Tuesday 27 May 2014

Anatomy of a Drabble

On Saturday night, I had a silly idea for a bit of flash fiction while I was waiting for a bus. After the bus actually arrived, I mulled it over for a few moments, and then made a very brief note on my phone as a reminder.

I still haven't checked to see what that reminder actually was, because at 6:30 on Sunday morning, chased from my bed by a combination of insomnia and a demanding cat, I got dressed and wrote the whole thing as a drabble (a short story of exactly 100 words, fact fans). By 6:59, it was written, edited and published on drablr.com.

Drabbles have been around for a while, and it's a form close to my heart. In the late 1990s I was a member of the Birmingham University SF Society that has been credited with 'establishing' the format (it's on Wikipedia, so it must be true), and one of the earliest drabble collections was Drabble Who, a charity "fanthology" produced by Doctor Who fans in 1993, which I did try and enter (I was 13 at the time, and had no word processor, so the endless manual word counts, crossings out, and retypings were all too much for me). By the late 1990s, I began posting my own Doctor Who drabbles to various Usenet groups, and though some of them were awful, I'm actually quite proud of a few.

In the last ten years, flash fiction has become a thing, because people can read them on phones. Like that's a good thing. But anyway. The point is that flash fiction has become popular because it's easy to read. But also, I suspect, because it seems very easy to write. Which means that drabbles, which used to be precision-crafted little pieces, are now in danger of becoming a bit rubbish, churned out with no real thought beyond getting to the required word count. So here's a breakdown of my most recent effort, with a blow by blow account of my thought processes, word choices and general waffling. Now, you may think my effort is rubbish, but I promise you I can find far worse examples without blinking. So now's that's out of the way, without further ado:

Time Stoppage


Red or blue? Wayne Rooney snipped the blue wire, and released a breath he didn't know he was holding. Two minutes left.
Van Persie punched the air. "One more and it's disarmed! Manchester saved!"
Wayne's dextrous fingers blurred over the bomb's spaghetti innards, but he was shaking his head. "No good, I need three more minutes!"
With a soft click, the countdown flashed back to five minutes.
"Impossible! Unless..." Both men turned to the dressing room door, where a figure stood bathed in light.
"I come back to you now," said Sir Alex Ferguson, "at the turn of the tide."

In the space of 100 words, I've made three jokes, referenced two films, and exhausted my knowledge of football completely (seriously, I had to check Google to find out whether to call it the "dressing room" or "changing room", not to mention checking whether Rooney even still plays for United. The first "draft" paired him with Beckham).

  • Red or blue? A double reference here, partly a nod to the rivalry between Manchester United and Manchester City, but mostly a reference to Lethal Weapon 2's famous opening scene (one of those which is so famous you don't even need to have seen it due to endless parodies). The scene is set in just three words. There's a bomb to defuse.
  • Wayne Rooney snipped the blue wire, and released a breath he didn't know he was holding. Two minutes left. Yes, a football player most famous for looking like Shrek, and for visits to horrific-sounding brothels, is disarming a bomb, and the clock is ticking. Some readers may start to snigger at this point, but I've not played it for laughs. The incongruity is obvious without needing any extra highlighting.
  • Van Persie punched the air. Van Persie being the only other current squad player I judged famous enough to be recognisable to the general public, and yes I did have to use Google again for the current squad's names. Worth using a whole extra word for his surname.
  • "One more and it's disarmed!" One more what? Detonator, presumably. Is Van Persie actually helping Rooney, or just standing around info-dumping for the reader's benefit? I don't know, and neither do you. But I suspect you didn't give it a moment's thought until I mentioned it.
  • "Manchester saved!" I hate those clunky two words, perhaps I should go back and change them. "Manchester's safe!" perhaps? Anyway, they tell us that the bomb is big. And dangerous. A nuke? Some sort of chemical weapon? Again, that's pretty much up to the reader.
  • Wayne's dextrous fingers blurred over the bomb's spaghetti innards, but he was shaking his head. I'm still not playing Rooney's unlikely proficiency at bomb disposal for laughs exactly, but there's a bit more detail here to convey the fact that he's not just poking the thing with a stick. And why not, after all? He's a disciplined sportsman at the height of his powers, used to making split-second decisions and dealing with the stress that comes with competing at the highest international level, and I presume his hand-eye coordination is excellent - there are worse choices.
  • With a soft click, the countdown flashed back to five minutes. This is the first and only time I make it clear there's a visible countdown clock, presumably with flashing red digits. You have 100 words, you only need to say things once. The reader knows what a bomb defusing scene looks like and will fill in the gaps themselves.
  • "Impossible! Unless..." Both men turned to the dressing room door, where a figure stood bathed in light. In my head, this echoes the moment in The Christmas Invasion, David Tennant's debut as the Doctor, when characters realise they can once again understand alien languages and look towards the TARDIS to see the cured Doctor for the first time. That's not particularly evoked by anything in the actual writing, but there's the same sense of shared realisation here.
  • "I come back to you now," said Sir Alex Ferguson, "at the turn of the tide." The punchline. First and most obviously, a direct quote from Gandalf's grand entrance in The Two Towers. Also a possible allusion to Manchester United's inevitable difficulties following Ferguson's recent retirement. And finally, as signalled in the title, a reference to 'Ferguson time', that curious phenomenon which many allege helped Manchester United to more than their fair share of victories under Ferguson's stewardship.
When editing the piece down to fit the word count, I pruned away a suggestion that the bomb had been planted by MU's sacked manager David Moyes, and a reference to a nearby coach full of orphans on a trip to Old Trafford. I don't miss either.

I've said before that writing a drabble is a lot like telling a joke. You set it up, develop it, and then end with a twist/punchline. So while I was happy to slip the odd Doctor Who and Lethal Weapon reference in there, and indulge in the surreal absurdity of Manchester United's forwards defusing a nuke in their dressing room, I played it straight until that final revelation, so as not to detract from the ending.

The 100 word limit is a blessing, not a curse. Every single word has to do something useful. I used four adjectives, and all of them further the story, whether it's "dextrous" to convey Rooney's unexpected aptitude, "spaghetti" to convey the complexity of the device, or "soft" to suggest that the crisis is now resolved.

At this point, if I was analysing someone else's work, someone would tell me I was reading too much into a story barely a paragraph long. So the real reason I chose to dissect my own drabble is this: I can assure you that all of the above really was going through my head while I was writing the story.

The 100 word limit can be expanded by mining the cultural baggage you share with readers. I said above that "Red or blue?" both sets the scene and makes two cultural references, cinematic and sporting. The closing line is similar. The use of references is a great shortcut to cramming extra detail into a drabble. All three characters here are people readers have probably seen on telly, so there's no need to describe them. Everyone has seen either Lethal Weapon or a James Bond film or well, something where there's a ticking clock and a bomb. Every word matters, make each one work harder.

This is why drabbles lent themselves especially well to fanfiction, taking established character and plot elements and telling a whole new adventure in just 100 words. But it's also why so many "straight" drabbles, frankly, fail. There are only so many times you can read about a boring character who, shock twist, turns out to be a murderer. Or people who are running away from zombies. Or people who murder their partner over dinner.

If I had one piece of advice for regular drabble writers, I'd suggest that it's worth waiting for a decent idea to come along.

Happy drabbling.