What Exactly Is Drabble?

Ernest-Hemingway-Quotes-Iceberg

By The Drabble

Poem? Story? Brain vomit? Snapshot? A representation of a thought, idea, feeling or emotion? An entry point for thought or feeling? Drabble can be all those things. Drabble is a form, not a formula. Just as a haiku or sonnet has rules, so too does drabble. Words – 100 or fewer. Drabble is a form requiring concision.

You may wonder if it’s even possible to write a good story in fewer than 100 words. We say yes, although it’s certainly not easy. Most modern narrative art adheres in some way to Shakespeare’s three-act structure (i.e., conflict, rising action/crisis, resolution), whilst presenting a clear theme. Must all these elements be present to tell a good story? Grant Faulkner, co-founder of 100 Word Story, thinks so. In his essay, “Writing with Gaps,” Faulkner says,

“I think the best 100-word stories move with the escalation any story has. They have a beginning, middle, and end—a telling pivot, an emotional velocity.”

While the old writing workshop trope, “What’s at stake?” is still germane; with drabble, the stakes needn’t always be presented upfront, but the subtext should be clear. To illustrate, we offer two examples of drabble done well by two great writers.

Example 1 – Lydia Davis
Look at what Davis pulls off in just 37 words in her story, “Contingency (vs. Necessity) 2: On Vacation.” (From her book, Can’t And Won’t: Stories)

He could be my husband. But he is not my husband. He is her husband. And so he takes her picture (not mine) as she stands in her flowered beach outfit in front of the old fortress.

This is a story about the timeless themes of unrequited love and regret. In this case, it’s about a woman who regrets missing her chance to marry the man she now covets. Conflict: a woman covets another’s husband.

The rising action takes place in the narrator’s mind – the woman watches a scene that touches a nerve and stirs the inner conflict. Although Davis doesn’t offer an obvious resolution, she gives us just enough information to formulate one of our own.

Example 2 – Hemingway

Back to the iceberg, Hemingway wrote,

“If a writer knows enough about what he is writing, he may omit things that he knows, and the reader … will feel those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.”

iceberg

As legend* has it, while imbibing with some writing buddies, Hemingway boasted that he could write an entire story in six words. He then wrote these infamous words on a napkin:

For sale: Baby shoes, never worn.

In writing workshops we’re often told to avoid using clichés, which is good advice, but with drabble, they can sometimes be used to paint a fuller picture in fewer words. This would be an example of a writer exploiting a cliché (in this case, the ubiquitous vernacular of the classified ad). Here, Hemingway seems also to be heeding his own advice, that is, showing only the top one-eighth of the story, while leaving the remaining seven-eighths below water to be conjured. In six short words he manages to paint a vivid picture of hope, loss, grief, and acceptance.

Does Hemingway’s story have a beginning, middle, end, a telling pivot, and an emotional velocity? No, not explicitly. Here he gives us only a tiny glimpse — a snap shot — but it’s all the pretext we need to fill in the rest of the story (i.e., sense, feelings, fear, thoughts, subconscious, etc.).

*See Snopes re: the veracity of this legend.

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15 thoughts on “What Exactly Is Drabble?

  1. A great post. I am an active advocate of the humble drabble. As a format, I do love the challenge of telling a fulfilling story within such stringent guidelines. You become accutely aware of every word, and critical of every phrase. You are forced to edit and cull – also embellish and flourish in equal measure. It’s working with a limited canvas, yet infinite palette. The most rewarding part for me is when it rings true with the readers, that’s where you know that you got it right.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I feel sure The Drabble have started something by mentioning a story in six words.
    Thus, since learning that I’m no longer competing against Hemingway, I offer the following:

    Light fades. Siren wails. Angles lament.

    Like

  3. Reblogged this on eponym and commented:
    We thought we’d pass along this great site for any one interested in a place to read and submit flash fiction. Below is an excerpt from their about page, and the repblogged post goes into detail about what “drabble” is.

    “Send your original drabble to us at drabbleonline@gmail.com. Please include your name, WordPress link, and the title of your piece (Note: The title and by-line do not count against the 100-word submission limit.) If you’d prefer to remain anonymous, please indicate that in your email.”

    If you are short story writer of longer stories looking for a place to submit your works, we recommend https://duotrope.com/

    Like

  4. “I always try to write on the principle of the ice-berg..” I absolutely love this quote. Is good for me because I always seem to want to write too much, so it’s a really helpful image to hold in my mind.. Thanks for sharing!

    Like

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