How much can you say in 6 words? A tool for practice.

Have you ever read a 6-word story? This literary genre, which has gained popularity in the past few years, is attributed to Ernest Hemingway for having written:

For sale: Baby shoes. Never worn.

It’s unlikely he actually invented the genre (a form of “flash fiction”), or even those words, supposedly jotted on a restaurant napkin; similar examples predate Papa’s nanotome, and recent authority suggests his agent wrote it. It’s also unlikely that you’ll earn much by narrating such stories, should they catch on as standalone audiobooks. But nevertheless, in addition to being an intriguing literary challenge, the genre is also an interesting voice over challenge -- it’s a fun way to enrich your practice sessions.

Here are some other examples, published by in their call for submissions:

Without thinking, I made two cups. — Alistair Daniel
Revenge is living well, without you. — Joyce Carol Oates
Longed for him. Got him. Shit. — Margaret Atwood
All those pages in the fire. — Janet Burroway

(By the way, Narrative pays for accepted stories, but charges a fee for each submission.)

Here’s the challenge for practice: How many ways can you read each story?

• Pause in a different place each time. Or don’t pause. Or pause like Captain Kirk.

Yes, but that’s pretty obvious.

• Hit a different word each time.

Combine with the variations in pausing, you’ve just increase the possibilities geometrically. But it’s still pretty basic.

• Hit the same word in different ways.

Raise tone. Lower it. Whisper it. Stretch it. And so on. Keep mixing your options ...

• Adjust your speed, and your timing.

Should Joyce Carol Oates’ comma be long or short? It makes for a different meaning. Try various ways and listen back – learn to hear the difference. Similarly, how long a pause do you want before Margaret Atwood’s last word? The timing – which might be different from the earlier thoughts – can make all the difference.

• Be different characters.

Base one of the characters on your natural voice, just tweaking one or two vocal qualities or mannerisms. Make the other character(s) very different. It’s just 6 words, but each character can have a very detailed backstory.

• Say each with a different emotion.

Now things are getting really interesting. For example, consider the first story above. Initially, you probably thought it was a story about someone who had lost their spouse, or something like that. Maybe the speaker habitually made two cups of tea each morning. But maybe it’s some other situation – like, the speaker is a cook who’s taking a chemistry course ... instead of making 2 cc of a compound, she made two cups. It’s no longer morose, but amusing.

This last exercise has two benefits:

First, it calls for you to stretch and explore your emotional muscles. And even within just 6 words, often there’s the opportunity to express more than one emotion. Can you express (even feel) both realistically, and is your transition realistic, too?

And second, it calls for you to explore all possible interpretations of the script. In an actual script, the correct interpretation is usually obvious, or will be explained by the Director or client. But not always. Comedic scripts, for example, sometimes have a double meaning. Or the humor is better if underplayed. And on an audition or demo, you might distinguish yourself by voicing the interpretation less taken.

So you can say a lot in 6 words, because it’s not just what you say, it’s also how you say it. And if you ever get tired of practicing with this form, well ... there’s haikus.

More six-word stories:

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