We’re back in a time where serialized stories are in vogue: last year, listeners’ curiosity was captured by Serial, a This American Life-produced show that became a phenomenon; the most revered shows on TV today are riddled with intrigue that keep you watching over a season-long, drama-filled arc; and even video games are taking up the chapter-based and episodic format. There’s something bittersweet for media consumers in that tantalizing wait to be satisfied by a narrative’s conclusion—to feel that one is part of the story, able to gossip and theorize possibilities with other fans throughout the experience.
While novels are commonplace now, long-form fiction was often consumed in serialized installments in the past. Take, for example, Dickens‘ The Old Curiosity Shop. Readers were so hungry to find out how the story ended that a mob stormed the wharf when the ship carrying the final installment docked in New York. Serialized fiction phased out when paper media had to cut costs and slim down (or wholly re-design) their issues, but new media—namely Twitter—is bringing the serial fiction format back, albeit bite-sized.
Many authors are turning to Twitter to publish and distribute stories, making for a unique reading experience. Because social media platforms are so approachable—and carry a built-in reader base that loves to share content—publishing a story on Twitter is beginning to make a lot of sense, and is a pretty fun form to play with. The award-winning author of Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell, has been tweeting in-character here and there for over a month now as a means to promote his upcoming novel Slade House, which is itself based on a work of Twitter fiction, The Right Sort.
Mitchell isn’t the only high-profile author to turn to Twitter for disseminating a story. Last year (and just in time for Halloween!) R.L. Stine, author, the Goosebumps series, tweeted out a fairly disturbing little story that garnered hundreds of re-tweets. The story What’s in My Sandwich? was one of a handful of tweeted stories by the author, who seems to be making a Halloween tradition out of the practice.
Why publish on Twitter? There’s low barrier of entry, and it’s participatory—you can amplify your story and receive feedback and impressions instantly. Authors may get worried that the tweets will get lost in the shuffle, but with tools like Storify, Twitter fiction can easily be archived as a unified piece to be read later. And because we love to watch events unfold (a serialization truly turns a story into an event), readers enjoy seeing a narrative develop and grow organically over social media—and if there’s any doubt on that point, check out Buzzfeed’s dissection on how a single tweet had thousands of Twitter users starved for narrative development, not unlike Dickens’ adoring American fans clamoring for the last Curiosity Shop chapter. Or look to any of the live-tweeted overheard breakups or drug trips that frequently go viral.
A huge font of stories is the Twitter Fiction Festival. The first festival was back in 2012, which eventually partnered with the Association of American Publishers and Penguin Random House two years later. Over five days, Twitter users across the globe are invited to share fictional stories, serialized tweet by tweet. While anyone is able to participate, the festival showcases a selection of higher-profile authors each year—2015’s edition featured 50 authors from 10 countries and their stories, including Celeste Ng, Dennis Mahoney, Lemony Snicket, Margaret Atwood and more.
Atwood culls together a found story using plot summaries and trailer copy from airplane movies (she wrote it on a plane)—a story that fits the short, punchy tweet medium well. Snicket’s story further makes use of the medium by being interactive: as each bit of the story was posted, readers were invited to respond as protagonist Snicket, struck with amnesia and all too confused, comes to “in the shade of a tree full of noisy birds.” You can find a whole trove of other stories over at the festival’s archive.
Twitter fiction isn’t just about serialization, though. Perhaps you’ve heard of Hemingway’s famous six-word story: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” Readers and writers have challenged themselves and each other to construct stories within the constraint, and Twitter’s 140-character limit is perfect for producing tweetable, shareable stories of similar brevity. The Guardian has an archive of ultra-short, one-tweet-long stories by notable writers—though unfortunately it hasn’t been updated since 2013. But it stands to show how Twitter can be used to share uniquely short pieces, or simply be used as a fun writing exercise prompt for authors. You can find other such pieces by lesser-known writers collected by Nanoism.
If there’s anything writers love, it’s constraint: having too much freedom can ironically stifle creativity. But Twitter can be used for telling a story unique to the platform (a la Snicket) or even to promote a more traditional work (such as Mitchell). Imagine spicing up the excerpt for your next book by tweeting out a chapter rather than publishing it on a blog—or even tweeting from a character’s perspective as an exercise. The possibilities are endless—indie authors take note!