Monday, May 11, 2009

Storytelling 140 Characters at a Time—It Could Be More Than A Gimmick

When former New Yorker staff writer Daniel Baum started to spool out on Twitter the story of how he lost his position with the magazine, it got a lot of attention. At first, I had some catching up to do, which meant going to the beginning of Baum's stream and scrolling up until I was following in real time, but once I did, I found that reading his story one tweet at a time felt intimate, conversational, confessional—more than just a gimmick.

On this blog and Twitter, I usually stay on message and focus on short story collections, but Baum's posts and others' reactions to them drew me into an exchange about the potential for storytelling via microblogging. And to my surprise, I found myself touting the possibilities. Some thoughtful points Richard Nash made led me to consider how writing a story using this platform could work in a genuine and interesting way. I'm relatively new to Twitter, and no doubt others have previously taken up this exact subject and approach. I'm also not well-versed in experimental fiction, so I can't make an informed comparison to hypertext or Excel or PowerPoint or any other experimental e-fiction. But somehow this clicked with me.

So how would could someone writing a short story use Twitter effectively? The best analogy, as Sarah Weinman pointed out, is to serialization—in this case it would be microserialization. The biggest difference between this and Charles Dickens' serialized novels or, more recently, Denis Johnson's Nobody Move, have to do with the size of the installments and the means and frequency of delivery. The spirit, though, seems similar.

What would work particularly well on Twitter would be stories that could convey a sense of speaking directly to the reader. Along the way, the writer could consider responses from followers, which could influence the story he or she is telling. And all of the posts from others would comprise metatext to the story itself.

Ideally the writer would be composing as he or she tweets and not simply copying and pasting prewritten text. That doesn't mean an author couldn't be working from notes, an outline, or a draft. In fact that would make it more like composition and less like improvisation. At the end of the process, would lie a complete story or perhaps a draft of one. In fact, the writer could take this story, possibly incorporate feedback, and shape it into a more conventional text narrative. What's most interesting is that, in effect, the reader would be witnessing--and possibly assisting in--the creation of a story.

I'm not suggesting microserialization could/should/would replace traditional short stories. It's just a potentially new platform. Technology is moving fast, and I think interesting opportunities lie ahead for short story writers. Who knows? Great Twitter stories may just be waiting to be written.