On Writing Fiction at Stupidly-Short Lengths

This morning at Shore Leave I will be on a panel, with Dayton Ward, titled “Writing Fiction at Stupidly Short Lengths.” I described this panel, a few days ago, thusly:

Learn about Twitterfics, Drabbles, and Flash Fiction as writers talk about creating stories at super-short lengths that make conventional stories look like War and Peace by comparison. Discover the appeal of the super-short form, uncover the techniques writers use to conceptualize and create at that length, and try your hand at your own super-short story!

Drabbles. Short stories of precisely one hundred words.

Little known fact! The term “drabble” comes, as many things do, from Monty Python. In Monty Python’s Big Red Book “Drabble” was a word game where the first participant to write a novel won, but to make the game possible within the real world, it was agreed upon in the rules that 100 words would suffice. (Today, we could say that NaNoWriMo fulfills the spirit of Monty Python’s “Drabble,” but that’s a tale for another day.)

Half-drabbles or Drobbles are stories of precisely 50 words. Double Drabbles are stories of precisely 200 words.

With the advent of Twitter, a new form of fiction emerged — Twitfics. Twitter limits users to messages of 140 characters or less, and some writers have begun to spin stories at that length.

A few years ago, inspired by an Ernest Hemingway story that was all of six words in length, Wired published a collection of six-word Very Short Stories.

That Hemingway story, by the way, read:

For sale: Baby shoes, never worn.

Hemingway’s story clocks in at 33 characters, well within the space limitation of a Tweet. Papa’s legacy as a twitficcer has gone little noticed, I fear.

Fredric Brown is known for this short tale, though not as short as Hemingway’s:

The last man on Earth sat in a room. There was a knock on the door.

For reference purposes, here’s a breakdown of story classifications and their word counts:

  • Drobble — 50 words
  • Drabble — 100 words
  • Double Drabble — 200 words
  • Flash Fiction — Up to 1,000 words
  • Short Story — Up to 7,500 words
  • Novelette — 7,501 to 17,500 words
  • Novella — 17,501 to 40,000 words
  • Novel — 40,001 to the Sky’s the Limit!

I have written drabbles on occasion over the past few years, beginning with one of Pocket’s Star Trek: Strange New Worlds contests. Recently, I’ve taken up writing Sherlock Holmes drabbles which are especially unforgiving — not only do I have to hit the 100 word mark precisely, but Watson’s narrative voice is so distinct and so wordy and overwrought that the style actually wastes words.

That’s the thing with drabbles. Words count.

I don’t know if there is a secret to writing a drabble. One hundred words allows for very little. I think of a drabble as a “plot moment.” It should be complete in and of itself, but it should also suggest at something larger.

My reasons for writing drabbles vary. On occasion, I take it as a writing challenge, such as when a drabble community on LiveJournal, of which there are many, based around virtually every fandom you could imagine, posts a weekly writing prompt. On other occasions, I have an idea that just won’t leave me, but it’s an idea that perhaps I can’t do something with because it’s fanfic or perhaps it’s not big enough to justify a longer story or perhaps it’s so flimsy that it doesn’t justify the investment of time.

There has been many a morning where I’ve boarded the commuter train, and in the course of my commute I’ve drafted an entire drabble, from initial thought to rough draft to polished draft. Half an hour, tops, and the story is done. For a writer, that’s a very fulfilling feeling.

I write my drabbles longhand. It’s not just because I can gauge my word count by scratching a pen across the paper; I’ve found the very act of dragging a pen across the page forces me to engage with the idea in a way that I might not if I were typing. I don’t write everything longhand — I’d barely get anything done that way — but I think that, because writing longhand requires many different motor actions, to say nothing of the difference between the speed of thought and the speed of penmanship, then the words come out differently.

I have recently become intrigued by twitfics. I’ve tried writing some out on the commute — two lines on my college-ruled notebook paper falls in the vicinity of 140 characters — but I’ve not done anything with them. One thing I noticed is that some of my longer tweets already have a kind of narrative movement to them; perhaps I’ve been writing twitfics all along in a creative non-fiction sort of way. Or, some of the goofy memes that sometimes propagate through Twitter-space are suggestive of storytelling — like this one:

#insidethepandorica are all the socks that have been lost in washing machines since the dawn of time #drwho

Lest I give the impression that my interest in these super-short forms of narrative is purely for the challenge it provides, I actually think that the development of super-short fictions is a good and interesting development for literature in this age of global connectedness and the Web. There have been some recent squabbles in the blogosphere over Nicholas Carr’s thesis that the burgeoning hyperlink culture is affecting human attention spans; clicking links has programmed our minds in such a way that we can only process information in ever smaller chunks before our attention begins to wander. Super-short fiction forms, which have always been in existence, may well take on a greater prominence in our Web-affected culture.

I mentioned a few paragraphs back that drabbles are popular within fandom, and that drabble writing communities are readily found on LiveJournal. I do watch several drabble communities, mainly for the writing prompts because they do provide a good writing exercise. However, for someone who wnats to experiment with the form, I have gone and collected links to a number of different drabble communities and sorted them by their fandoms. If you want to try your hand at super-short fictions and you’re a fan of a television show, movie, or novel series, there is very likely a drabble community that matches your interest:

Doctor Who

Harry Potter



Video Games

Unfortunately, I could not find comic book drabble communities. Surely someone must be writing drabbles about Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, and all the rest. Surely! 😕

Super-short fictions — or “stupidly-short fictions,” as I pitched the Shore Leave panel — have their appeal. For the writer — They are quick to write. They don’t require big ideas. They can be written in the span of a single sitting, in as little as ten minutes. For the reader — They’re a quick hit. The short should leave you with an image or an idea. The story might also leave you with a piece of the puzzle to a larger story, a story that may or may not be ever be written, by hinting at events before or events to come.

I like the drabble form. I’m going to try writing more Twitfics — or, at the very least, Twitfic-like non-fictions.

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