A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words. It tests an author’s ability to write something meaningful in a confined space. A good drabble, like any good story, transports its reader into another frame of mind. It offers some moral wisdom or emotional perspective.
Writing (and reading) any story well is an exercise in empathy. Stories help us better understand our past selves, or experience something foreign. The best stories transport us into new perspectives. They lay bare the incentives that drive both deviance and piety.
The very short story, flash fiction is included in humanity’s oldest texts. It’s the form of parables, myths and fables. These older morality texts are often prescriptive, while modern flash fiction opts to envelope its reader’s mind in certain emotions.
Often the easiest way to make someone else feel something is to place them in a common scenario. A story takes shape in a reader’s mind as much through what is left out as through what is said. Let’s practice some brevity.
All that said, what moves you might not move me. But consider the following:
J. Hardy Carrol
After the funeral, I made arrangements for the bills to come to my office.
Every month, I paid her rent, her electric, even her phone.
At least once a day I would call her number and pretend she might answer it, hear her voice on the answering machine.
At first I left messages, but then I couldn’t.
I’d turned her apartment into a time capsule.
In September I got a letter that her lease was up.
Time to face it.
I needed to move on.
I stood at her door a long time, key poised in my hand.
A 100 word constraint can be distracting. Like a poetic form, it is maybe best to revise whatever you write down to about 100 words. For the following prompts, you write out whatever you’re thinking, and then revise on your own later or be like Jack Kerouac. Use a stopwatch, and see what you can come up with in 5 minutes.
PROMPT #1: Write out a scenario when you felt a strong emotion. Focus on the place where you felt that emotion most intensely. What about the scenery and situation triggered the emotion? Be as specific as possible, but don’t get too caught in the reporting or the event. Try to focus on the emotion to explore its origin and import.
On a Gravestone in Ireland: Died of Disappointment
It’s time to face the truth. Your story is abysmal. It’s trite. Overblown. It’s full of mixed metaphors and sloppy syntax. The characters are one-dimensional. The plot’s missing. There’s no beginning. No middle. No proper ending. Who on earth would publish it? It will never win awards. Bookshops won’t stock it. The critics will crucify you. They will say it reveals a lot about the kind of person you are. Take our advice and burn it. Think of the pain you’ll be spared. No need to thank us. This is the whole point of our Writers’ Support Group. Who’s next?
PROMPT #2: Perspective motivates action. A well written story means different things when read in different frames of mind. We are grasping for universal truths, and the only way to do this is by writing what we know. So place yourself in a shameful position, and address yourself objectively or judgmentally or sympathetically. Preferably use an event that you experienced more than once or something that you found particularly traumatic, and narrate that situation from an alternate perspective.
Sing to It
At the end, he said, No Metaphors! Nothing is like anything else.
Except he said to me before he said that, Make your hands a hammock for me. So there was one.
He said, Not even the rain—he quoted the poet—not even the rain has such small hands. So there was another.
At the end, I wanted to comfort him. But what I said was, Sing to it. The Arabian proverb: When danger approaches, sing to it.
Except I said to him before I said that, No metaphors! No one is like anyone else. And he said, Please.
So—at the end, I made my hands a hammock for him.
My arms the trees.
PROMPT #3: What is like what? Stories are (in a sense) a collaboration between metaphors and movement. Think about the metaphors you use. For example, we have a stalker problem at a lab where I work. This is not a wolf problem. This is a man desperately in love with a woman he met in a lab. There is a story here, most of which I do not know. But now the police are involved, and he keeps coming back. It’s odd. How does it end? Put a metaphor in your mind: she’s a shining star; he’s a washed up weirdo; the world's a stage. Go.
Night has no mercy. The wind slashes and cuts you down. The dead man’s fingers are feeling through St. Petersburg’s the icy innards. A crimson sign of the pharmacy shines frozen at the street corner. The pharmacist’s head with parted hair is dropped to one side. The frost has seized the ink-stained heart of the pharmacy. And its heart has given out. Nevsky is empty. Ink bubbles are popping in the sky. The time is two o’clock. It’s the end. The night has no mercy.
PROMPT #4: What makes a narrative a story? Most of our experiences are subtle, not dramatic at all. A story is an exercise in imagination, transporting us to other times and places, giving resonance to what otherwise might be a dull moment. Storytelling is the practice of noticing evocative details and giving them words (metaphors) and actions. Write about a simple night with great specificity and emotion.
Give It Up
It was very early in the morning, the streets clean and deserted, I was walking to the station. As I compared the tower clock with my watch I realized that it was already much later than I had thought, I had to hurry, the shock of this discovery made me unsure of the way, I did not yet know my way very well in this town; luckily, a policeman was nearby, I ran up to him and breathlessly asked him the way. He smiled and said: “From me you want to know the way?” “Yes,” I said, “since I cannot find it myself.” “Give it up! Give it up,” he said, and turned away with a sudden jerk, like people who want to be alone with their laughter.
PROMPT #5: Consider an abstraction, how a self deprecating story might communicate something deep and abysmal about the human condition. Think of a social institution, like the police, or the VA, or a voting booth. Now remember a time you approached this institution, and just explain what happened. Facts sometimes speak louder than speculation.
The Good Samaritan
A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.
PROMPT #6: Can you remember a time you helped someone, or didn’t? Did nothing come of it?
The Farmer’s Son
A farmer wakes up to find his horse has run off.
The neighbors come by and say, "Too bad, such awful luck."
The farmer says, "Maybe."
The next day, the horse returns with a few other horses.
The neighbors congratulate the farmer on the reversal of his fortune.
"Maybe," the farmer says.
When his son tries to ride one of the new horses, he breaks his leg,
and the neighbors offer condolences.
"Maybe," the farmer says.
And the next day, when army officials come to draft the son
--and don't take him because of his broken leg--everyone is happy.
"Maybe," the farmer says.
PROMPT #7: How do events affect our actions? What if we don’t react. Write about a series of events in which you do not act. You observe a calamity happen. Use sparse, direct language.