In Twitter, An Emerging Creative Medium For The Digital Age

The fictional characters on Twitter don't merely parody celebrities. They're creating a distinctly new way to tell stories.

The notebook that Pulitzer-prize winning author Jennifer Egan used to compose her short story Black Box had eight small squares on each page. After a year of editing, those boxes turned into more than 600 tweets.

In May, the New Yorker fiction department's Twitter account published the story during 10 one-hour nightly installments of tweets. Instead of using the platform to discuss a television program, a speech, or a news event occurring elsewhere, users tuned into something occurring on the platform itself. Twitter became not a second screen, but a first screen.

The story Egan wrote developed differently on Twitter than it would have if written with another medium in mind.

“This is not a new idea, of course,” Egan wrote about her desire to compose for Twitter, “but it’s a rich one—because of the intimacy of reaching people through their phones, and because of the odd poetry that can happen in a hundred and forty characters.”

At Twitter, Andrew Fitzgerald is in charge of developing publisher presences on the platform. He calls Egan’s story a “fascinating moment for storytelling on Twitter.” It's not the first such moment he had noticed. A parody Twitter account for Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel started by journalist Dan Sinker had evolved into a sci-fi epic. Nigerian writer Teju Cole had made a habit of creating tiny stories he calls "Small Fates" in his Twitter feed.

“Twitter is such an incredibly flexible platform,” Fitzgerald tells Fast Company. “And I think the flexibility of the platform, combined with this unique place that it holds as a global, real-time one-to-many broadcasting platform makes Twitter the ultimate canvas for creative storytellers.”

Twitter launched its first public encouragement of storytelling last month with a Storytelling festival. Out of 600 entries, it selected 29 projects to include in a showcase of creative fiction. Here’s what made those stories distinctively Twitter, and how Twitter, as a creative medium, stands apart.

140 Characters At A (Specific) Time

Like Egan’s Black Box, many of the authors who participated in the showcase chose to program their stories for specific times—mimicking an approach to serialized fiction embraced by literary players from Charles Dickens to Amazon.

On Twitter, however, there’s some extra suspense built in, even for stories that don’t unfold during programmed hours. Not only does the audience wait for installments, they wait for the next line.

“There was a real, I presume, a contemporary version of what Dickens would have felt,” novelist Andrew Pyper, who authored a Twitter horror story for the festival, told Fast Company. “This is obviously much more sped up, but there was anticipation. Nobody was getting angry with me or anything, but I did sense, in a good way, among the readers of the story, an impatience. I had to up the dramatic stakes of the story earlier.”

Dramatic Pacing Gets A Bit More Literal

There’s a rhythm in any written story. But on Twitter, the author can literally time the lines he or she delivers.

“I was very conscious of pacing,” says Elliott Holt, the author of a Twitter story that tells the story of a crime through tweets from the party where it occurred. “Sometimes one character tweeted three times in a row, for example. I had a rhythm that made sense to me; I was conscious of the beats.”

“I tried to have the pace of the tweets—specifically the pace of the information in the tweets—reflect the real-time situation of the story," says Scott Hutchins, the author of a Working Theory of Love, who tweeted a five-installment detective noir tale complete with black-and-white images of its San Francisco setting. "More breathless if the detective was on a chase. More regular if he was sitting and interviewing.”

Sometimes the pace of tweets becomes part of the story. Pyper didn’t program his story for a specific time, but rather told it through the tweets of his character Hannah Bly throughout five days. “It wouldn’t make sense if I just had her tweeting constantly, because it would be unbelievable. If you did that, you would be fired,” he says. "So I had to have her sneaking off to the bathroom. I had to have her tweeting in quick spurts while she had a free moment, a coffee break. Because she had these nightmares, these horrific nightmares, it would require me to write her sections in the middle of the night in the Washington time zone.”

Characters Come With Their Own Accounts

While Facebook and Google+ require users to use their real names, Twitter encourages fictionalized accounts—whether it’s the chair that Clint Eastwood talks to, Don Draper, or the cobra that escaped from the Bronx Zoo.

Several authors have taken advantage of this capability to create dialogue. The focus of Holt’s story, for instance, is a scene told through the tweets of several characters who are at the same party. Character tweets from their own accounts, which gives hints about their personalities and interests apart from the story. Exploring the Twitter profile of a character named Margot Burnham who describes herself as a PR woman and foodie, for instance, you’ll see that she’s tweeted an article from the New York Times’s Food and Drink account and advice for working in the restaurant industry. Holt says the voices established for each character in the day leading up to the beginning of the Twitter Storytelling festival helped shape the story.

“The kind of things that the PR woman, margotburnham, would notice, for example, were different from the sort of things that @simonsmithmilla and @elsajohanssen paid attention to,” she says. “They were filtering the scene through their specific lenses.”

Getting Real

“Being a non-physical network the 'people' of Twitter exist in a mysterious space between the real and the imaginary," wrote Josh Gosfield, the creator of a fictional celebrity named Fathom Butterfly, in an email to Fast Company. "Avatars, profiles and Tweets may or may not represent external reality. We accept that anything we see or read is an approximation of the truth—massaged and tweaked by the Tweeter (or the Tweeter’s handlers) for reasons that we might not know. That’s a very friendly landscape for making shit up.”

Fathom Butterfly, “a Notorious Beauty Queen, Showgirl, Hammer Horror Actress, Porn Star, Felon and Feminist Filmmaker,” didn’t just tweet like a real person, but tweeted photos, posters, a Wikipedia page, and press clippings to support her identity as a real person and story.

Pyper, who told his story through the Twitter account of a fictional White House nanny, calls his work the “Twitter version of the Blair Witch project.” His character’s delivery of the story through the same communication mechanism that real people use created a documentary aspect.

“It does feel more real than a book. Because in a book is something you read on your own time, you determine the parameters of the space in which you consume the book,” he says. “In this case, the tweets are coming, often unpredictably, just as the messages would be delivered to you by someone, a real person.”

Interactive Creativity

Holt set up a vote for her audience about whether her story ended in a suicide, homicide or accident (the majority voted homicide). Jennifer Wilson asked Twitter followers to supply epitaphs for photos of gravestones she tweeted, then based short stories on their responses. A project by Lauren Beukes asked readers to submit two incongruous story genres to be paired in a tweet, which produced gems such as: “#litmash #politicalSF Putin: The Russian ballerinas elected to cabinet weren't ballerinas at all when they took their faces off. “

Even authors who didn’t incorporate their audiences into their fiction felt their readers’ presence.

“There were people saying man I’m loving this,” Pyper says. “That’s gratifying, no matter when you hear it. But when you hear it immediately, that is crack. That is writer crack.”

[Image: Flickr user Allan Foster]

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7 Comments

  • Laurel Moring

    This is awesome. I'm an aspiring writer with not nearly enough time to practice my craft in between my family and my job, but this would be an amazing way to get some writing done and add in the social element! I work in social media so this is the best of both worlds for me!

  • Daniel Toy

    This is the best article I've read about the Twitter Fiction Festival so far. I had such a great time participating, and I hope they do one again next year. 

  • RUN&WRITE&DESIGN

    Great article, as always, from Sarah Kessler. I love the control that twitter gives you, as a writer. By limiting the characters, it keeps you sharp, concise and to the point. There's a game for iOS that kinda plays into this theory as well - weWRITE! - but adds a social element. Kinda like Story Chain or Exquisite Corpse. Writing is such a diverse artform, I'm just glad to be along for the ride.

  • Sean Hill

    Check out @VeryShortStory - a collection of 140 character stories on Twitter which was recently turned into the book VERY SHORT STORIES: 300 BITE-SIZED WORKS OF FICTION.

  • OctopodaTech

    Twitter is an incredibly flexible medium for storytelling.  I've experimented very briefly @142857frog with having 3 storylines running in parallel, and with it not being clear which tweets belong to which stories, plus plenty of tweets that have nothing to do with the any of the stories.