221B (glossary term)

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See also: Story Length, Drabble, Ficlet, 155 words, Shulker Box Fic
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221B is a form of constrained writing that imposes a word count of 221 of which the last word must begin with "B." Originating within the Sherlock Holmes fandom, it is named for the address of Sherlock Holmes and John Watson's apartment, 221B Baker Street.

The format was invented by KCS/kcscribbler in 2008 as a challenge to write a series of drabbles, 221B.

[...] I started gathering ideas for this writing exercise I came up with using the familiar '221b'. Challenge: Write a ficlet of exactly 221 words, the last word of which must start with the later 'B'. Anyone care to join me in the exercise, feel free to!

Author's note by KCS in "221B"

As of September 2020, the "221B Ficlet" tag at Archive of Our Own contains 2,416 works, the overwhelming majority of which are Sherlock (BBC) (2,168 work). However, a large number of the early LJ/FF.net era 221Bs, particularly also those written for other incarnations/adaptations of Sherlock Holmes, seem to not have been archived on AO3.

History of the 221B

Coined before the release Sherlock (BBC), the 221B challenge seems originally to have been directed at fans of the Sherlock Holmes Canon and Sherlock Holmes (Granada), KCS's active fandoms at the time (primarily gen). The format was quickly taken up by other canon-Holmes fans, initially on Livejournal and FF.net, prompting several fans to comment on the rising popularity of the challenge (see below). 221Bs were used in stand-alone 221B stories as well as in larger, multi-chapter drabble collections, in which all or some stories may be 221Bs.

Due to the inclusion of 221Bs in multi-chapter drabble collection, sometimes exclusively and sometimes alongside standard 100-word drabbles, and the lack of searchable tagging systems, early works using the format can now be difficult to locate. However, many directly reference either KCS by name or the 221B challenge in author's notes or summaries, often as a way of crediting the idea.

Early examples of the rapid take-up of the format include:

  • 221B by KCS (the coining work, March 29 2008)
  • What Music Reveals by bcbdrums (April 1 2008) (The summary testified to the quick take-up of the format: 'My contribution to the (now world-famous!) 221B Challenge.')
  • Bulwark by VHunter07 (April 1 2008; The summary comments: 'Yet another addition to KCS' 221B challenge! My, what a fad she seems to have started...')
  • Two hundred twenty one B by KaizokuShojo (April 2 2008; author's note: 'I'm on the bandwagon now, too!')
  • One Letter by PenPistole (April 3 2008; possibly the first example of the format that can be read as slash)
  • 221B Boys by doctorjay (April 10 2008)
  • Butter and the Big top by dilletante2 (July 3 2008)
  • Why The Case of the Nimble Female Thief by Velvet Green (August 12 2008; a 'double-221b dedicated to KCS', 442 words ending in B.)
  • 221 for the win! by Tristan-the-Dreamer (November 17 2008; expanding the challenge to the number of stories:'to write 221 stories, each 221 words in length and all ending with a word that starts with "b."')

The format continued increase in popularity and use beyond 2008, with later canon Sherlock Holmes writers also picking it up for their short fics, usually still crediting KCS.

Some examples include:

At the same time, the format was gaining traction in the emerging and quickly exploding Sherlock (BBC) fandom. It eventually had achieved such widespread fandom use that crediting to the original challenge or to the coining fan KCS became unusual.

The earliest fics tagged "221B Ficlet" and following the format on Archive of Our Own are dated to 2010: "Hand in Hand" by amyfortuna and "Fall" by fengirl88. Both of these were written for the BBC series; neither mentions KCS.

Examples Wanted: Editors are encouraged to add more examples or a wider variety of examples.