Friday, February 20, 2015

What is a Drabble and How Do You Craft One?

It's nearly impossible to write a drabble.  Why?  Well, a drabble is a story built from exactly 100 words.  Crafting a drabble is therefore difficult, but altogether doable.  Trying to write a drabble is a lot more difficult.  Allow me to explain.

If you'd like to experiment with the literary form that is the drabble, my first advice to you is to not try to write a drabble.  Taking an idea and drafting it in exactly 100 words is a highly restrictive task that compromises the fabric of the story you are trying to tell.  The first step in crafting a drabble is to find an idea that you believe can terminate in 100 words.  This may take some practice.  If you aren't familiar with writing flash fiction, you may find yourself taking your story idea and turning it into something many times longer than a drabble.  That's perfectly fine, if your goal is simply to write a story and to have fun doing so.  Coming up with a drabble idea is quite difficult and not fully predictable.

The second step in crafting a drabble is to write a story based upon your idea.  If you want to make an outline you can, but for something this small, an outline only compresses the freedom of your writing.  It doesn't matter how long your first draft ends up, though any longer than 200 words and you'll have your work cut out for you.

After you have your first draft of your story, which probably isn't a drabble, but could be, the next step is to add or cut words until the story is within a few words of your goal of 100.  So far as I remember, I've only actually finished a story in less than 100 words while attempting to craft a drabble on a single occasion.  Normally, you will end up with more than 100 words and have to cut.  For the rest of this post, I will use my story "One Test Remains" as an example.

I wrote "One Test Remains" at a musical practice one day, with a pencil in a notebook.  It finished out at 124 words, not all that bad.  The same notebook contains the first drafts to two of my other stories, "Once and For All" and "An Ancient Beverage."  Those stories finished at 139 words and 127 words respectively.  When I went to type up "One Test Remains," I tried to get it as close to 100 words with basic cuts as possible.  (For "An Ancient Beverage," I actually rewrote the story to 106 words directly in my notebook.)

Here is what the first draft of "One Test Remains" looked like:
     Phillip dropped to his knees.  The iron head of a throwing ax arced over his skull, rending a patch of thin grey hair from his scalp.
     “Good work,” Commander Jean said.  He strode past Phillip and pulled his ax from the grass.
    “Am I a sage yet?” Phillip asked.  His wrinkled cheeks rippled.
     Jean consulted a long sheet of oiled calfskin.  “One test remains.”
     “And that is?”
     An ancient man, his skin dripping from bony limbs, hobbled onto the green from the barrack.  A green orb was etched below his right eye.
     “Him,” Jean said.  He frowned.  “You must kill the Elder in order to become a sage.”
     Phillip’s mouth went arid.  “Father.”  A sphere of blue flame erupted from his palm.  “Forgive me.”

It's a pretty tight first draft.  However, when you write a drabble, you have to cut everything that can be assumed and every adjective that doesn't matter to the story.

This is what the final draft looks like:
     A throwing ax arced over Phillip’s skull, rending a patch of thin hair from his scalp.
     “Good dodgery,” Commander Jean said.  He strode to his ax.
    Phillip’s weathered cheeks rippled.  “Am I a sage yet?”
     Jean consulted a sheet of oiled parchment.  “One test remains.”
     “And that is?”
     An ancient man, skin dripping from bony limbs, hobbled onto the green from the barrack.  An orb was etched below his right eye.
     Jean frowned.  “You must kill the Elder in order to become a sage.”
     Phillip’s mouth went arid.  “Father.”  A sphere of blue flame erupted from his palm.  “Forgive me.”

As you can see, they're quite similar, the second one just has as few descriptive words as possible.  You get all of the story and its associated flavor but almost nothing else.  That's what drabbles are for.  They allow you to infer a huge story through the reading of a microscopic story.  Most adjectives can be deleted.  An action can be replaced by a change in dialogue.  Any word that isn't required by the story can be removed.

I don't have an intermediate step to show, but often when writing a drabble one round of editing won't get the story to exactly 100 words.  In that case, give the story a second pass and really focus on exactly what the story is trying to do.  Often, the essence of the story is at the very end, for drabbles.  In this case, it's the reveal that to become a sage, Phillip must kill his father and that he is willing to do so.  This implies a larger story, one set in a world in which patricide is not nearly as taboo as it is in ours.  It also allows readers to wonder what sort of person Phillip is.  The 84 words leading up to the final paragraph allow the final 16 words to have an impact.

Crafting drabbles isn't easy and crafting good drabbles is even harder.  I've written about nineteen drabbles, three of which I expanded beyond 100 words (such as "Thought He Looked Familiar").  Of the sixteen stories that remain drabbles, I only consider nine of them to be good, as compared to my full pool of work.  Three of them were published by, where I was paid the minimum professional rate of the time.  If you'd like to read some drabbles before you attempt to craft them, I definitely recommend reading some of those to be found at

Saturday, February 7, 2015

3rd-Person POV

First off, I would like to make a shameless plug for my second story up at, “You’re Worth It.” The story is 1,358 words by Microsoft’s count, above average length for your quarter. It is a young adult romance story at heart, with sci-fi elements amplifying the conflict and seasoning the story overall. If you aren’t already signed up for and you like reading stories that are 2,000 words or less, you really ought to try it. The cost is $5 for 25 reads, usable for any story up on the site. There are a load of gems at QuarterReads from the likes of Amanda C. Davis, Cat Rambo, Ken Liu, and Alex Shvartsman.

Funny enough, every single story of mine that has been published (three stories pro-published by SpeckLit, two stories gathering royalties at QuarterReads, and two stories up “gallery-style” at non-paying was written in 1st-person POV. I don’t have an exact stat, but my guess is that at least two-thirds of all of my stories are written in the 3rd-person. So maybe I’m not quite so qualified to write about 3rd than I am 1st. Oh well. (I actually already have an article about 1st-person narration on this blog, as well as one on how epistolary POV can lead to unreliable narration.)

In middle/high school, only two forms of 3rd-person are generally discussed in depth: limited and omniscient. 3rd-person objective was mentioned once during my sophomore year, but it’s an extremely rare POV and could probably be lumped into a different form of 3rd. I classify 3rd-person stories into five categories: limited, regular omniscient (or simply “omniscient”), head-hopping omniscient (or simply “head-hopping”), cinematic, and narrative. Most people consider the two different omniscient POVs to be one-in-the-same. I do not.

I’ve written about the elder incarnation of 3rd-limited already on this blog, so I’m going to focus on the modern structure of the POV here.  3rd-limited is almost certainly the most-used POV in fantasy and sci-fi novels today (excluding YA). It contains the thoughts, feelings, and perceptions of just one character at a time. Who the POV character is can change any time a scene changes. Many novels in this POV have only one or two POV characters, but some contain a dozen or more *cough* Robert Jordan *cough*.

Regular omniscient is difficult to explain. It exists in a gray region between narrative and head-hopping. Usually stories I would consider to be written in the 3rd-person regular omniscient POV are thrown into one of those two. After much debate, I have decided to consider regular omniscient a distinct form of 3rd-person. When 3rd-limited and 3rd-cinematic have been ruled out, you’re left with the other three and possibly a tough decision. If a story looks like narrative but feels like head-hopping, I would consider it regular omniscient. In other words, if it’s clear that the narrator has access to unlimited information and yet spends most of its time inside characters’ heads in a limited-style, the story is regular omniscient. Citizen of the Galaxy by Robert A. Heinlein is 3rd-regular omniscient, by my classification.

Dune by Frank Herbert is the classic example of head-hopping. Head-hopping is the same as limited, except the POV character changes constantly within each scene, rather than only switching at a scene break. This is done in order to see inside every important character’s head without losing the intimacy of 3rd-limited. Head-hopping is rare.

Cinematic is the rarest of the 3rd-person forms, as far as prose goes. It is the POV of films. Everything is perceived as if from a camera. No character thoughts are shown. Cinematic is very similar to the objective form. They may even be the same form. I would say that cinematic is “allowed” to have a certain element of voice to it, whereas objective is not. That would be the only major distinction. Cinematic is used almost exclusively for individual scenes because using it for an entire story would rip the humanity inherent in stories of every other POV.

If a story sounds like it could be told around a campfire, it’s probably written in 3rd-narrative. Narrative stories are told by the author or by a character outside the context of the story (though sometimes featured in the story, in the case of a story told in recollection of an event after all important knowledge on the subject has been obtained). There is a separation between characters and readers in narrative. To make up for that, narrative has a lot of freedom as far as voice goes. If the voice of the story is great, it can make up for the lack of intimacy in the form. Novice writers tend to default to narrative. While it’s the simplest form, it is also, in my opinion, the hardest to do well. The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction contains many marvelous 3rd-narrative stories (but does not contain exclusively narrative stories).

There’s plenty of room for discussion as far as the 3rd-person POV goes. Some writers may prefer to generalize to two or four forms and that’s perfectly fine. I like to get into the nitty-gritty details to see how each form works. All five forms have their uses, though limited and narrative are definitely the two most commonly used.