Hemingway has the canonical very short story:

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

This piece manages to evoke a strong emotion of sadness. Wired has a piece on this motif. In it there are several other examples:

Longed for him. Got him. Shit. - Margaret Atwood

Gown removed carelessly. Head, less so. - Joss Whedon

Kirby had never eaten toes before. - Kevin Smith

each of these (there are more on the linked pages of varying degrees of quality) manage to evoke a strong emotion. They do this, I think, by deceiving our expectations. While relief could follow from this formula, I don't see how the general feeling of happiness could. How then, could a writer envoke the feeling of happiness in such a condensed prose?

  • 3
    Reader of this comment, I like you! Yes, you!
    – SF.
    Jan 17, 2014 at 10:57
  • I find the best way to elicit happiness is to get things to the brink of utter ruin and then fix it. When the risky treatment works and the dad recovers from his death bed, everyone's crying with happiness, outpourings of emotion are raw and believable, and yep, you the reader/watcher choke up a bit. Then again, it's tough to get readers engaged and emotionally committed enough for it to really hit home in a "very short" story.
    – CLockeWork
    Jan 17, 2014 at 11:45

2 Answers 2


The micro-stories you list all reside on a significant amount of wordplay and context, which combine with our expectations to instill a primal response. Fear, sadness, and relief are all very simple to evoke by way of a few concise images. Happiness, however, is more difficult, since a feeling of happiness requires some empathy for the characters to be more than a simple declaration.

The issue is really one of basic human psychology. We are hard wired to be most empathic to others when something is WRONG. Absent turmoil, we have a natural kind of pseudo-autism, where we stop feeling as much for the other person and would rather turn ourselves to our own issues.

You're about half right that they work by deceiving our expectations. In actually, the rely upon our expectations to fill in the rest of the story being told. And truth be told, I'm not sure it's even POSSIBLE to feel empathic happiness strongly. Especially if you want to invoke it artificially via a story and not an expression of relationship.

Sadness is easy:

He proposed last night, though not to me.

Relief is harder:

He proposed last night, though not to me. Thank God.

Happiness is a hallmark card.

He proposed last night, and she said yes!

  • +1 Love the examples, and yeah, as soon as you start trying to be positive it gets Hallmark.
    – CLockeWork
    Jan 17, 2014 at 11:44

There are three arguments against your claim that it is more easy to evoke sadness than happiness through any type of text:

(1) There are experiences, such as the loss of an unborn or newborn child, that will universally evoke sadness. The reasons for happiness appear much more varied and individual. But I'm sure you could find things that make most people happy, if you think about it: some reward (just don't specify it), sunshine, the return of a loved person, etc. It is just that out culture is preoccupied with negative emotions (lies, distrust, fear, anxiety etc.), and that therefore we find these emotions much easier to frame with words. After all, a story that plods happily along bores us. It is even claimed that a utopian life without conflict would bore us to tears (which I don't believe, but is commonly accepted as a valid argument against striving for it). And the happy ending of a tale is a sign of unrealistic kitsch, isn't it? Real life is seen to end at best neutrally and usually bad. People who feel good about their lives fill us with the suspicion that something is not quite right with them. Evoking happiness is just as easy, but we find it harder to think of.

(2) Most readers will no actually feel sad after reading Hemingway's sentence, especially not strongly, as you claim, only be reminded of sadness and consider the idea of sadness after the loss of a child cognitively. I'm generally a very empathic person and often cry over nothing, but Hemingway's sentence barely passed the door to the garden with the well of sadness for me.

(3) Also, while sadness is a mild emotion, happiness is an extreme emotion (maximally pleasurable). Evoking happiness is in fact not harder than evoking despair (maximum sadness). So you are in fact comparing apples and oranges here, because I have never read any fictional text that made me feel real despair. There are lots of texts that evoke a pleasant feeling in me, comparable to the vague sadness some others evoke.

  • The question wasn't "any type of text", it was for a very short story, as the four listed.
    – DougM
    Jan 17, 2014 at 15:38
  • @DougM Yes, and 'any type of text' includes very short stories, so I answered the question. "Are poodles animals?" "Yes, all dogs are animals." "But I did not ask about all dogs, only about poodles."
    – user5645
    Jan 17, 2014 at 16:32

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