140 Characters

By Louise Ure

                      “140 characters is a novel when you’re being shot at.”

                                                   -Twitter post from Iran, June 20, 2009

Ten days ago, our Toni wrote a Murderati post about Twitter, MySpace and Facebook and the relevance of these social networking sites to writers. My response then was that I was a Luddite in social networking, but that if Twitter and the other options gave voice to otherwise unheard populations like the demonstrators in Iran, it was a good thing.

And then came the even-shorter-than-140-character tweet seen above and I now have a whole new appreciation of the format, one from the point of view of a novelist.

I have always believed that short stories are harder to write than novels. That songs are harder to write than short stories. That haiku is harder than songs.

We even have cell phone novels now, called keitai shousetsu in Japanese, both written and read electronically in 70-word bites. And what about those six-word memes that are rolling around (“For Sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.”)

The distillation of ideas and a paucity of words make one choose carefully. But it makes the work no less meaningful. It can be a quick slash of pain rather than a long drawn out disease. A moment of euphoria instead of a lifetime of gentle happiness.

The poster of that Iranian Twitter message is right: whole worlds can be described in a hundred and forty characters. Hearts broken. Stories told. Lives remembered. It’s not just flash fiction; it’s Big Bang fiction.

And it’s not the same thing as those 25-word elevator pitches we’ve all been encouraged to develop. It’s not a summary: it can have the salty emotional punch of an entire ocean reduced to a single tear.

I saw something in a chat room once that detailed the sad saga of a 54-year old woman seeking the child she’d lost on the streets of Chicago twenty years ago. In Tweet-speak it would look like this:

         “I lost my daughter in Chicago in ‘88 and have not seen her since.

          Her name is LuAnna Jackson. Born 11/26/73.

          Finding her again would be the high point of my fast fading life.”

Or the email message I got from a girlfriend five years ago:

                  “They set my arm and gave me an icepack in the ER.

                   He promised he’d never do it again.

                   That was the last time he ever lied to me.”


Or this good news from a friend whose dreams of adoption came true:

                   “Her name is Elaine. She was born yesterday,

                     weighing 7 pounds 11 ounces.

                    We leave for Beijing in the morning.”


Or even the opening lines from my latest book, Liars Anonymous.

                    “I got away with murder once but it doesn’t look like

                     that’s going to happen again. Damn.

                     This time I didn’t do it. Well, not all of it anyway.”


Who knew I was an unrealized Tweeter?

So help me out here, ‘Rati. Create some Big Bang Fiction for me. Break my heart. Make me laugh out loud. Go on. I know you can do it.

Write me a 140 character novel.

28 thoughts on “140 Characters

  1. John Dishon

    The cell phone novels in Japan are not just 70 words. They are usually short novels, about the equivalent of say, The Great Gatsby or Catcher in the Rye length, and they are not just read electronically. I’ve seen printed, hardbound editions in bookstores in Tokyo myself.

  2. karen from mentor

    Here are four of my 20 words or less stories that I wrote for a contest recently.

    Perusing the stub, you rethink the whole lean over the fence holding sandwich so Dave can snap a picture idea.

    Witness to coroner, “I took his beer, he said, watch this, but there were never TWO trains before.”

    Containing your horror at your vomit filled shoes; you smile back at your beaming toddler.”I feel much better Mommy.”

    Sickened, you push away your salad while chanting “It was just half of a caterpillar, a little extra protein."

    Karen Schindler

  3. Tammy Cravit

    Here’s my 140 characters – but be warned, I haven’t had any coffee yet this morning:

    They told me they’d kill me if I told what they’d done. They were as good as their word. Oddly enough, being dead isn’t so bad, after all.

    And here’s another (this one actually came out at 145 characters, oops):

    Why’d you have to leave, daddy? You knew what mommy would do, and now I’m all alone. Here she comes, with the knife. I’ll see you soon after all.

    I guess my mind’s on a bit of a ghastly track right now.

    — Tammy

  4. Louise Ure

    John, you’re right. They’e become an entire sub-senre on their own, and have been issued in print as well.

    Karen, you have a grisly imagination, but oh what a talent! "Witness to coroner" is definitely my favorite. You not only capture the story but the characters there!

    You, too, Tammy! I guess we can tell we’re all mystery fans here. Shades of "Lovely Bones" in that first one. Without the deux ex machina icicles, thank goodness.

  5. Tammy Cravit

    Louise, I’m glad I’m not the only one who found those icicles ridiculous! It almost seemed like the author just got bored of her story — or hit her word count goal — and decided to bring the story to as abrupt an end as she could manage.

  6. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    There’s a great quote from someone somewhere –

    "If I’d had more time I would’ve written you a shorter letter."

  7. Louise Ure

    I’ve heard it attributed to Pascal, Stephen. And about a dozen others. Great comment.

    (My apologies, folks, for the typos in my previous comments. I haven’t figured out how to edit the comments here on Squarespace after they’re posted … typos and all.)

  8. Chris Hamilton

    In 109 characters, I can sum up perfectly nearly a century of unvanquished pain…

    Little roller up along first. Behind the bag! It gets through Buckner! Here comes Knight and the Mets win it!

    Or more seriously, from my unpublished (so far) novel…

    They killed Lindsey and now I don’t care any more. They might have been trying to kill me instead. If so, they succeeded.

  9. Jena

    This is the novel I’m working on, tweaked to fit into a tweet:

    "But will I get away with it?" I was drunk when I laughed at gypsy’s warning of Dad’s bloody death. Now I can’t remember if I did it or not.

  10. Pari

    Louise and Tammy,
    I felt the same way about those icicles too!

    Here goes:

    "Alice wasn’t the only one to fall down a rabbit hole," he said, drinking another beer.
    I pulled the blanket tighter, concealing a sharp piece of glass he’d missed from the night before.

  11. Allison Brennan

    Writing short IS hard. It took me nearly as long to write the 5,000 word short story in the killer year antho as it took me to write the 35,000 novella I turned in right before it, which only took me two weeks less time than the 100,000 work novel I turned in before that.

    Writing short helped me see that every word counts, and I can edit ruthlessly in revisions. 🙂

    So because I would spend hours coming up with a story in 140 characters, I took this from my book PLAYING DEAD because it was easier. And considering my publisher just moved up my pub date on my next book, I don’t have anymore time.

    132 characters:

    He slowly removed the card.

    We know what you did last night.

    Something else was in the envelope. He poured it into his hand.

    Dirt. And a single earring.

  12. Louise Ure

    Allison, you stretched S-C-A-R-Y into 132 characters! And I’m so pleased to know that you’re living proof of that shorter-is-harder-than-longer belief of mine.

    Chris, you’ve just coined a new phrase: the Twitter pitch. I’m using it at the Book Passage Mystery Conference where I’m teaching (with Cornelia) in a couple of weeks. Of course I only give credit to the author the first three times …

    JT, I’m with you. These creative offerings are terrific.

    Like yours, Toni. I can’t wait to find out what’s she’s running from … and if she makes it out.

  13. Chris Hamilton

    I’m doing a session about social networking for authors at the Florida Writers Conference this fall (youshouldcomeit’sfabulous) and I think one of the exercises will be to compress your work to 140 characters. At the very least, they’ll be the 140 tightest characters you’ve ever written.

    Louise, please let me know how that goes.

  14. Louise Ure

    Toni, that’s a howl! For me a Twitch is something that would show up to indicate my nervousness about the pitch.

    And Chris, I’ll keep you posted. Love to know how your session goes as well.

  15. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Have you guys ever read Amy Hempel? She’s the queen of the minimalist sentence. Check out her Collected Short Stories. Brilliant.

  16. Chris Hamilton

    Another aspect of this is how the coverage of Iran is different because of Twitter. I was watching some of that using Twitter search and the hashtag #iranelection over the weekend and it was fascinating. Problem is, you can’t know what’s legit and what isn’t.

  17. Jake Nantz

    If that one scared you, I have one you may really hate:

    "My daughter’s pediatrician, a church deacon, just uttered the most foul and disgusting word in the lexicon: ‘Inoperable.’"

    (And no, I don’t have kids, nor do I have anything against kids, these were just the stories that popped into my head)

  18. Louise Ure

    Stephen, I didn’t know Amy Hempel, so I just looked her up and read some examples of her work. My God. I’m hooked.

    And yes, Chris, this "Twitter Revolution" in Iran is mind-boggling in so many ways. Not least because we still can’t be sure of the authenticity of the messages.

    Bravo, Jake! What a line. But you know my favorite part? The fact that you inserted "a church deacon" into the doctor’s pedigree. The characters have come to life for me.


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