“For sale: Baby shoes, Never worn.” Ernest Hemingway
Ernest Hemingway allegedly wrote the six-word story above in order to win a bet. Some say it is his best ever work.
After my last post on writing haikus I started to think about other short forms of creative writing to use in class. I haven’t written a lesson plan here, but rather some thoughts and ideas about some very short pieces of fiction that you could use for ELT.
Writing often gets pushed to one side as a class activity or set for homework but I believe by using short forms both teachers and students will enjoy writing in class without feeling like they have to sit in silence scribbling away for long stretches of time (collaborative writing is also a great way of avoiding this). Short forms also lend themselves to studying really carefully how words are used and are also good for students that find writing a bit daunting. I have listed a few different types with ideas here, from the shortest getting (a little!) longer. Despite them not requiring students to write a lot, most of them would be better for students that already have enough grasp of English and knowledge of vocabulary to be able to express themselves in different ways and control their writing.
6 Word Memoir
US online magazine Smith was inspired by Hemingway’s story and asked its readers to tell their life story in just six words. Here are some of my favourite examples:
‘Not quite what I was planning.’
‘Educated too little. Learned too much.’
‘Awkward moments make the best memories.’
‘I made everything up, except you.’
‘Got away with more than expected.’
You can find lots more on Smith’s six words site, and could even get your students to submit their own.
There are lots of circumstances where you could use these in the class. A great ‘getting to know you’ activity for more advanced students would be to get students to write a six-word memoir to introduce themselves and then ask them to mingle and discuss each other’s. I could also see it working well as a ‘getting to know you’ with business students, ask them to write a six-word memoir about their business philosophy, career, etc.
You could also use them as a Monday morning warmer, ask the students to write a six word story about their weekend, then write them all up on the board and see if they can guess who wrote which one.
The ultimate modern short form must be twitter. The restraints of 140 characters or less doesn’t initially seem to lend itself to great works of fiction, however, the Guardian newspaper in the UK has a series on ‘twitter fiction’ where they ask famous writers to come up with a story within the constraints of a tweet. Here are a couple of examples, you could even use them as a reading task:
‘Mother love is strong enough to lift a car. I’d heard that. But when my girl was hit by a Mercedes, I heaved, screaming. Nothing moved.’ – Esther Freud
‘Life is always flashing before your eyes. Look down. Children playing, trees and traffic, your shadow running over the ground to meet you.’ – Mark Haddon
‘Darkness. I woke, felt the familiar weight in the bed, the breathing, the hand on my skin. “Oh, Paul,” I said. “Who’s Paul?” said the voice.’ – Nicci French
I like the idea of giving students a story prompt (a picture, opening line, title, etc) and asking students to brainstorm some ideas for a story. Only after they had come up with some ideas would I tell them they needed to write the story in a tweet (140 characters or less). It is a great way to practice editing and reformulating ideas. You basically have to condense the idea of a story into one image or idea, which is easier said than done! Students can tweet their stories to @twitterfiction.
Classics as Tweets
Staying on the twitter theme, there is also a tongue in cheek movement of reducing great works of fiction to a single tweet. For example:
Woman meets man called Darcy who seems horrible. He turns out to be nice really. They get together. – Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Upper-class woman gets it on with gamekeeper. – Lady Chatterley’s Lover by DH Lawrence
Orphan given £££ by secret follower. He thinks it’s @misshavisham but it turns out to be @magwitch – Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
You could ask the students to try this activity as a follow-up to reading a graded reader, or even write them about each other’s stories by swapping round longer stories that they have written and converting them to tweets. It feeds in nicely to the ideas of ‘getting the main idea’ that are so beloved of reading tests! If your students come up with any for famous books you could get them to tweet them with the hashtag #twitternovels.
Microfiction (100 word stories)
Microfiction (sometimes known as flash fiction, short short stories, sudden fiction, postcard stories, etc) comes in many guises and forms. There are story competitions for microfiction with word limits from 100 to 1000 words. In class I like to stick with the 100 word rule, and to enforce this as exactly 100 words (not 99 or 101!). I have used this task several times with EAP students because I think it is a really good way of getting them to focus on editing skills. At University there are often very strict word limits and I know, for me, I found writing within these limits meant I had to become really ruthless at cutting words or reformulating ideas to be more economical with the language. It is also useful for students who will be taking exams where there are word limits (IELTS for example). Often students have no real idea of what 100 words look like, so they find it hard to imagine 200 words, 300 words, etc. If you give them practice at writing exactly 100 words and they are familiar with this it is easy for them to imagine it doubled, etc. If you ask them to write it by hand (if the test is hand-written) then it is even better as they can see how much space 100 words takes up in their own handwriting.
There are several sites with examples of 100 word stories, and Reader’s Digest magazine even has a competition you could encourage your students to enter (there are also some great examples of 100 word stories on that site). Again, I would just use a story prompt such as a photo, object, first line, etc to give them the stimulus. You don’t have to use fiction either, you could get them to write exactly 100 words on any topic, and could choose a subject related to their area of study for EAP students (although fiction is more fun!)
I hope this post has inspired you to try writing some very short stories with your class. If you do, let me know how it goes, and if you have any other ideas about short form writing I would love to hear about them too.