This is taken from a workshop I ran at the eFestival of words. Sorry for any typos, but I hope you might find it useful.
Welcome to the drabble workshop.
Let’s start with a quick definition, just in case you’re not sure what drabbling is.
According to Wikipedia, “A drabble is an extremely short work of fiction of exactly one hundred words in length, not necessarily including the title. The purpose of the drabble is brevity, testing the author’s ability to express interesting and meaningful ideas in an extremely confined space.”
I saw another definition that said a drabble should be a complete story with beginning, middle and surprise ending, told in precisely 100 words. Another definition included 100-word poetry.
But when would you actually “need” to drabble?
Do you remember those questions on college entrance papers.
1. Write about yourself in a hundred words or less.
2. Tell us about your favorite book in no more than 600 characters.
3. Why do you want to come to this college?
4. Write your answer inside the box…
Yes, drabbling’s a useful skill there.
But perhaps you’ve moved on to writing greater things.
1. That query letter you’re working on for your novel with it’s brief (100-word?) synopsis.
2. The outline that has at least a touch of feeling.
3. The back blurb.
4. The press release.
5. The author bio.
If you’ve just self-published something on Createspace you might be looking for ways to make that author bio stop overwhelming the book description–a drabble could be “just the thing,” or maybe a dribble (50 words) instead.
Drabbles can be useful for all these things. But they’re also useful just as a way to wake your creative and editing juices as you sit down to write. We’ll look at that in the next post. For now, your homework is to think of any other places where a drabble would be “just the thing.”
Leave your answers on this thread and let’s see what we come up with.
What do you do when you first sit down to write?
1. Stare at the screen till you need coffee?
2. Hold your fingers over the keys and see what happens?
3. Make a shopping list?
4. Plot the next fifteen chapters.?
5. Or freewrite a journal telling yesterday’s dreams?
If freewriting’s a way to get your creative juices flowing, drabbling’s a way to direct and sculpt them into something worth reading. And if plotting’s more your style than pantzing, drabbling helps train those decision making skills which determine when to show and which to tell.
They say all writing is one part inspiration and two parts perspiration, so we’re going to start with this workshop with the inspiration part. What shall we drabble about?
100 words doesn’t give you very much to work with. But having limits can be very freeing to the brain—you don’t need to wrap your mind around the complexities of character development, world building, story arc etc. Instead you get to make one quick decision and start writing. It’s like going to Starbucks with only a couple of dollars in your pocket—no need to choose between a mocha or a caramel macchiato; you’re just going to buy a coffee.
To keep it simple, let’s choose a story everyone knows. Noah’s ark perhaps. Beauty and the Beast. Star Wars? Something like that.
But how do we rewrite this famous tale in a hundred words?
1. Choose a unique point of view perhaps—Noah’s ark told by Noah’s grandson, or the mouse. Beauty and the beast told by the beast’s little brother. Star Wars told by an Ewok…
2. Or change the characters—Three blind mice might become three blind musicians. The Prince and the Pauper could be the CEO and the homeless guy…
3. Repurpose the story—Cinderella advertises a new breed of pumpkin. Beauty and the beast promote hair products…
4. Change the time and location—Noah’s ark in space…
5. Change the emphasis—Noah’s ark as a tale of global warming…
Add some short suggestions to the end of this thread, then add your own short stories. Don’t worry about the hundred words rule yet. Just spend five minutes writing a beginning, a middle and an end—three paragraphs at most. And don’t worry about editing. We’ll do that later.
If you’ve got your mini-story written, this is where we start to refine and focus it.
First count your words. Okay, I know. Counting’s not very creative. But that’s one of the benefits of drabbling. The artificial word limit forces you to step back from the creative process for a moment. And stepping back gives you a chance to ask those questions you probably weren’t asking while you were writing—the questions you really need to ask if you want to refine your work rather than just spell and grammar-check it.
If you’re using a word processor, word-counts should be easy. If not, feel free to choose your own rules about apostrophes and abbreviations. The usual technique to say you’ve got a new word if there’s a space before and after it, so, for example, “there’s” is one word, and so is “e.g.”
You’ll probably find you’ve got more than 100 words, but those plotters amongst you may have less. Either way is fine.
Now we decide how to distribute those words—which bits of your story need to grow and which to shrink. This is where you practice your selection skills—where to start, where to end, what to keep and what to lose from your masterpiece—skills you’ll need whether you’re drabbling or writing the great American novel.
Look at your first paragraph.
1. Does your story spend too long setting the scene?
2. Does it start at the right place?
3. Does it assume too much?
4. Does it tell us too little?
If your story’s got lots of dialog, you might want to think of pieces of conversation as single paragraphs. Do your characters spend too many lines saying “Hello, how are you?” Could you jump straight in with “Help!” instead?
What about the second paragraph, or the middle of the tale.
1. Is it too long-winded? Do you spend too long telling all the twists and turns—every tree they pass instead of just calling it a forest, every stranger they meet instead of saying it’s a crowd?
2. Does the action take too long—there’s no room for a blow-by-blow account of battle in a drabble, but you’ll have to keep enough detail to make it real. Which weapons matter? Which wounds does the reader care about?
Then look at the ending.
1. Is it too abrupt or too slow?
2. Does it leave the reader with something to think about, or leave him wondering why he bothered to read?
3. Does it have a point—a surprise, a revelation, a laugh…
Now look at the whole thing together and see if you want to change your mind about where you began or ended. Will you show me a dark and stormy night through the window then have me flee and tell me it’s a dream? Or could you start the story where I’m already running, let the night’s scares grow? Will you describe how I trembled when I woke, or simply wake me from the tale with a question—Was it real?—or the monster’s roar replaced by the sound of the alarm? Will you describe the monster in detail or focus instead on grass-blades cutting my feet. It’s all your choice. Look at the story you wrote before and choose what to cut and keep. Or look at other stories? Which bits of them do you think should be shown or told?
Okay, now we get to the nitty gritty of editing and word-count, and you can be sure this stuff will help you tighten your novels as well as your drabbles.
Let’s start with redundant words:
“Is, was, were” are frequent culprits…
1. The rain was falling—it rained.
2. He was running—he ran.
3. She was walking—she walked.
4. Trees were bending—trees bent.
“A, the” can add extra verbiage too…
1. The dark clouds gathered—dark clouds gathered.
2. The dogs began to bark—dogs barked.
And what about “that”?
1. He thought that she—he thought she.
2. The roads that meandered—the meandering roads.
“Start” and “begin” can be repeat offenders too…
1. She started to cry—she cried.
2. Birds began to rise from the ground—birds flew.
Then there are all those unnecessary connectors—“but, and, then, still, however”
1. But then he turned around—he turned around.
2. However, she still couldn’t—she couldn’t.
3. And then she—she.
Or the dreaded unnecessary adverbs which end up lengthening weak verbs…
1. She ran quickly—she hurried.
2. He walked slowly—he crept.
3. They shouted noisily—they yelled.
4. They said quietly—they whispered.
1. The dark black dog—he can’t be light black.
2. The clouds overhead—where else would they be?
3. Wet water—when is it dry?
4. She leaped over the high wall—would she leap if it was low?
This isn’t to say you should remove or replace all these words, just that you should recognize them as possibly removable. We’re not trying to turn writing into a slightly longer form of texting—just tightening things up so the words you keep are all there because you need them.
Do you have any favorite redundancies—ones you find you keep writing (I keep using “keep” for example), ones that annoy you when you read, ones you’ve seen on TV? (“Julie is still in the hospital, having been taken there after she fell into a coma after being poisoned.”)
Repetition for effect is great, and drabbles might often start and end with related sentences. Because they’re short, they need all the extra boost we can get from the way we use the words. But accidental repetition reads like an accident.
“She dropped her hand to stroke the dog’s head. The dog lifted its head under her hand. It rested its head on her hand. Suddenly she heard a sound and raised her head.” How many heads and hands did you see and how sick are you of them?
There are only 100 words in a drabble. Repetitions will really stand out in such a short space so make sure you use them carefully. If you woudln’t want to write the word in 14-point bold italics, don’t repeat it; use a different word.
So, those heads and hands? The dog could lift its nose for example and rest its chin on her palm. The girl could raise her eyes… But remember to keep your word use appropriate. The dog lifted its cranium might be correct but what sort of image does it convey? (Perhaps she’s a doctor.)
Look through the stories—yours or anyone else’s. Suggest places where repetition might be helpful, or suggest alternative words to avoid repetition.
Drabbles are so short they almost beg to be read aloud, and we’ve all heard how reading aloud can help you edit your writing haven’t you? But who wants to read a 300-page novel aloud? If you practice on drabbles, you’ll find some of the read-aloud lessons become a sort of second nature—you’ll find your novels can benefit even without you getting a sore throat.
A hundred words is artificial the same way poetry’s artificial. You use the artifice to shape the writing into something more than just the sum of words. You try to create feelings and dig deeper without the reader realizing the effort involved. And sound helps us do that.
Look at those stories again. Are there places where you could juxtapose words that start with the same letters, or rhyme, or maybe create an appropriate beat?
1. The dog licked her palm, trusting she’d protect him. Or the dog licked her palm, trusting she’d save him from harm.
2. The shattered crates fell down. Or the broken boxes bounced.
3. He lay on the ground, dark earth falling over him. Or he lay on the ground, brown earth falling down on him.
You might end up adding a few words here and there, but that’s okay. You can always remove some from somewhere else. Drabbling’s not just about counting; it’s about using words to their greatest effect, creating something out of almost nothing.
And your drabble doesn’t have to be a story, whatever Wikipedia says. You can turn it into a drabble poem if you want—or a dribble (50 words) or a drip (25).
What lines might you change in the stories we’ve got so far. What difference would the rhythm and rhyming make? Don’t do it just for the sake of technique—make sure it helps with the story you’re telling, the feeling you’re trying to convey. But at least think about it, and post your examples or suggestions below.
I’m going to write a sample drabble. Where do I start?
The idea: I mentioned Noah’s ark before. It’s a well-known story. I already know the plot
1. Noah hears God’s warning
2. Noah builds an ark
3. Noah puts two of every animal on the ark, plus his family
4. Floodwaters rise
5. Noah sends out birds to find dry land
6. Noah lands on a mountain
7. Noah thanks God
The twist: What do I know about Noah’s ark that someone else might not know?
1. The flood might have been caused by global warming—the Med rising above the Bosphorus and flooding the Black Sea plain.
2. Methuselah was Noah’s grandfather and he died at the time of the flood—did he drown?
3. The first time the Bible says don’t eat meat with the blood in it is after the flood—don’t eat floodkill?
4. Noah got drunk after he landed—did the grapes ferment on the ark?
Point of view: The story is usually just told. I want to use somebody’s point of view to show part of the story.
1. Methuselah—left behind or too old and tired to bother?
2. Noah’s wife—what on earth is her husband doing?
3. Noah’s grandson—an exciting adventure?
4. The neighbor—cynical, left behind, trying to survive the flood?
At this point I’ll start freewriting and see what I get. I’m going to start with Methuselah.
“Aren’t you going to help Grandpa?”
Crazy kid. I’m his great great grandpa. D’you see me roping cows and goading those weird elephant things into the pen at my age? Noah wants to collect himself a zoo, that’s his problem, not mine.
“Aren’t you going to live on the ship?”
At my age? Honestly. I have problems enough walking around on dry land.
“But it’s going to flood.”
It is. I know. Those villagers laughing at Noah, they think it won’t. They think if it’s hot and dry today it’ll be hot and dry tomorrow and who needs to listen to faith and science. They’ll soon find out. But me, I’m going to fall asleep and die in peace in my bed. D’you know why? ’Cause that’s what the good Lord told me when he told young Noah there was going to be a flood. I’ll be okay.
Heard a roaring last night. Folks said the river’s rising. Noah said “the Flood.” And me? I see the face of heaven reflected in the stream and I lay me down to sleep.
First I’ll look at the structure of my drabble:
1. I like where I begin, but I might want to make it clearer who’s talking to whom—mention Methuselah by name.
2. The middle’s too long, and I can use falling asleep in his bed as part of the ending.
3. The ending’s okay I guess, but I really want it to sound like he know’s what’s happening.
Next comes the search for redundant words.
1. “going to help”—could try “helping”
2. “Those weird elephant things.” That’s a bit long.
3. Does it matter that they’re going into a pen?
4. Great great grandpa—could I hyphenate it?
5. “It is. I know.” I could just say I know.
6. “Reflected in the stream.” Does it matter where?
What about repetition?
1. At my age—don’t want to repeat that.
2. Hot and dry—maybe keep.
I’ll edit for sound after I’ve worked on these.
“Grandpa, aren’t you helping Grandpa Noah?”
Crazy kid. I’m his great great grandpa Methuselah. D’you see me roping cows and goading elephants at my age?
“Aren’t you coming on the ship?”
I’ve problems enough on dry land.
“But it’s going to flood!”
Those villagers think it won’t of course. Hot and dry today means hot and dry tomorrow and nobody listens. But they’ll find out…
Heard a roaring last night. River’s rising even though it hasn’t rained—folks screaming—Noah loading the ark. And me? I see the face of heaven in puddles on the floor. I’m going home.
99 words, so I guess I’ll have to add one, but I’ll see how it all sounds first.
Reading it aloud, here’s what I want to change or keep.
1. I think I’ll another Grandpa just to fix on who’s talking. “Aren’t you coming on the ship Grandpa.”
2. I like the ohs in roping cows and goading elephants.
3. Not sure about “I’ve got problems enough.” Can I use trip to rhyme with ship? “I’m tripping over my walking stick just staying on dry land?”
4. Not sure I need “of course.”
I start editing again.
“Grandpa, aren’t you helping Grandpa Noah?” Crazy kid. I’m his great great grandpa Methuselah. D’you see me roping cows and goading elephants at my age?
“Aren’t you coming on the ship Grandpa?” But I’m tripping over my walking stick just staying on dry land.
“It’s going to flood!” And nobody believes it. Hot and dry today means hot and dry tomorrow, so they say. They’ll soon find out…
Heard a roaring last night. River’s rising even though it hasn’t rained—folks screaming—Noah loading the ark. And me? I see the face of heaven in puddles on the floor. I’m going home.
102. I added “so, say, soon” while I was typing, like the hissing of water just beginning to move. Now I’ll take out “last night” and who knows, maybe I’m done.
I’ve drabbled Noah’s ark before, so here are some of my earlier attempts…
The snow receded from the mountains. The river dried and the fields became bare. And Noah built a boat.
Travelers from the south declared the sea of ice had turned to water; but they brought none for the crops. And Noah built a boat.
The sound of thunder was an ocean crashing over the cliff. The river rose and the rains poured down. And Noah sailed his boat.
When he landed, the animals lay drowned all around, but God would not let him eat. The sun shone bright, and a rainbow lit the sky with a promise of God’s love.
From Christmas! Creation to Revelation in 100 words a day
“I’m hungry,” cried the boy.
“Soon,” said his mother.
“But I’m hungry now.”
The ship had sailed through rain and flood while their village and all they knew was washed away—nothing left but the clothes they wore and animals crying out in the bowels of the boat.
“I’m hungry.” They landed on a hill-top where Noah’s altar scented the air with the savor of roasting meat.
“Mommy, cook for us too.” But the animals, dead and drowned on the ground were forbidden, and the beasts from the ark had run away.
They shared God’s meal and promised to obey.
From Thanksgiving! From Eden to Eternity in 100 words a day
They talked about the weather, unseasonable rain and still no end to the drought, crops dying in the fields. They talked about food, how Methuselah’s wife would have done a better job with their meager supplies; no parties now, not even weddings and funerals, as the days grew too warm. They talked about children playing with the animals, wild and tame, Noah had penned by his boat. And about the folly of building a boat on dry land when there’s work to be done.
They talked till the roaring torrent and rising waters silenced them, then ran for the ark.
From Easter! Creation to Salvation in 100 words a day
“How old are you Grandpa?”
“Older than you.”
“But how old?”
“Older than your father.”
Grandpa was old as his tongue and older than his teeth, but “You’ve got more wrinkles than teeth,” said the boy. “Are you as old as your wrinkles?”
Grandpa was old as the trees and younger than the forest, but “How old’s the forest?” asked Noah.
“I’m old as the sea and younger than the sky,” said Methuselah, and Noah asked how old was the sea, and how wide.
Grandpa never saw the sea, but Noah sailed an ark for forty days and forty nights.
If you’re into starting your writing day with a freewrite, try keeping it short and editing it into a drabble. It’ll tighten your thoughts, get you ready to write well instead of just throwing more words at the page. And if you’d rather plot, let yourself get creative by drabbling a scene from the plot as you start each day. It will help you choose which parts of the tale are worth pursuing in more detail. And it just might get you over that writer’s block.
If you practice drabbling and you’re writing a novel, you just might find you can enjoy the editing stage. Your ears and eyes will be tuned to spot the things you need to change. 10% of your words will vanish in a flash of weak redundancies. You’ll spot those repetitions and tighten them up for effect. The hints of poetry will leap to mind for emphasis and empathy. And suddenly you’ll have something so much tighter, so much more ready for submission.
Then drabble a query letter and be sure you’ll be drabbling your back blurb soon. Good luck to you.