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Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Strange Story of the Drabble


The word "drabble" was first found in a compendium of Monty Python humor called Monty Python's Big Red Book (which, though a play on the notorious Little Red Book, was actually blue).  In the Python book a game is described in which four players sit around a fire drinking brandy, and the first one to write a novel wins.  And the game was called DRABBLE.

For some strange reason the idea was taken up by science fiction fandom, notably the Birmingham University's science fiction club. The problem, as Dave Langford describes in "A Very Short Anthology," was to choose the length of the novel, which obviously had to be rather short. So a host of SF fans and writers put their imaginations to work.

The great British SF writer, Brian Aldiss proposed a set length of 50 words, which led to a newspaper competition, which in its turn, led to 33,000 entries, all of which Aldiss was forced to read.  One of the entrants was an unnamed member of the Royal Family, who not only was obviously a fan of Monty Python, the Goons, and so forth, but was unable to count to fifty.

A length of 8 words was then proposed, and the definitive version came along very soon, penned by Colin Greenland. "Aliens disguised as typewriters? I never heard such..."

One hundred words became the standard, though there is some argument about hyphenated words and whether the count should include the title or not.  Because of its origins, the 100-word story (and it is supposed to be a coherent anecdote, not simply playing with words) is usually in the SF or horror genre.  Shaggy dog stories are also very popular.

Then came the Drabble Project, where exactly one hundred drabbles were published in a book that cost one hundred shillings, and the profits were given to charity. It contained drabbles by famous writers like Terry Pratchett, and a wonderful example of the genre by James Steel.


More Dumb Monsters, by James Steel

The monster climbed. Fighter aircraft, dwarfed by its massive bulk, fired missile after missile into the scaly armour of the beast's hide. Roars shattered the windows of the city and reverberated far into the hills beyond. Artillery lined up in the streets below, ready to deliver their crushing firepower against the foe. High-pitched screams of terror, barely heard between the roar of collapsing buildings, announced the creature's hostage to be still alive.

The creature paused and brought a huge scaly hand towards its mouth.

"I've got the specimen," it said. "Beam me out of here and level the place."

The Drabble Project page will tell you how to buy the book, and its two successors.


Feel like writing a drabble? The trick is to write a draft without worrying too much about length. The real writing exercise is the editing of that draft.  Take out unnecessary words.  If all else fails, take out whole sentences. The aim is to make your writing crisp and economical.

3 comments:

Joan Curry said...

As a died-in-the-wool non-fiction writer who occasionally dabbles in drabbles and the like, I must say that drabbles / flash-fiction / short-shorts etc are wonderful ways of loosening up and having fun. We can get so darned picky and constipated sometimes.

Joan Druett said...

Then why not send me one???

Joan Curry said...

Did I write "died" in the wool up there? I meant "dyed" of course - I must have been channelling Dame Ngaio March ...