Conventional wisdom says that you should never use a long word when a short word will do. But if you’re a writer trying to pen a short story, conventional wisdom is a little harder to apply. Short story writing is all about the economy of language, and that’s what drabble writers are trying to achieve — getting as much story and point across in a limited amount of words. This type of fiction is intended to be read in one sitting, so it’s a perfect form for a busy modern lifestyle. If you’ve ever wanted to know how to write a drabble, read on.
What is a drabble?
A drabble is a form of microfiction that is exactly 100 words in length. It’s a true test of brevity where the writer has to come up with a meaningful story in just 100 words.
Drabbles were popular in science fiction and a number of online journals and contests have sprung up around the drabble format.
Establish your vision
First of all, as a writer, you need to know what you want out of your drabble. Are you trying to prove to yourself that you can make something of value with limited time and words, or are you planning on submitting your drabble to a third-party publishing house and hoping to catch their eye? If you’re doing the latter, take a closer look at the market to decide if a drabble is the right time-length for you to submit. This helps you figure out your writing schedule by using the order of authors’ last names, your vision will help you figure out facts like time-frame, length, and character depth.
No matter what kind of drabble you’re aiming to pen, it all starts when you plan your idea. The last thing you want is for your third of a page scrawl to look like an unattended chicken scratch, so get out a piece of paper and start mapping out your plot. You don’t need a detailed treatment of the whole thing or character development worksheets — just set down a basic outline of what you want to happen. If you’re not sure whether you’re writing a plot-focused or poetry, it’s helpful to break down your list into these two different categories. Plot-focused drabbles aim to execute within their word-limit without sacrificing plot, while poetry-focused drabbles are more concerned with creating a beautiful, memorable language experience.
Find the core of your message
One of the key characteristics of a good story is that it tells the reader something important. You know you’ve got this principle down if your story makes someone examine their life and the decisions they are making, or if it tells them why they should hold onto the things they have. Every story has a message, but the message in a drabble is easy to figure out. The point of a drabble is to get to the heart of the matter as quickly as possible, and that requires a clear focus and a point about which to be focused. The best way to get started is to map out your main character’s journey, which is why this is such an effective plot structure.
Once you’ve started to map out your plot, it’s time to take a step back and consider what that plot is building up to. There’s a moment in every story that will suddenly make the reader sit up. It’s what all the moments and minutiae are working towards. In your character’s development, this is the epiphany. What is their great realization — about themselves, their role in the story, or the true nature of the situation? The characters’ coming to that realization is the emotional touchstone of your story.
Develop the concept
Of the major elements of a good short story, the plot is ironically the easiest to write. Having a solid concept to start with can help get you going, and will make the other details of your story fall into place more easily. The first challenge of writing a good plot is to make sure it is actually interesting. Any half-baked idea can be wrapped in interesting characters or complex language, but it’s much more difficult to make dynamic plot lines work. In an exciting story, you should know what’s going to happen next, but you should not know exactly how to get there.
Choose one idea, rather than three unrelated ones. You can add plot elements later, but it’s much more difficult to strip them away. No one expects your first drafts to be perfect. But as you develop your story further, it becomes an issue of choosing which elements to keep and which to throw out — and a good rule of thumb is to lose the things that reverse the direction of your story, and prevent exciting things from happening.
Outline the story
Though the first draft of any story will likely go off in a new direction, setting aside some time prior to writing will help you ensure that your story will fit comfortably inside its word count. Sit down and brainstorm the plot, which is what you’ll use to start organizing your characters and your scenes, and eventually the details of your story. Whether you decide to spend this time in a notebook, on a piece of scratch paper, or even a stream of consciousness style writing, make sure you don’t go beyond 100 words or you’ll run into word count issues.
Once you have your foundation of a plot and characters, the next step is writing the copy itself. Keep your copy to around 150 words at first, and concentrate on getting the core and important parts of the story down. Once you’ve written that down, go through a more critical draft, pointing out any places where you think you might be able to cut a word or two, and make that final copy as clean and succinct as possible.
Build your world
While a short length is the only true “rule” for writing a successful drabble, the shorter the piece the more constrained your creative options are. To make things easier on yourself, you can even focus on just one detail or concept during the creation of your drabble. If you want to create a complex, living, breathing world, don’t try to do it all at once. Instead, build out your world one idea at a time, writing down descriptions or capturing conversations among characters. The story part of a drabble can be difficult to fill in, but when you focus on worldbuilding it becomes almost automatic.
In fact, the story component of a drabble can be a truly worthwhile process of discovery. By stressing brevity, you will force yourself to think about what is most important in a scene or action and get straight to it. The other advantage of starting with building a world is that you can apply to the same project over and over again, only filling in the “story” piece each time. This allows you to work with greater freedom on the interesting, harbored notions that you might include in a longer work.
Choose what you need to add in your story
While a drabble is incredibly short, it still has to do the job of a full story. To do this, you’ll need to create three to five sub-actions that add up to one action. If you’re writing a story to illustrate the importance of teamwork, those sub-actions might be minor conflicts where the character needs help accomplishing something. If you’re writing a story about courage and facing your fears, those sub-actions could be small fears that illustrate a major fear. If you’re writing a story with a lot of action, you might need a few reaction sub-actions to show your reader the back-and-forth of a big fight. Just make sure that these individual actions can add up to an overall intention.
As you build your plot around this action, keep in mind that you don’t have ninety-nine thousand words to develop your thoughts. You only have one thousand one hundred. You have extremely limited space to show your characters’ overall story, and the key to figuring out what you need to squeeze into your drabble is articulating your ideas thematically. What do you want to express through your short work? What do you want to tell readers about things that matter to you? Write down these themes and develop them one-by-one.
End as strong as you start
When you are writing a short story, be sure to end it with a strong finish, even if that finale isn’t necessarily a cliffhanger. In a cliffhanger ending, you don’t reveal the conclusion to the reader, but there is often an invitation for the reader to keep reading the story. In fact, endings should always provide resolutions of one kind or another for readers by completing each character’s storyline, even if those storylines are in conflict. A beginning defines who that character is and the situation in which the story starts. This gives the reader a glimpse of what the story is about and the ending cleans up the story.
By knowing your characters well, you can leave readers with a strong sense of who each of them are and their dynamic in the aftermath of the struggle. You should start small and then widen the scope of your story. Many writers struggle to define the small or the big picture of any story. A great technique to understanding it is to start with the big picture and go back to the small picture of the story. Choose a specific moment and pull out all the details. You can make a character flip-flop as you move through all the details.
Learn how to say less with more
You don’t need long stories to accrue hours worth of brand new experiences and imaginative thoughts. Sometimes, the most compelling narrative works have only a few words to write. A drabble is not really for the creative investor who needs his or her vices constantly refreshed, but more for the learning author who excels at painting rich inner worlds in their readers, but struggles to do so in fewer than 2,500 words. Reading about the concept online has no substitute for the exhilarating experience of seeing it in real life. Not only will you feel accomplished for mastering a new form, you will be able to translate those skills to longer fiction or better, allow yourself to be more simple and abstract. It can ingrain in your routine as an author in a way that will enable you to let go of the old stories and write some of your most imaginative fiction yet.
It helps also not to think of them as sad or depressing, but rather as concentrates for your heart, emotions, and sensibilities — jolts of creative energy that range from disquieting to symphonic and transcendent. The best part is that a single hundred-word outburst can feel like a tantric reading of a whole novel, and afterward, you will feel refreshed, renewed, and loose. Now that’s how to write a drabble.
If you’re feeling ambitious, or you want to challenge yourself, you might try writing a 100-word drabble, or even a 1,000-word flash fiction. Whatever your goal, a dose of dedication and hard work goes a long way, especially if you keep your creative juices flowing with writing prompts. Try reading real drabble collections to see how top-notch writers do it, or just scan your local newspapers for inspiration. With diligence and effort, you’ll be the lengthiest drabble pen in no time. Then, gather your drabbles together, write a strong introduction and conclusion, and hire a good copy editor, and you’re on your way to being the proud author of one of the most beloved short story forms in the world of fiction.
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