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Twitter Fiction

By Caitlin Burns

As a Transmedia Storyteller, platforms become the weapons in one’s storytelling arsenal. Movies, TV shows, console video games, cell phone games and video, online experiences, social media networks, blogs, ARGs and novels –just to name a few. Each one of these platforms is suited to a different kind of writing and has its own particular strengths and weaknesses.

Novels give a depth of storytelling possibilities one will never find in a video game, but a video game gives a visceral aspect to the story you won’t find in a novel. Similarly, if a story is told in a major motion picture, the audience that will be introduced to that story will be larger than any other platform and therefore will likely becoming the driving platform for a narrative regardless of how established a book or game series may have been in the past.

So, to effectively write a story in a particular platform, one has to be aware of the way people interact with the platform and it’s vernacular.

Twitter Fail WhaleA platform of storytelling that is just now coming into its own as a storytelling medium is Twitter. Twitter’s constraints are evident, as 140 characters only give one so much space to get a point across. However, there is another, less obvious component to tweeting a narrative that is especially important: time.

Unlike movies where the audience can experience the action at their leisure a Twitter narrative gives the author more opportunities to play with the event each installment creates, playing with this phenomenon to spur a different kind of interaction with the text than one can get with a blog. Twitter invites direct response by the audience in a way that other media do not Twitter breaks the fourth wall by inviting the audience to reply, simply by using the platform.

Twitter is not just a journaling of events; Twitter is theatre.

There are many ways people are already making use of Twitter to tell fictional narratives, some of which are more appealing as a “follower”. All are exciting ways to consider using this medium in the future.

Fictional Characters

Stack of BooksThere are plenty of shows and stories out there whose characters have Twitter feeds of their own, many created by fans, like Ask_Deadpool which follows the X-Men character, and others written by the creators and producers of the original stories themselves, like MrsHudsonsDiary for Sherlock Holmes.

Serge Graystone’s twitter feed, from the television show Caprica is a fantastic example of a fan outreach experience that can answer questions in a way that would be impossible for a character more directly involved in the narrative. Like Mrs. Hudson, Serge is a housekeeper and therefore privy to the intimate lives of the major characters. He is also a robot, with access to myriad information about the world of Caprica and the other Twelve Planets. Serge answers questions posed by his 7,210 followers even though the show has ended its formal season and, during the season, answered questions that mirrored the information available to the viewer from the aired episode.

Those interested in other Fictional Character feeds on Twitter should check out Nina Bargiel’s review of Doctor Coop’s from Nurse Jackie. She herself wrote the nine feeds for Valemont University and knows a thing or two about the concept.

Talking about fictional characters on Twitter, one cannot ignore Richard Castle. The main character of ABC’s Castle, Richard Castle is a devastatingly charming mystery writer played by the devastatingly charming Nathan Fillion. Through WriteRCastle, his 26,000 followers keep apprised of his day-to-day doings as well as things he finds interesting in character. While the season is on the air, these often have something to do with the events of the episodes, but more often than not, they’re just the 140 character rantings of a very appealing bachelor, single father, and man about town. The author has taken great pains to utilize the character’s (and Nathan Fillion’s) voice and it’s easy to imagine Fillion’s smooth tenor speaking the tweets.  WriteRCastle was nominated and a finalist for a Shorty Award for Entertainment.

Novels and Keitai Shosetsu

As the New Yorker reported in December 2008, Mobile Novels are big in Japan. Keitai Shosetsu have often been the best-seller lists in Japan and are generally read on cell phones and are divided into sections that take about three minutes to read (the length between stops on a Japanese Tube Train).  Similar to the style of nineteenth century serial novels, when snippets of stories were printed in magazines- that included many of Charles Dickens’ works, Edgar Allen Poe’s stories and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle- Keitai Shosetsu has proven itself in Japan’s literary market.

On Twitter, many have attempted to replicate the Cell-Phone-Novel’s success in the 140-character medium. SciFi novel, Joy Motel, and Fuel Dump (#FD) by Tom Sharpling are both examples of the concept.

Also in 2008 New York Times writer Matt Richtel and others attempted to write a Twiller (Twitter-thriller) but for their troubles seemed to get more confusion than accolades for their efforts. Richtel’s Twiller plot can be read at his own site; similarly, Joy Motel is presented in chronological order at its own site. One has to wonder, if you need a separate site with a different format to present what is intended for one medium, what is being missed?

While these Novels tend to be shorter than published works, there are a dozens of attempts on twitter, but the majority of twitter narratives tend to be “Very Short Stories.”

Theatre and the Phenomenological Arts

Book CoverAs the uses of Twitter have evolved, so have the methods the platform provides for storytelling, #, Lists, and a bevy of tools designed to help facilitate following different twitter feeds at once. All of these are tools that are fantastic and dangerous for creators taking storytelling on twitter from the straightforward, like John Aronnax’s pirate tale to ramified and complex like Crushing It.

Crushing It: A Social Media Love Story is an example of a very theatrical Twitter narrative. A group of authors, each portraying a different character at a wedding party, tweeted their parts back and forth in scenes for an hour a day the first week of February 2010.  The very specific time period for the action of the story presented challenges to the follower, it was hard to keep up with what was missed, though recaps on the associated website helped considerably.

The events when happening in real time were very interesting to an audience member. Attempting to keep up with the tale required active participation for five days for an hour at a time. This is not an easy thing to ask an audience, even for a live play in a theatre, people are rarely asked to commit more than two hours of their time. Television shows, similarly don’t ask for an audience’s attention for so many days in a row if they’re telling a non-episodic narrative, they stick to a weekly showing to keep the audience coming back without requiring a prohibitive commitment. All that said, Crushing It is worth checking out because its characters are entertaining and the sheer scope of the attempt is a sign of things to come.

The week of March 16-29, 2010 a group of Rabbis got together to Tweet the Exodus this phenomenon caught the attention of everyone from the Wall Street Journal to the Colbert Report. Tweet the Exodus took the story of Moses and portrayed it through the eyes of 13 characters, everyone from Moshe_Ben_Amran (Moses) to the PharoahofEgypt, The_Israelites, even The10Plagues themselves. The characters spread the events of the story out over the full week, with baby Moses’s discovery amongst the reeds starting things off on the 16th. The events were tweeted pretty constantly over the course of the program’s rollout with the action sequences occurring on the final days. The story of the Exodus was punctuated by humor, and proved to be an engaging epic on Twitter, complete with battles, frogs and a symbollic cast of thousands weighing in as a chorus, citizensofegypt. By utilizing theatrical conventions and planning the timing of the story’s rollout while not demanding the audience’s time specifically, Tweet the Exodus has created a truly engaging Twitter-Epic… Twepic?

Finally, going on this April and May, Such Tweet Sorrow is taking Romeo & Juliet and retelling the play dynamically through Twitter, Twitpics, and YouTube Videos and doing a bang-up job. Reimagining the Shakespearian characters in the lens of modern British teenagers, the ensemble is adding new depth and delights to the classic tale. Presented by Mudlark and the Royal Shakespeare Company it’s exciting to follow these characters as they daily lives and live out the drama in real time. Twitter lends itself to theatrics and it is a natural fit that actors and theatre would be taking their shows onto this new medium.

Caitlin Burns is a Transmedia Producer and Editorial Lead at Starlight Runner Entertainment. To hear more of her thoughts on media, follow her and catch up on her other blogs through Twitter: Caitlin_Burns

Images Courtesy of Wired.com

Caitlin Burns
Caitlin Burns has spent a decade working with narrative intellectual property franchises, independent artists, brands and philanthropic initiatives as a transmedia producer. Developing content strategies, overseeing multiplatform story worlds and localization campaigns spanning the globe, she understands what it takes to create a success story. Her work includes projects with Starlight Runner Entertainment including Pirates of the Caribbean, Disney Fairies, and Tron Legacy for Disney, James Cameron’s Avatar for Fox, Halo for Microsoft, Happiness Factory for The Coca-Cola Company, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for Nickelodeon and Transformers for Hasbro. She has also worked with Sony, Showtime, Pepperidge Farm, Scholastic, Tribeca New Media Fund, FEMSA, Wieden+Kennedy, Reebok and Stratasys.
Caitlin Burns

Latest posts by Caitlin Burns (see all)

  • Aaron C says:

    I didn’t know deadpool had a Twitter, but it makes perfect since, as the character often breaks the fourth wall.
    .-= Aaron C´s last blog ..aaroncouch: KC people: Come see me play at the Czar bar tonight with A Weather and Seafarer! =-.

  • Yep, yep, totally agree. Twitter is an amazing vehicle for theater.

    I would feel remiss if I didn’t point out the copious Twitter-theater projects of Jay Bushman, including The Good Captain, SXStarWars, and Cthalloween: http://jaybushman.com/

    Also code poet Mez Breeze is doing a Twitter performance right now called feralC: http://netwurker.net/
    .-= Andrea Phillips´s last blog ..Quitting Facebook =-.

  • Oh! And! A group of performers got together sometime last year to reenact The Stand: http://tins.rklau.com/2009/04/stand-playing-out-on-twitter.html
    .-= Andrea Phillips´s last blog ..Quitting Facebook =-.

  • There was a cracking Twitter story for the 25th anniversary of Ferris Bueller’s Day Out. That surely deserved a mention!

    Great post though, and well done on coining the term “twepic”

  • Jill Golick says:

    Thanks for including Crushing It in this piece, Caitlin. From the creation point of view, we never intended our “episodes” to last an hour, but it was only when we got live on Twitter that we realized how long it takes to play a scene. There is a lot of delay between posting a Tweet and when it appears online. So though our scenes were short by TV standards, they ran way long on Twitter. The other major issue with Crushing It was that we had way way too much story for a single week. But the point of Crushing It was to learn and learn we did!
    .-= Jill Golick´s last blog ..Stepping Up =-.

  • Deadpool says:

    Thanks fer mentionin’ Ask_Deadpool, babe. An’ ev’rybody keep askin’ questions, ’cause I do love talkin’ ta my fab-u-lous fans!

    P.S. I also love grenades, an’ I’m running low. Anybody wanna donate ta a needy merc?
    .-= Deadpool´s last blog ..Ask_Deadpool: .@Deadpools Well that’d explain why I didn’ have a clue. Thought it was just my regeneratin’ brain cells ag– …wait, what were we sayin’? =-.

  • […] medium vraagt om andere manier om het verhaal te vertellen. Caitlin Burns in haar artikel “Twitter Fiction”: “Novels give a depth of storytelling possibilities one will never find in a video game, but a […]

  • […] 15, 2010 C. Burns (2010). `Twitter Fiction’. tags: twitter transmedia serial keitai_shosetsu […]

  • MFSB says:

    Love twitter for marketing and for entertainment. Short bytes of information are perfect for this fast paced world and to produce theatre in packets of 140 characters or less is a talent!!

  • Eric says:

    Huh – this is definitely a change in fiction storytelling for the modern world. I’ll have to check through a few of these and see how well it works.

    I’m iffy about how it compares to standard novelized fiction, but the one thing that excites me a bit is the fact that it’s a live stream. Total shattering of the fourth wall, for those that allow interaction.

    And Deadpool is awesome. Thanks for that link!

  • tangotacticalgear.comTwitter is not just a journaling of events; Twitter is theatre.
    – I definitely agree! One of these days, I hope I can create my own twitter theater through my tweets. It’s hard to tweet though while you’re in the middle of a full-blown molle or airsoft battle. I wish I can pull off a twitter journal without getting myself shot!

  • A. C. Grace says:

    “Twitter’s constraints are evident, as 140 characters only give one so much space to get a point across. However, there is another, less obvious component to tweeting a narrative that is especially important: time.”

    This observation makes me wonder if Twitter could possibly be the medium to resurrect a classic fiction device in some high-tech way; the cliffhanger. If a story – or each successive Tweet – ended in a new cliffhanger, the story could quickly become addictive – if done in the right way. Although, this old fiction device may have to be hybridized by making use of both the cliffhanger and another format; say something similar to that of a mobile novel.

    It is also fascinating how new technologies and devices have spawned their own genres of fiction, as well as new “theaters” such as mobile reading devices like the Kindle.

  • Doug Dearing says:

    At 140 characters max, let’s see who comes up with a new short-hand version of Twitter code; kind of like texting code used with mobile devices (LOL, BTW) that greatly shortens character usage. Someone might even turn out some “secret” code that only certain people are privy to.

  • Olivia says:

    Fascinating! I will definitely check out some more Twitter fiction; I love Tweet the Exodus, too. Amazing how many uses there are for this site.

  • Very Good info on Twitter. Thank you for the post!

  • […] Twitter is more of a place for performance, inviting the audience to participate and respond (See: Twitter Fiction).  Will you invite your audience to guess the plot? Answer questions?  Contribute their own say […]