Some of the best work I’ve ever read was in the form of extremely short stories. Authors grow in the craft and gain different perspectives when they write short stories and essays. With each short piece that you write, you increase your ability to tell a story with minimal exposition.
This is especially true if you write the occasional drabble—a whole story in 100 words or less. These practice shorts serve several purposes:
Writing such short fiction forces the author to develop economy of words. You have a finite number of words to tell what happened, so only the most crucial of information will fit within that space.
- You have a limited amount of space so your narrative will be limited to one or two characters only.
- There is no room for anything that does not advance the plot or affect the outcome of the story.
- The internet is rife with contests for drabbles, some offering cash prizes.
- Building a backlog of short stories gives you ready-made characters and a premade setting to draw on when you need a longer story to submit to a contest.
Writing a 100-word story takes less time than writing a 3,000-word story, but all writing is a time commitment. When writing a drabble, you can expect to spend an hour or more getting it to fit within the 100 word constraint.
To write a drabble, we need the same basic components as we do for a longer story:
- A setting
- One or more characters
- A conflict
- A resolution.
First, we need a prompt, a jumping off point. We have 100 words to write a scene that tells the entire story of a moment in the life of a character. Some contests give whole sentences for prompts, others offer one word, and still others no prompt at all.
A prompt is a word or visual image that kick starts the story in your head. The prompt for the following story is sunset.
In my previous post on writing short stories, I showed how I break short stories into acts. A drabble works the same way–we can break this down into its component parts and make the story arc work for us. We have about 25 words to open the story and set the scene, about 50 – 60 for the heart of the story, and 10 – 25 words to conclude it.
We sat on the beach near the fire, two old people bundled against the cold Oregon sunset. Friends we’d never met fished the surf.
Wind whipped my hair, gray and uncut, tore it from its inept braid. The August wind was chill inside my hood, but I remained, pleased to be with you, and pleased to be on that beach.
Mist rose with the tide, closed in and enfolded us, blotting out the falling stars.
Laughing at our folly, we dragged our weary selves back to our digs, rented, but with everything this old girl needed—love, laughter, and you.
The above drabble is a 100-word romance, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. The beginning places our protagonist on the beach with someone for whom she cares deeply.
The conflict in this tale? The mist and wind make it too cold for our protagonist to stay on the beach and gaze at the stars. A hard, cold wind and heavy mist are typical of the Washington and Oregon Coast in August, two things you wouldn’t think could coexist, but there, they do.
The resolution? A cozy evening indoors.
Drabbles are incredibly useful. They contain the ideas and thoughts that can easily become longer works. The above drabble, written in 2015, combined with a photograph I took while vacationing in Oregon with my husband in 2016, was the inspiration for what became a longer poem: Oregon Sunset, which you can read here.
Good drabbles are the distilled essences of novels. They contain everything the reader needs to know about that moment and fills them with curiosity to learn what happened next.
When you have a flash of brilliance, a shining moment of what if, write it in the form of a drabble. Save it in a file for later use as a springboard to write a longer work, or for submission to a drabble contest in its proto form. Spending an hour getting that idea and emotion down so you won’t forget it is a small gift you give yourself, as an author.
Whether you choose to submit a drabble to a contest or hang on to it doesn’t matter. Either way, the act of writing a drabble hones your skills, and you will have captured the emotion and ambiance of the brilliant idea.
That is what true writing is about.