You can call me Hal.

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There are drabbles everywhere these days. I've written a bunch in the past month, read a whole lot more. Drabble communities are springing up like bean plants. Drabbles are a lot of fun without too much effort.

So, it's got me pondering: what makes a good drabble? Here's what works for me, anyhow.

A drabble needs detail. This may seem counter-intuitive because drabbles are so short. But when you've only got 100 or so words to make an impression, one or two sharp details can make a huge difference.

A drabble needs focus. That's pretty much a no-brainer. You can't fit everything into a drabble that you can into a three volume novel. So don't try.

A drabble needs a plot or at least a point. Something should happen, even if it's a small thing.

For me, anyhow, a drabble needs a punchline. Some sort of surprise or reversal at the end. There are exceptions, but I do find the drabbles I enjoy the most have a twist or unexpected ending.

A drabble should be complete. This doesn't mean you can't leave your audience wondering about what happens next, but even a short piece has a story arc and you've got to get to the end of it by the end of the drabble.

Here endeth the lecture.

I also sometimes feel like I should be writing something "real" instead of drabbles. Like I'm being lazy by working in that format. (Though of course I usually am working on something else at the same time.) Or that I'll become lazy. Certainly the work to feedback ratio is much more favourable for drabbles. *g*

Do you like drabbles? Do they bug you? Do they make writers lazy? Do they suck away all the good ideas that should actually be made into 10 000 word epics? Do they just suck?

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I think that's why I enjoy these so much -- it *is* hard to write a really good story in 100 words. But when it works, it's a great feeling.

I find that I drabble much better to a challenge than just trying to think up something. It helps me to focus.

I like drabbles. If the 10,000 word epic is a movie, then the 100 word drabble is a snapshot. And just as the movie can be anything from the schlock of Plan 9 from Outer Space to the magnificence of Citizen Kane, the photograph can range from a blurry, head-lopped-off disposable camera shot to the artistry of an Ansel Adams desertscape or the revelation of an Annie Leibowitz portrait.

When I begin a drabble, I usually have a first and last line in mind. I write a couple of sentences, feeling my way toward a clear image. I start moving phrases around, adding necessary information or deleting useless repetion or pointless digressions. I check the word count and tighten things up. Sometimes the focus of the drabble completely changes as I discover that the POV doesn't work or that the image in my head doesn't work as well on paper. Sometimes I completely abandon those first or last lines because they no longer fit. Finally it's done and I re-read it a couple of times to make sure it's as effective as I hope. While I've never actually verbalized this process before, what I've really done is checked for all the items you've listed that make a memorable drabble.

[moving into loaded discussion area - please don hardhat and vest]

I agree with you that the feedback ratio makes drabbles a temptation and some people are drawn to writing them for just that reason. But those people aren't necessarily going to be good writers anyway. If they're too lazy (or insecure or feedback dependent or fill in the blank) to ever try anything else and they don't take the craft of drabbling as seriously as they should, we're probably all better off if they stay in that venue.

That and is the important part. Because I think you've listed solid criteria for evaluating drabbles. Practically anyone can come up with a Wow! idea that can be sustained for 100 words. But only someone who is willing to put some thought and hard work into it can maximize its full potential in that short a space.

[you may now remove your protective gear]

When I begin a drabble, I usually have a first and last line in mind.

I really like that. I think I do something similar, though I hadn't articulated it. You can't be aimless with a drabble because there's not enough room to get back on track if you wander.

And you're right -- it's a craft and has to be learned and practised.

These are excellent criteria, I think you've sharpened the art form down to a five point guide to success. What I like about drabbles is that they give me a chance to think outside the box. Can I write a murder mystery in 100 words? Can I surprise a reader in 100 words? And because it is just 100 words, it's a good chance to try things that might not be sustained by a longer piece, or to experiment with a concept or pairing without dedicating weeks and weeks, pages and pages, to it. I think they're also a great way to learn how to end a story- a drabble really requires impact on landing, or it's wasted, and the same honing skills used in writing a drabble can be applied to longer pieces.

And now, I am done babbling!

I like what you say about experimenting. I've occasionally done something in a drabble that I've then wanted to flesh out into a longer story. Or there are things you can do in a drabble that just wouldn't have the same impact if you wrote 2000 words on them.

Murder mysteries, hmm...

You've nailed all the important parts of good drabble-writing, and why it's actually really *hard*.

The thing (I was going to say problem, but that's a loaded word) with these communities is that you get a lot of people who've never written before but think, "Oh, 100 words! How hard can it be?" and you end up with a lot of shite.

The way it was put to me, when I first tried writing one, is that a drabble is a story in 100 words, not just 100 words of a story. Many people seem to forget that.

And yeah, I like to have that impactful [is that a word?] last line as well.

You're right about the shite. (Oh, I've written a poem!) I can only hope that those people read the gems, too, and start to figure out why one is better than the other.

A drabble is a story in 100 words, not just 100 words of a story

That's exactly where so many people fall down. Maybe that should be the header on every drabble community page. :)

I like the drabbles. They give me a chance to play with ideas in the fandom, to see if they fit, or to have fun. They also force me, much like a poem, to say as much as possible in a very few words.

Then again, I also used to like writing sonnets, too, and for much the same reason.

I find I like the more specific challanges more than, say, yesterday's "Give me porn." I've been writing slash for years - "porn" isn't a challenge.

I've been back and forth with people over challenges -- some people feel stifled by them. But I love them, especially with drabbles. I've written things in drabbles in the last month that I doubt I would have thought of otherwise. Gen things, even.

Now I'm imagining a community where everyone has to write sonnets every week. :)

thanks so much for this. i'm working on my own essay, and someone directed me here. you've hit some of the best points. mind if i add this link to the [Unknown LJ tag] userinfo as required reading?

Please feel free to link; I'd be honoured. :) And I'm interested to see your essay. This was just a morning tea-time scribble, so I'm now thinking of all sort of things I could have added.

I've really enjoyed responding to the 100-word challenges for Smallville: given Superman's graphic origins, I think it's a great opportunity to craft a story around one or two striking images, like panels from a comic book.

Personally, I find drabble-writing quite a difficult exercise (recalling to mind the old chestnut about apologizing for the length of one's letter, because one didn't have time to make it brief). And the higher than usual feedback-to-word-count ratio can be a mixed blessing: in that feedback, people often ask to read more, which can leave me feeling regretful that I don't have time to develop these ideas further.


I have trouble knowing how to respond when people ask me for drabble sequels, because I don't think beyond the end of the story to what might happen next. It's just -- done. If I'd wanted to explore further, I would have written a longer story. But it's very gratifying to know you've captured someone's interest in such a short time.

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I just did the snarks mentally. :) It was satisfying enough that I could post the rest of it.

I do think you could make more allowances for humor, though (since by "punchline" above you mean "reversal or twist"). Often, it's enough of a point to a drabble that it be funny.

You're right, I probably am too restrictive. And I've written drabbles without a huge punchline that I thought worked quite well. I guess the most important thing is, as musesfool notes above, that the ending have impact.

I think I associate drabbles with jokes because it seems like people either "get it" or they don't. It's the same thing if a limerick craze goes around. Almost anyone can write a bad limerick. Very few people can write a good one.

Excellent Guide to the Art of the Drabble. I hadn't thought about how I "knew" how to approach drabbling until you posted this. Drabbles do represent a distillation of story and therefore story elements. If you write 100 words that go nowhere, you've sort of missed the point.

As with any writing, of course there's suckage; however, what I've discovered is the writers who write well seem to handle drabbling just fine. Regarding laziness, on some level, if a writer is *writing*, working those 100 words, there isn't any opportunity for sloth.

Personally? I confess to writing the drabbles quickly partly because it's the way the community's structured. I simply don't have the luxury of walking away from the work and coming back to it. I read the challenge, and if something sparks, I toss the idea off. Then comes the trimming and clarifying.

I've tended to write long pieces, but drabbles have helped realign my thinking. Not everything need be War and Peace.

Drabbles are idea pieces, yes. The ones that I didn't write for challenges were usually the result of an idea lightning strike. There's nothing wrong with writing quickly so long as you're paying attention to what you're doing.

< ramble > Hey, I think you've converted me to drabbles. Cool. See, here's my thing about fanfiction in general. I'm willing and interested to read just about anything (though I avoid real_person_shite as much as possible, for squick reasons) as long as the author puts honesty and effort into it and doesn't just toss it off because they see other people doing it. I can see drabble as being a good way for a lapsed author to get back into writing, or for a new writer to build up writing muscles. It's like the compositional exercises we did in choreography classes in college. Rarely longer than a minute, either a solo with just a phrase of movement, or a group piece that just plays around with spacial patterns, canon, or some other single compositional element. We wouldn't have wanted to put those exercises in a concert at the Joyce Theatre or Symphony Space, but I always enjoyed the class showings we had. It seems that's more the point of drabbles, especially in a place like your own lj or a fanfic lj community. The audience is a bunch of people there for the same reasons you are, and snapshots of setting or pairing keeps us interested in the possibilities.< / ramble>

That's a nice thought about drabble communities -- that you're doing something special for your peers and they for you. In some ways, that's more gratifying than performing for an audience. Thanks for the image. :)

That's a useful summary of what makes a good drabble.

As for your questions at the end, personally I have a lot of ideas that are simply drabble length ideas! My bunnies are often baby ones *g*, and I find it a satisfying form to write in. In some ways it promotes laziness I suppose - it's certainly not helping me to write the long drama I have had in outline for a couple of months, but I think they are also good discipline. They make you look at what is necessary and what is extraneous.

Baby bunnies! With flopsy ears and little twitchy noses? (OK, not exactly an insightful response from me, but it's early, dammit!)

One thing I've done a bit lately is write a drabble or short in place of an outline for a longer story. It helps me get the bare bones down in a way that captures the mood of the piece as well as the plot.

Of course, then there's the temptation to just leave it as a short.

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I tend to judge the quality of people's writing by their shortest work first.

That's an interesting thought. I think a lot of people have trouble writing to a short length so it's probably a good test.

I find drabbles fun to play with because my natural writing length is very, very, very long (I got your loose, baggy monsters right here, Henry James) and the strict limitations of the form force me to rethink how I approach the whole idea of plot and character. That said, I won't pretend that my first reaction to the idea of a drabble community--before I actually went and joined one--wasn't, "Why the hell would I want to read a bunch of bloody paragraphs disguised as stories?", or that I occasionally look askance at people who present drabbles to the world with as much solemnity as if they were lengthy, intricately plotted stories. For me, it's the writer's version of an add-a-bead necklace.

For me, it's the writer's version of an add-a-bead necklace.

Hee! Nice image. :)

You've done a good job of summing up what makes a good drabble, and the mental process involved in creating one. I've written three drabbles in the past two years, and all three were "bolt from the blue" concepts that involved an event/line from a few years back in a show's timeline, and putting that event/line in the context of the present or recent past of that show. That definitely facilitated keeping it short and focused, and it was just a matter of deciding on the specific dialogue and counting words.

All three were set in the Buffyverse--I haven't had any drabble-worthy inspirations for the Smallville universe, probably because I haven't really found the dialogue as memorable there, though I'm fascinated by the plotline.

I've enjoyed the drabbles I've written, probably because they were all humorous on some level (though I killed off Xander in one of them--the first and only time I've done that), and the feedback I got was generally amused, which I took to mean that I had done the job competently.

Once again, thanks for the useful summary--it helps to have someone explicitly set out the process, even if you have been doing more or less the same thing without working it out consciously. :-)

Drabbles are great for humour. Which is not to say that darker ones can't work as well, but something so short can be difficult to take seriously.

I enjoy reading drabbles, I like writing them even more. A while back, I tried to explain to myself just why that was. If you're interested, although I'm not sure how coherent it was, it's the first part of this.


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