How to Write a Drabble
Urban myth has it that Ernest Hemmingway wrote a complete story in six words for a bet: “For sale, baby shoes, never worn.” Maybe he did, maybe not, but certainly, those six words tell a powerful and tragic story, albeit with no structure.
Drabbles allow you, not just six words, but a full 100 words to write a powerful and captivating start, an engaging middle, and a big pay-off at the end. Writing a drabble is a great way to hone your skills as an author. It helps you to choose words that convey meaning with economy, accuracy, and authenticity. It also helps practice the art of creating a story, characters, dialogue, and dramatic action out of nothing. Not least, it helps you with that all-important, uncompromising, ruthless edit.
If you need any help getting started, here are some suggestions.
We all find it hard, sometimes, to come up with a story idea. So why not start with some research? A quick Google search will bring up alternative definitions of the word and other references can produce great story ideas. Another source of ideas for me is music. For the prompt word “storm” I thought of a line from a Leonard Cohen song that talks about a woman’s hair on Cohen’s pillow-like “a sleepy golden storm.”
For the drabble “Coffee” I wanted to write about Arab merchants. I spent a few minutes looking at Google and Wikipedia for more detail about the historical origins of coffee drinking, which also helped me choose names. One of them, Sheikh Omar, had been exiled from Mocha and lived in a cave for a while, which led me to the location and dramatic encounter of the story.
Having thought up some ideas for your drabble, how to start? Try writing a brief story just as it comes to mind without worrying about the word count. You might end up with 200 or 400 words, but don’t worry. The job of cutting it down to 100 is easier than you might think.
If you are having trouble getting started, I would suggest forgetting the narrative for a minute and think about what you want to say. To me, a drabble is all about the punchline. Why not try writing the end first and see what you come up with?
I wanted my “Coffee” drabble to end with the guest spitting out the hot drink he’d been given to try, because I can’t imagine anyone enjoying their first taste of coffee. That was the whole point of the story, but it had to be written in a way that had impact. I chose a closing scene in which the MC “sniffed the strange, dark liquid…” which he then “spat into the fire, which hissed in protest.”
When I wrote “Coffee” I was intending to make the ending a surprise, but my preferred ending is the unexpected twist, which is where the ending is the opposite of what the story leads you to expect. Other types of ending are: the happy ending, sad, ironic, funny ending, or whatever you like. So long as it has impact, which usually means the reader doesn’t guess the ending. There has to be an element of mystery. It can also help with impact if you tie the ending closely to the beginning, with a set-up and pay off.
Beginning: “David loved ribbons…” Ending: “Today, he wrapped a blue and gold satin ribbon around his and his bride’s wrist, as he said ‘I do.’”
The opening three words begs questions like: what did David love about ribbons? When I was a boy, interest from a boy in colored ribbons could lead to him being bullied. Was he? How did he respond? These questions create hooks for the reader. Your narrative will reel them in. Your ending will be their reward.
The process of joining the beginning to the end is, of course, to write the middle. You may find the job of keeping the middle brief and to the point is much easier if you already have the boundaries created by the start and the finish. All you need to do then, is take two or three steps from one to the other. Those steps must reveal stages in the story and develop the dramatic action. Tell your story with dialogue if you can. Stories are so much more engaging when told by their characters. Don’t worry about the word count too much at this stage. Cutting the story back to 100 words is surely half the fun.
Start your edit by cutting out anything that does not add to the story. Rewrite some of the lengthy descriptions and dialogue into shorter, sharper prose. Most descriptions will have more impact if you select fewer, choicer words to convey meaning. Try substituting different words and see which ones work the best. If you can’t think of great substitutes, go to any dictionary or thesaurus, online or in print.
For instance, you might have written the following scene for my story “Coffee” like this: “Just then, a man called Sheikh Omar appeared from the cave he had been hiding in since he was exiled from his home-town of Mocha. Omar was a bit of a shady character.” From this, cut the reference to Mocha, as it adds nothing to the story. “The outcast Skeikh Omar,” tells you his name and suggests the questionable reputation in just four words. “Concealed in a cave,” tells you where he was and what he was doing. Your scene “the outcast Sheikh Omar, concealed in a cave,” has been trimmed down from 34 words to just eight.
That’s really all there is to it. Writing a drabble is a great way to have fun and practice tools and techniques for writing anything from a short story, or flash fiction, to a full-length novel.
Why not check out this week’s prompt word and give it a go?
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Ray Taylor LL.M. is an author and part-time UK government security policy official. Please visit Ray on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Raymond.G.Taylor.author