How to Write Twitter Stories

2010/02/14 § 6 Comments

Intro

I assume you know what twitter is. As a microblogging service it began as an idea that would let people webcast their SMS text messages from their phones. As SMS were limited to 160 characters and the message then had to include info to get it through the system and on to the web as a tweet, as it became know, they were limited to 140 CHAR.

I’ve never done that, and it’s possible that most people who use twitter.com from their phone do so through a dedicated twitter client over their data plans. So, even people tweeting from their phones don’t tweet as the original idea was envisioned.

Anyway, some people write twitter stories, some people publish what other people write in twitter based magazines, and sometimes they even pay to publish stories written in 140 characters. Crazy!

140 CHAR

You are lucky to get three sentences in 140 characters. You could map a beginning, a middle and an end to those sentences but, obvious as it sounds, it does not always work. Not exactly.

A nano-sized story that fits into the twitter format of 140 CHAR, needs at least three elements to work. It is around these three elements that the story is written. These are the seeds around which a story grows in the telling, even if one or more of the pieces are not mentioned directly.

To explain this I’ll use Tzvetan Todorov ‘s five stages of narrative from his Narratology stuff.

Stories can be structured, explained, analysed, as moving through five stages of narrative:

  1. setting
  2. disruption
  3. recognition
  4. response
  5. resolution.

Recognition

In super small fiction this structure of five stages will not fit into 140 CHAR, it is not possible to actually move through them one after another. Not directly. Directly some are going to have to be left out. Indirectly it is the work of the reader, if they can, to add the missing stages from what you do put in.

So, it’s your job as a nano fiction writer to help the reader interpret and fit in the missing pieces of story structure from your clues, such that they ‘get’ the story. Similar to getting a joke, indeed, jokes are probably a good place to start practicing.

Actual elements can almost be picked at random and thrown together but it is their ordering as structural pieces, and their revelation that creates the story. A particular story.

Response

You must have all stages though. If this is not done, then one has merely intimated a scene or a thought or a feeling. But a mere gesture, however gracefully done, towards something (which is not actually hinted at) does nothing. If nothing happens there is no story.

BUT in 140 characters it is very very hard to do this. Because you can’t do all the five stages. No. It’s barely possible to list these structural stages of narabbitology or whatever it was.

So, pick three to keep. Or pick two to hint at. Subtly or not.

The resolution

So how do you hint at them? This is the real trick of writing nano fiction, you have to get the stages that you do use, the structural pieces, to do double time. Each element has to be able to carry two of the stages of the narrative (doesn’t have to do it, but be able to). That’s why I call them elements, as they appear to be indivisible, but really they are two things, (two structural stages of narrative). (This is why jokes work, e.g. an assumed reference is overturned by a change in context to an incongruent reference.)

Thus a stage does both their direct work (say the first stage: the setting of the story) while cleverly pointing at the indirect element (say, stage 4, response to the disruption). The reader works this out when they get to that stage (having read stage 3 suddenly stage 1’s direct reference is pushed aside for another meaning).

The simplest way is in fact to use the beginning, the middle and the end. But the middle element, in such a naïve format, has to do three of those narrative stages mentioned above. That is a lot for it to do: one direct and two indirect, so you might as well spread the load a little, and have two elements do some indirect work. The naïve form is actually harder. (Traps for young players.)

Now, readers, even if they have never heard of the Franco-Bulgarian writer Tzvetan Todorov nor of Narratology will expect that structure of five stages mentioned above, if unconsciously. It’s a habit we all learnt when we were making sense of the world as young children. (The search for meaning is a childish thing, perhaps only exisiting much like how the grammars of language get that way because babies learn them.)

This is both good and bad. It means you can rely on their narrative experience past to read between the lines and so imagine these other structures and stages. Readers expect them, they hunger for them. Thus, they will be able to join the dots of the stages they expect to see, and overlay them on what has been given.

It’s bad because there are no rules as to how to do it exactly, what to leave out, when. So now, every story will differ in its omission. How you deal with this is the true challenge of the twitter story writer. For it’s these holes the reader fills in which make the story whole. Once they make it whole, then they ‘get it’. This is your primary job, if you don’t enable this, then your story will not entertain, educate, edify or rouse.

If the writer stops these holes up wrongly, or fails to hint at them, there will be no story at all.

There might be some other beautiful things created and enjoyed, that’s not what this post is about.

Epilogue

So what’s in a a story? Generally, it is agreed, that basically, something has to change. It might only happen in the reader’s mind, the old “change comes from within” response to panhandlers, but without change there is no story.

But that’s enough for this post.

I hope this helps, but I only worked it out in hindsight so let me know if is useful at all.

Crossposted on Form21.

See Hemingway’s Famous Six Word Story for the structural method above used to analyse a very short story.

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