For four days this March, as part of Twitter’s second Fiction Festival, writers from around the globe tweeted works of fiction in installments of no more than 140 characters. This isn’t the first time that authors have graced readers with original “Twitterature,” as this form of micro-blogging has been called. In 2009, Neil Gaiman tweeted the first line of a novel, and then let his followers complete the rest of the narrative. Jennifer Egan released The Black Box, on Twitter in 2012, unfurling the short story’s plot in 600 tweets over the course of 10 days. That same year, Twitter launched its first Fiction Festival, soliciting stories from authors such as Elliott Holt, Lauren Beukes, and Fabrice Colin. Regular Twitter users were invited to contribute their own stories as well, under the hashtag #TwitterFiction.
But are 140-character tweets conducive to good storytelling? Writers responded to the challenge in different ways. One of the festival’s best-known participants, the mystery writer Alexander McCall Smith, tweeted a series of short stories that read like hyper-condensed versions of his novels. As usual, McCall Smith’s prose was simple, his plots quaint. But stripped of the endearing description and dialogue that characterize his books, McCall Smith’s Twitter stories fell flat. Take, for example, this excerpt from “Love in the Alps,” the author’s fourth and final festival entry:
It’s not exactly the sort of stuff that keeps readers waiting on tenterhooks.
Twitter is more effective as an exercise in extended characterization. Some of the best Fiction Festival entries were produced by writers who adapted existing protagonists or came up with new characters for the micro-blogging platform. Chloe and Tom Avery—a husband and wife team from England—created a pseudonymous Twitter account for the protagonist of their story, and gradually revealed a murder mystery through his tweets.
Graeme Simsion created Twitter accounts for the protagonists of his best-selling novel The Rosie Project, two friends who engage in a lengthy exchange of tweets after one of them is caught having an affair. Using their accounts, Simsion’s characters, Don Tillman and Gene Barrow, solicited advice from Twitter users, whose suggestions were incorporated into the narrative.
Over the course of the festival it became clear that if a writer’s tweets become dull and uninspired, readers will stop checking back for subsequent installments of a story. Elizabeth Fremantle, a historical fiction writer and one of the festival’s featured authors, told the biography of Anne Boleyn from the perspective of the queen’s dog. Unfortunately, there are only so many times a person can read about a dog wagging its tail, even if said tail-wagging is set against the backdrop of court intrigue and the occasional beheading.
It probably goes without saying that God (known outside the Twittersphere as David Javerbaum, former head writer of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart) was more successful at keeping his Twitter story fresh. Javerbaum’s contribution to the Twitter Fiction contest, “The Book of Bieb,” a new(er) testament that traces the birth, death, and rebirth of our savior, Justin Bieber, was one of the festival’s most popular entries (so popular, in fact, that the story is now being sold in book format).
As the newest tweets in a feed appear first, extended twitter fiction is presented in reverse-chronological order. Unless you are following a writer’s tweets in real-time, consuming stories on Twitter requires scrolling down to the end of a long feed and reading your way up. Still, the inconvenience of reading Twitter fiction is well worth it if the stories are compelling. Many of the Twitter Fiction Festival entries were in fact funny or otherwise entertaining reads despite the constraints of the format, or perhaps because of them; Twitter forces authors to be pointed and concise, while at the same time giving them the freedom to engage directly with readers, and to get creative (and a little bit silly) with narrative techniques.