David Mitchell, Twitter and the art of 140 character storytelling

By his own admission the novelist David Mitchell is not ‘a social media animal’. Yet on Monday 14 July he tweeted this:

It is the start of a new short story called The Right Sort, told entirely in 140 character bursts. For seven consecutive days Mitchell is tweeting between two to three dozen times a day.

The short story is a form of marketing, as Mitchell readily admits – he has a book out in the autumn. But he insists he is not a ‘gimmick chaser’. Instead, he says, he is looking for a way to use Twitter that goes beyond the usual pleas to buy the new book.

What’s interesting at this point is to hear how the medium is informing the message.

Speaking to the Today programme on Radio 4, Mitchell said writing on Twitter was ‘less like a balloon ride where you see the page of text [from above] and more like a train ride with a very narrow window through rapidly changing landscapes and tunnels. You can’t see it all at once.’

He went on to allude to the true attraction – and challenge – of Twitter. ‘I like tight straitjackets because it forces that act of escapology,’ he said.

Creativity within limits, in other words.

Those who insist that Twitter is made up of nothing more than trivial, self-indulgent and tedious posts simply haven’t seen it at its best. And Twitter works best when people accept that it is their job to add the layer of creativity on top of what is a very simple platform, namely SMS text messaging minus 20 characters.

Like the best tabloid headline writers and advertising copy writers, the craft lies in the ability to convey meaning and emotion in a limited space. Or what Mitchell calls the ‘tight straightjacket’.

‘I have only made this letter longer because I have not had the time to make it shorter,’ is a quote most commonly attributed to French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal.

Brevity is worth the wait.

Jon Bernstein is an independent digital media consultant and writer, formerly deputy editor then digital director of New Statesman and multimedia editor at Channel 4 News

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