?) bets Hemingway he can’t write a story in six words. Hemingway comes back with, “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

Never mind that this story can’t be substantiated. It’s certainly an evocative sentence and for many, it implies a single conclusion. It’s even been described as a six-word novel.

To this I say: ha!

I would read a story titled “For Sale: Baby Shoes, Never Worn.” Is it a novel? Heck no. Is it a story? Not in my opinion. I don’t believe you can write a story in one sentence. Not really. You can evoke curiosity, sure, or create a beautiful image, or encapsulate a universality, but a story?

Nope. No way. Not even close.

(The editors at Monkeybicycle and other lit journals would certainly disagree with me, and I’ll agree to disagree with them–we don’t all have to look at fiction the same way, do we?)

Which is why I chose one-sentence stories as a challenge this week. What’s more challenging than confronting your own opinions?

Let me explain myself a little. In my experience, the shorter a piece of fiction is, the more it needs to rely on the reader’s assumptions about the world. That makes it less interesting to me, but it doesn’t necessarily mean one sentence can’t be a story. For me, there needs to be a beginning, a middle, and an end. I don’t think it’s really a story if there’s no plot. And it’s not hard to write a plot in one sentence, but it sure isn’t interesting. Let’s try it with the basic plot of The Hunger Games:

Children were forced to fight to the death in the Hunger Games, as a reminder of the Capitol’s power, but the children rebelled and began a war, toppling the Capitol and creating a new society.

I mean, that’s just synopsis. You can do it a little more artfully, but you start removing plot.

They sacrificed their children in tribute, sent them to war with each other, until at last the children rebelled.

That might be a nicer sentence, but it doesn’t necessarily tell the story, does it? I’ll try again:

The children were dying until a girl’s voice sang out: “Enough.”

We could be talking about just about anything now, couldn’t we?

Of course, the problem here is that I’m trying to encapsulate an existing story into a small number of words. I don’t think most one-sentence stories are conceived that way. So let me try to write my own:

Her feet stung with cold but she didn’t stop to think about the fate of her toes, didn’t complain to anyone; she just walked and walked until she couldn’t walk anymore.

That’s cheating, isn’t it? I used a semicolon, effectively linking two sentences. Of course, if you use punctuation to your advantage and take artistic license, you can do whatever you want with “one sentence.” So let’s limit the word count, instead. Ten words. Which turns the previous “story” into:

Her feet stung with cold but she kept on walking.


What do you think about one-sentence stories? Will you share yours in the comments?

(Also: How to Get Through a Writer’s Block (or, How to Be a Healthy Writer) and Writing Exercise: A Rose by Any Other Name.)


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