Sept 20, 2023: Dribble, drabble

Today’s short fiction mission:

“Your goal as a writer is to give your characters goals and then prevent them from reaching those goals. The goal is to be mean.” -Mary Robinette Kowal

I watched a short lecture by the science fiction author (and puppeteer!) Mary Robinette Kowal. She breaks down the key difference between novels and short stories: novels are meant to be immersed in, while short stories are supposed to pack a punch. Short stories require unique specificity, so every sentence is hyper-important and intentional. There are no throwaway sentences in short stories, especially when you’re trying to write micro-fiction.

I grew up writing fanfiction and I loved writing drabbles (100-word stories, exactly). So, listening to this lecture illuminated many steps that I had already been doing from my young days, but also reminded me of some key features I should be cognizant of.

Her formula for a 250-word piece of flash fiction went like this:

Opening: Introduce characters and make promises

  • 2-3 sentences establishing the who, where, and genre

Conflict: Try/fail cycles

  • 2-3 sentences establishing what the character has been and is trying to do and why
  • 5 sentences – Keep on putting up barriers to the characters’ goals
    • Yes, but – they make some progress, but are still set back
    • No, and – they don’t make progress and are still set back

Identify the MICE – Milieu, Inquiry, Character, Event

  • What is the character trying to achieve?
    • Milieu: Where is the character trying to go? What is their social environment?
    • Inquiry: What is their burning question that they need/want answers to?
    • Character: What do they want to change about themselves?
    • Event: What is it about the status quo that they want to change?
  • Try to stop them – More try/fail cycles (yes, but; no, and)

Resolution: Try/success cycles

  • Yes, and
  • No, but

Ending: Close the MICE

  • Mirror the opening and summarize how things have changed
  • Ending should feel satisfying

As part of her guest lecture, Kowal gave her students a minute per sentence to write their 250-word stories. If we’re estimating that a sentence is 15-20 words, then I’ll give myself 15 minutes to write a piece of flash fiction following this formula. I’ll also sandwich this drafting phase in between a 5-minute skeletal planning session and a 5-minute editing session so I can make use of my standard 25-minute writing block.

Let’s go!


Nothing good happens in a dingy toilet stall. Lydia closed her eyes, her head sinking into her hands as the pulsing music in Ophelia’s nightclub rocked and buffeted her. Shaking, she looked down at her phone once again, its tiny screen bathed in the obscene red glow of the bathroom lights.

We need to talk… 

Her finger hovered over the ‘send’ button. She bit her lip as she deliberated, before huffing and violently deleting the message. She began typing again. Can we meet? I have something I wanted to talk about…

Running a hand through her hair, Lydia imagined his face when she told him she wanted to break up. She could already see the way his hands would clench, hear the resolution of the smack, feel the way her cheeks would sting. She already knew how much foundation she would have to wear the next day to avoid questions that hit too close to home. Maybe she should just ghost him. Ugh, if only the music would stop… She could barely hear herself think.

We’re done. She wrote over her last message, writing what she wished she could say but knew she could never, not ever that directly at least. 

As if cackling at her, the music blasted into the bathroom even louder as the door opened and two people, it sounded like, stumbled in. A girl’s high-pitched giggles ricocheted off the mirror and walls, accenting the techno music first pounding, then dulled, by the closing door. Lydia rolled her eyes, moving to get off the toilet seat.

Before she could unlatch the stall door though, the giggles dissolved into sighs and then long, drawn-out moans and then the most dreadful hyena shrieks. Two pairs of feet nearly tripped over each other as they swept past her door, which now seemed like the most appreciated shield. The girl’s phone went off and Lydia stiffened, annoyed by the reminder that sliced through the air. She had the same ringtone as her boyfriend. There was a loud crash that rivaled even the unholy decibels of music vibrating through the blood-tainted air, followed by the girl’s guffaw. 

Lydia grimaced. If only she had made her getaway a few minutes before. She settled back onto the seat, resigned to wait out this awkward make-out session and leave as soon as she got the chance. She pulled up the text thread with her boyfriend again, only for her blood to run cold. Distracted by the couple’s entrance, she had accidentally hit send. 

You’re dead, her boyfriend had replied.

Her nose twitched. She gritted her teeth. Her jaw clenched. Did he have to be such a prick? Feeling all of a sudden claustrophobic, Lydia was about to rush out of the stall, damn the consequences, when the most ungodly scream pierced the air. It sounded pure liquid, as if a scream could sound red and bleed as the haunting lights in the bathroom did.

Her heart skipped as she froze. Caught awkwardly in a half-standing position, her breaths turned shallow and stuttered in the abrupt silence that flooded her ears. The lack of the girl’s obnoxious moaning suddenly sounded even closer to her than the music still beating in the nightclub. The silence hung for a long moment. Something clattered across the tiles.

Lydia slowly tilted her head down. Something dark was moving across the floor, snaking its way slowly and methodically. It spread out and coated the ceramics, leaking into the cracks. Something wet and thick seeped into her sneakers. She jerked, falling back against the seat and pulling her legs up to her chest. She hit the toilet with a dull clunk. Shit. Beyond the door, the silence pulsed, glowing at her. Lydia dug her nails into her wrists, holding herself in a valiant attempt to stop herself from hyperventilating. Had he heard her?

Nothing moved for what felt like minutes. Still curled up into a ball despite the stiffness that was starting to arrest her lower back, Lydia kept her eyes trained on the gap under the door, watching for what she knew was inevitable. There was a scrape against the floor, and then she heard something sliding down the wall, landing on the ground with a decisive thump. The tip of a sneaker edged into view, speckled with dark dots.

The sound of a footstep.

Lydia stared at the door, watching it grow larger and larger as another footstep sounded across the floor. She felt she could hear every micro-movement of the person on the other side despite how the raging music outside cushioned them. Her gaze shifted to the latch which she hoped and prayed was actually still in place.

There was an eye looking back at her through the crack.

Yelping, Lydia reared back against the toilet. The door began shaking violently, threatening to rattle off its hinges. Without thinking, Lydia reached for the toilet plunger and jammed the narrow end of the stick through the gap.

The person on the other side yelled, a terrible, aching cry, like a bear wounded. There was no time to waste. Forcing the plunger in even deeper by the hilt, Lydia leapt up and flung open the door. It slammed right into the hooded figure behind it, and he toppled backwards. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw two legs splayed out upon the ground. That was the only glimpse she got before she tore out of the bathroom. The pounding electronic beats sliced through her, screaming into her ears, as she dashed into the arena, but they had never been that welcome before. Crying in relief, she ran down the dim hallway tattered over with posters, and sank into the sea of swaying, sweaty bodies. Escaping into the middle of the crowd, she tried to blend in, patting her hair down and dancing to the beat, no matter how robotically. Her heart was beating right out of her chest, but she hoped the man in the bathroom had not seen her, would not be able to find her. She twisted and turned among the bodies and the hot space, every face leering at her like a distorted clown’s mask, but despite the shadows that played tricks on her eyes, she did not see any hooded figures advancing on her.

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