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Literature / Hemingway's Six-Word Story

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"For Sale: Baby shoes, never worn."

A piece of Flash Fiction allegedly written by Ernest Hemingway. It probably isn't: The idea of an ad that indirectly hints at the death of a baby is at least as old as a human interest story in a 1910 newspaper, and has been tossed around as an anecdote or story idea long before it was connected to Hemingway.

The oldest source that attributes the story with the quoted wording to Hemingway (who supposedly scribbled it on a napkin to win a bet) is found in the 1991 self-help book Get Published! Get Produced! A Literary Agent's Tips on How to Sell Your Writing by Peter Miller, who claimed he heard the story from a "well-established newspaper syndicator" in 1974. This origin tale was further popularized by the 1996 biographic play Papa.


Snopes has more information on it.

Compare to "The Ugly Barnacle", another story famous for its minimalist prose. Contrast to The Tropeless Tale.

These words are an example of:

  • Ambiguous Situation: The words are a six word advertisement that give absolutely no context to the situation behind the words and may or may not even imply characters behind the words, with none appearing or even being described in the words at all. It doesn't tell us whose baby would have worn the shoes, who owns the shoes and why they're selling them, why the shoes haven't been worn or if the shoes were even planned to be worn by a recipient beforehand (i.e. a baby belonging to the owner of the shoes) in the first place. Its entirely up to the reader to decide and interpret the context and details of the words. However, It's frequently assumed to have a tragic context (i.e. a baby died before it could get a chance to wear the new shoes, the parents had a miscarriage, the family is very poor, etc.) since that's pretty much the only way to make a story out of such a vague or otherwise seemingly mundane situation.
  • Advertisement:
  • Beige Prose: The entire story is only six words long. That's probably about as concise as a story can get while still having, or at least indirectly implying, content.
  • Downer Ending: If you go by the interpretation that the story is about a deceased baby, then the story does have a tragic end to it.
  • Empty Room Psych: The lack of anything but informal content is what draws people to try and find meaning in the story.
  • Flash Fiction: One of the most famous instances of it, to where it inspired an entire trend of writing stories with only six words.
  • The Law of Conservation of Detail: What little the story has gives you just enough information to imply that there's something going on behind the baby shoes ad, and leaves the rest to the reader's imagination.
  • Minimalism: The point of the story is to show that even with the barest minimum of words, you can still come up with a story, or at least a situation, that hooks people into it by using the right words and letting the reader's imagination fill in the blanks for themselves.
  • Advertisement:
  • No Antagonist: There's no villain in the story, or any other characters for that matter.
  • No Plot? No Problem!: There is no plot given to the reader, only an ambiguous situation.
  • No Ending: All that is presented is six words presenting a situation with a completely ambiguous context behind it and no characters are described or present. Because there's nothing present to drive the situation further, there is no resolution, much less any kind of progression, given to this situation.
  • Scrapbook Story: The format's that of a newspaper classified ad.


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