Great questions — from a Hemingway-esque Six Word (or in your case, four word) Story.
Ol’ Earnesto’s example was: For sale: baby shoes, never worn.
And that inspired a whole slew of imitators and, indeed, an entire book.
I’ve previously written a blog post on how this applies to advertising.
A few of my faves from the book include:
- Woman Seeks Men–High Pain Threshold.
- Study mathematics, marry slut. Sum bad
- Found true love. Married someone else.
- Aging late bloomer yearns for do-over.
- Girlfriend is pregnant, my husband said.
- Just in: boyfriend’s gay. Merry Christmas.
- According to Facebook, we broke up.
- Met online; love before first sight.
- Atheist alcoholic gets sober through God.
So here’s what you might notice about most of these Six Word Stories…
1. They evoke maximum emotion and imagery with a minimum of information.
It’s why Hemingway used his six word story as an illustration of his Iceberg Theory.
It’s not about what information you push at people, but what you’re able to call-up from within them that counts.
2. They describe scenarios or events rather than full-blown stories.
They’re what movie insiders would call high concept. In fact, “Found true love. Married someone else” sort of describes much of Four Weddings and a Funeral. But the movie and story is a lot more than just that one situation, isn’t it?
3. Most of them are negative or involve trouble.
Only the last two examples are positive, and even then, the last one is redemptive, and therefore implies a whole lot of trouble to begin.
Remember these observations. They’ll be relevant in answering your questions, as asked, starting with:
“What constitutes a story?”
First, understand this:
When it comes to story, audiences come for the plot, but stay for the characters.
You can easily convey a high-concept plot that’ll hook someone into wanting to hear more with just a sentence. But unless the reader bonds with the protagonist, they’re unlikely to stick around.
“Mobster sees psychiatrist in the midst of a mid-life crisis” might sound intriguing enough to get you to watch the pilot episode. But no one’s sticking around for six seasons of The Sopranos unless they’re fascinated with Tony Soprano.
A customer can buy from you once from a compelling offer, but they’ll never become long-term loyal unless they’ve bonded with your company’s “character.”
So… audiences come for the plot but stay for the characters.
That’s worth repeating because when most of us talk about story, what we end up talking about is plot, aka narrative arc, while forgetting about character arc altogether, and this is a huge oversight.
That said, when it comes to plot, Aristotle famously wrote that it depicts a complete action, with a beginning, a middle, and an end.
Meaning that there’s a huge difference between an itinerary and a plot.
A mere chronological telling of events, such as an answer to the typical school question of “what did you do this summer,” would consist of events strung together with “and then.”
“This happened, and then this happened, and then this happened,” and so on.
That’s not a story.
A story has to have the beginning and end tied together through causation, with the end point representing a meaningful conclusion.
Moreover, a story typically starts in response to a problem. This is why the majority of the six word stories were negative.
If you ask student’s “Tell me about something which went wrong during your summer break,” you’ll receive stories rather than itineraries. Stories strung together with “therefore” and “but” and “which caused.”
This happened which caused us to do this, but then this ruined our plans, therefore we…
This idea of trouble as inherent to story is why our natural storytelling ability tends to kick in most forcefully in the form of worry. Hence the Montaigne quote: “My life has been full of terrible misfortunes most of which never happened.”
Hopefully that not only answers the first part of your question, but begins to answer the bit about “What are the necessary elements to convey an series of events that leads to some kind of resolution?”
But to drive this home a bit more, I’ll bastardize E.M. Forster’s example of causation and plot.
“The king died and then the queen died” is not a plot, because it’s only strung together by an “and then.”
There’s no causation, so there’s no plot proper.
While “The king died and then the queen died of a broken heart” IS a plot, because the beginning and end are tied together by causation, resulting in a meaningful conclusion.
And since the causation centers on grief at the loss of a loved one, we know how we’d tell this story, don’t we?
We’d either begin it with the king and queen meeting and falling in love, or we’d begin with the death and flash back to the first meeting.
Because, going a bit deeper, what you really find is that the meaning of your story is dramatically impacted by any change to the beginning (aka origin) or ending (aka concluding) points.
Which is something you know instinctively if you’re a parent.
“She hit me” — a story of unprovoked aggression — changes dramatically with the question “Ok, and what happened immediately before that?”
“I grabbed her toy.”
OK, move the beginning a bit and the story changes.
MacBeth could be a tale of cunning conquest, if you ended it with him taking the throne and reigning. But Shakespeare deleted the 12 years of MacBeth’s reign to hasten his day of reckoning.
This gets to one of the many reasons Origin Stories are so powerful in advertising — they convey deep meaning to the arc of the story, while also focusing as much on character arc as much as the plot.
Finally, let’s tackle the last of your questions:
“At what point does writing go from unreachable to intriguing to expected?”
You can easily kick off a story with a mysteriously vague, but intriguing sentence.
But your next sentence had better start to give a bit more context, and your next after that had better start to give some answer.
Of course, both those sentences could raise as many questions as they answer, but the point is that you need to constantly reward the reader with a better sense of what’s going on and, indeed, who they’re observing and supposed to be rooting for as they read.
If you don’t, they’ll assume you don’t know what you’re doing and fall off.
So you’ll want to be constantly rewarding the reader with new pieces to the puzzle as they read, just make sure a fair number of those pieces reveal character as much as plot.
But you already sense this because even taking your own example of:
About half your questions center on character:
- Who threw the punch
- and who received it?
- What is their background?
And half center around plot:
- What led to that escalation? (Why there was a blow to begin with?)
- How was it resolved?
- How did it change their lives?
- Was there really true resolution or some financial re-balancing between parties?
P.S. You also mentioned these four words as “an inside joke nested in an inside joke.” When you are seeking to evoke a strong response from your audience — to strike the resonant chord — you need to have shared experiences (aka reality hooks) to draw upon. The following six word story makes a lot more sense if you know who Malcolm Gladwell is:
Father: ‘Anything but journalism.’ I rebelled. —Malcolm Gladwell
And so it is with your four-word story.