Writing a true story in 140 characters or less


Creativity thrives on restriction. The harder we make it for ourselves, the more inventive we have to become. However, brevity takes practice. Steve Moss, founder of the 55 Fiction competition says: “A haiku poem is short. So is a quarterback sneak. But nobody thinks they’re simple to execute.” So, here are a few tips on how to write your 140 character story.

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.  –Ernest Hemingway

Silence, and a greater silence / Where the crickets / Hesitate –Leonard Cohen

Part 1: Preparing the material

1. For now, let’s forget brevity. Start by scribbling down as many memories as possible. The first few memories you get down on paper are likely to be more dramatic and emotionally charged recollections. The memories that arrive later on tend to be more nuanced and meditative. Both are useful and the more range we have to choose from the better.

2. Try not to edit your memories before you’ve even begun. If a memory occurs to you, don’t engage your inner critic – just start writing! A scene that feels unimportant at first glance might lead to a deeper, more interesting memory. But if you veto it straight away, the trail can get lost.

3. Keep a notebook. Much of our memory is state-dependent. I might do something when drunk that I forget when sober, and only recall again the next time I’m drunk. Sitting in front of a computer screen is unlikely to conjure many memories apart from those that involve sitting in front of a computer screen. Keep a notebook on you, and record the memories as they come to you in your daily life.

The marriage didn’t survive the honeymoon. They acknowledged the majesty of their mistake. But they remained together. Because of the gifts. –Arjun Basu

4. Try to do something whilst you’re thinking. Solutions come to us when our brain is involved in another activity. If you have a memory and you’re trying to flesh out the details, try going for a walk or doing the washing up.

5. Just record ideas and images. Memories rarely flow out in fully-formed stories. So, don’t concentrate on creating long narratives (forget ‘beginning, middle and end’). It might be more helpful to think about these memories as a series of photographs. Record single words, expressions, objects, songs, names or fragments. Think about all five senses – a distinctive smell or touch can be incredibly evocative.

6. Free Associate. Like Proust, Freud believed that memories were best unlocked when a subject relinquished control. His method was Free Association: show someone an object and they say the first thing that comes into their heads. Every object tells a story, so find some possessions and write down the first words that come into your head. You can try the same exercise with old photographs, or the contacts in your phonebook.

Time travel works!” the note read. “However you can only travel to the past and one-way.” I recognized my own handwriting and felt a chill. –Ron Gould

Part 2: Writing

1. Remember the limitations of the form. No 140 characters can hold our personality. It can only hint at a tiny piece of who we are. Some stories just take longer to tell. If you’re concerned about people reading the text as a press release for your own personality, then I suggest side-stepping the problem altogether. Instead, select the memory that you feel contains the most evocative image.

2. Contrast is evocative. Much good writing uses opposites and contradictions in order to create arresting scenes. It stops the reader becoming too complacent. Sometimes this technique manifests in the narrative (ie, two different characters from different worlds…what happens when they collide?), sometimes in the technique (as in a twist ending, or a joke, any place where expectations are deferred). Sometimes opposites appear in a single line, for example, a metaphor connecting two disparate images. Do you have any memories where two opposites meet? These sorts of memories can often reveal hidden turning points in our lives and can become the seed of a dynamic and original story.

Looking for the moon / In a lonely autumn sky / mountain castle lights -Santoka

3. Learn from Haiku – keep it simple! You will need to express your story in approximately three or four sentences. Keep your phrases short and punchy and avoid long words when short ones will suffice. Short prose always has an air of stillness attached to the format. Here’s some anonymous writing advice: “try to write about the meaning of life and you’ll end up staring at a brick wall, but try to write about a brick wall and you just might say something about the meaning of life.” Another useful technique is the traditional Haiku ‘break’, which usually occurs between the second and third line. In English Haikus, the poet might write ‘Stop-’ or put a long-dash at the start of the line. It suggests a moving of scene, or a new element, distracting the poet’s attention.

On a fall Sunday / I was reading a comic book / Until it fell  –Akio Kaneko

4. Detail is evocative. Rather than clutter a description with adjective, just try to use the specific names of things. Name names as much as you can. “I looked down over Margate” is much more evocative than “I looked down over the town”.

5. Arrange your composition carefully. Remember that a good photographer always pays close attention to composition, and uses it for symbolic effect. The photo of a dour politician alone in a conference room suggests isolation and desperation. The photo of the hotdog shop squeezed between two skyscrapers suggests dissonance between corporate and private business. Think about ways of arranging your memories to create your own message.

I woke up to a quiet house and found a domino on the other side the bed, the one-blank. Marla was giving notice, I was on my own now –anon. (VeryShortStory competition winner)

6. Try not to reduce these stories to message, moral or meaning. Look through your draft and see if you have included a sentence where you outright state your reasons for choosing the memory (ie. “this was the first time I can remember being happy”). If so, check to see if you can make the same point simply through composition. Of course, all stories are a combination of showing and telling, and sometimes you just have to come out and say it:

“When Gibson hit that homerun in the fall of eighty-eight, my old man had never been so happy. He hugged me for the first time. I was eleven.” —Thelonius Monk

7. In the final stages of editing… Here’s a few pointers: Avoid adjectives- they bleed nouns. Use strong verbs and a minimum of adverbs. If a story feels dead, try switching the tense from past to present, or from first person to second or third. When you think you are finished, leave the text for a day, then return and cut out every word you dare. Repeat the next day and the next, until you feel you have nothing left to remove.

Corpse parts missing. Doctor buys yacht.– Margaret Atwood


Ross Sutherland

For further information visit: www.writerscentrenorwich.org.uk