Once Upon a Tweet: Telling Stories In Twitter
In November 2009, author Rick Moody published the entirety of a short story tweeted out in 153 hourly posts. He didn’t simply take a story and break it up into tweet-sized chunks, but specifically wrote it on Twitter. Moody said that he saw Twitter’s character limits as “some strange, poetical limitation that would be fun to work with.” The experiment wasn’t without its detractors, and Moody himself said that he preferred to write for books — that anything else has a sense of gimmickry about it.
One interviewer asked, “What about pacing, narrative arc and voice when a story is delivered in such a halting format?” After all, aren’t those elements the classical elements of story?
Is story-telling in Twitter anything more than a gimmick? How can you maintain story when readers may or may not read every part; or if readers interrupt with their own ideas? Does the fragmentation of tweeting preclude storytelling? While storytelling on Twitter is inherently different, it can still be a medium for getting across the essential elements of a story.
Storytelling Is Part Of Being Human
Storytelling, after all, is probably the most primal mode of human communication. As writer Robert McKee put it, “the archetypal story unearths a universally human experience, then wraps itself inside a unique, culture-specific expression.”
McKee is a revered teacher of scriptwriting and the author of Story, a book ostensibly about the idea of story as it relates to screenwriting, but with value far beyond that discipline. Recently, on my way through an airport, a man who saw me with the book wanted to chat with me. He told me that he was a political analyst-turned-scriptwriter on his way to pitch a script in Los Angeles, and was profoundly influenced by the book. Later on that trip, at a conference for social media in entertainment, almost everyone I met in film cited the book as a great influence.
For McKee, stories have structure comprised of a selection of events “from the characters’ life stories that are composed into a strategic sequence to arouse specific emotions and to express a specific view of life.” Events, in turn, are all about a significant change for a character. From there, he goes on to talk about events occurring in scenes, which have a rhythm of beats.
While Twitter may never be the best medium to share stories, those significant elements can be brought in by marketers to help create a more compelling piece of communications. By thinking through our Twitter communications over a period of time, we can bring in several elements that help to create story:
- Bringing others into the story
- Scene setting
With trajectory, we give our tweets a sense of going somewhere. Of course, this is fairly simple when there is a particular event that’s relevant to your followers. You can also consider events like the resumption of school, the advent of spring, or a product release. Contests can provide a sense of trajectory, as we can tweet about entries right up to the announcement of winners and beyond. Pepsi’s “Refresh” campaign was a perfect example, as community involvement was included at each stage.
Community managers will always need to spend a certain amount of time responding to others and engaging with their communities. But there is the opportunity to create narrative threads that can continue over the coming week or longer. It is simply a matter of planning.
Bringing Others In
Twitter, by its nature, isn’t simply about your voice, but about the voices of others as well. How can your overall narrative include the voices of others? It could be others on your team, but it can even be about the call-and-response of the community. Consider the chorus in ancient Greek theatre.
As a medium for storytelling, Twitter isn’t a place for one individual to speak by him or herself. The medium is most suited to telling stories through many voices – more of a jazz composition. Which means that if you’re the inciter of the story, you have to be willing to let go of a certain amount of control.
Some of the best and most compelling people on Twitter use scene-setting. For example, a person might write, “leans in and whispers…” or “*faints*.” One person wrote, “*throws popcorn up in air* I can’t wait any longer!” How much more evocative that is than a simple, “I can’t wait to see you!”
I asked one person how they came to be so adept at that way of writing, and they said that it was from watching closed caption TV, where certain actions are narrated. In many ways, these people are creating a beautiful imaginary space in their tweeting, creating a more compelling communication. Tweeting becomes an interesting hybrid of text messaging and scriptwriting, where the author provides stage direction.
Climax is part of trajectory — it is the outcome and punctuation point of a series of tweets or even weeks of tweets. Creating this sense of climax is more an issue of planning than anything — simply thinking through how you’ll be communicating in Twitter over a period of time, and how you can “bake-in” story elements.
No less a marketing team than that of Coca-Cola’s has declared that storytelling is at the root of their effort to double their income by the year 2020. In their Liquid and Linked presentation they say, “We must remember that storytelling is at the heart of all families, communities, and cultures…”
New approaches to storytelling have been emerging, and probably, many new ways are still to be invented. The unique nature of micro-blogging has already introduced changes in communication. We can continue to be a part of those changes, and also enrich our marketing by looking back to the tradition of storytelling.
And we’ll all live happily ever after. The #end.
Feature image and accompanying images from VectorStock, used under license.
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