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Six-Word Stories and the Space Between Poetry and Fiction

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about whether a six-word story is poetry or just very short fiction. I suppose that this train of thought began while facing the dilemma of tagging my posts as fiction, or poetry, or both.

I’ve heard some very talented and well-versed writers talk about the line between fiction and poetry, and how easy it is for a young writer such as myself to cross that line. And they are correct. I often do, as do many of the writers I know. Lately, however, I’ve begun to wonder if that metaphor is accurate, and why it matters.

One definition for poetry is “the best words in the best order.” But really, all writing should strive to be that. Another definition is “a dramatization of a voice” and another still is “a discreet human emotion given voice.” Well, fiction can be those things too. Other differences often focused on are the format of a poem on the page, but using keyboards and the endless space of a Word document or Internet page has vastly altered that, and it never really made sense before hand anyway; Prose poetry exists, after all. And don’t make the mistake of pretending that a novel’s plot is structured any differently than a poem. Scope could be brought in to explain the difference: a novel attempts to describe a life, or an entire world, while a book of poetry tackles moments. Though, there are poems that take on worlds and lives too. Walt Whitman’s “A Song of Myself” for instance.

I could go on, listing all the definitions and distinctions I’ve ever heard of and finding exceptions and flaws.

So then what is the difference? I’ve never liked arguments of intentionality, but I suppose it could be said that a poet wants readers to read his or her work as a poem, and a novelist wants readers to read his or her work as a novel. I have a better idea though, and it is where six word stories come in.

Imagine a void. The void has the appearance of an orb, and also the appearance of three tiers of depth. In the middle plane, a bit left of center in the void is fiction, and a bit to the right is poetry. In the center, drifting between the two is a six-word story and a few other things like it. Imagine these bodies however you wish. There is no line between any of them. Only a bit of space and that is easily traveled by such things as six word stories, any prose poetry, or any form of writing that borrows from both disciplines.

Below fiction, poetry, comic books, six word stories, and all of the rest, is a light. This light is wide and twinkles in different colors and we call it Truth. Above the plane in which writing exists are people (both readers and writers). We people cannot see the Truth except by a distance glow. We can only see the writing clearly. It is the writing, however, that can see Truth, and is almost close enough to touch it. Some see poetry more clearly, some notice fiction, others see both or neither.

So what is the difference then? There is almost none, but it is there. Perhaps poetry is long and thin and fiction is round and wide. Or maybe the only real difference between fiction and poetry is which type of person they appeal to.  So how does that work? With six-word stories. The more I think about it, the more I am certain that a six-word story is both fiction and poetry. They can be inserted into a poem as a single line, or into a novel as a single sentence. I’ve done exactly this several times. The difference then, is what comes next. What the readers and writers expect to come next.

In a body of writing, in a void, both fiction and poetry use each sentence, or line, to travel further toward that vast light of Truth. The difference is that poetry reaches far between its lines, spreading each one like the steps of a ladder. Fiction packs the lines in tight, building toward Truth like a staircase. We expect these things when we pick up either body of writing. Maybe that’s why fiction sells more than poetry: it’s easier to climb stairs than a ladder.

I would absolutely love to see comments concerning this, and maybe even start a discussion?


2 responses to “Six-Word Stories and the Space Between Poetry and Fiction

  1. I believe the six-word stories could be both poetry and fiction. Poets and authors have a message to convey, they are just using different mediums to communicate it. Poems may have more room for interpretation.. as the reader has more room to bring in personal experience due to the (generalization here) shorter nature of poems. Personally, I find it harder to connect to a book of fiction, even if it is describing my own personal experience, just with someone else’s words, due to the background of the characters and situation. I guess if the author is efficient in their writing, the meaning will get there no matter what the format. So I ask, do you really need to make the distinction?

    • Sorry for the long delay in replying, but in the eternal words of Treebeard “Anything worth saying is worth taking a very long time to say.”
      You are right to ask if distinctions need to be made. I think that while the practice of rigorously defining Art and Literature (notice the distinction? bwahaha) is not always healthy to the practice of creating, it is helpful to the practice of consuming. Definitions and genres help to filter intention, presumptions, and interest. If I gave you a book and said “this book will change your life” you might be more interested, and more likely to believe me, than if I said “this book of erotic fan fiction will change your life.” (No disrespect to any erotic fan fiction writers out there. You do us all a service.)
      Similarly, I think that one of the integral goals of six word stories is to tell a narrative in a very short space. Narrative is not exclusive to fiction, of course. Poetry, jokes, and other forms of writing can also make use of narrative structure. But what makes the discussion so interesting to me is that in order for a six-word story to really work, then it must use the efficiency of poetry in combination with the structure of a narrative plot.
      In this way, I think that six-word stories are in fact their own sub-genre, separate from both poetry and fiction, but dependent on imitating both of them.

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