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Tales in tweets

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How short stories are becoming shorter still

I must have been 12 the summer I fell under Scheherazade’s spell. The family members were ardent followers of a book dealer’s club and believed in buying books to win more books. So with ‘How to fix your heart in 30 minutes’, or some such wonder, arrived four fat hard-bound volumes of One Thousand and One Nights one morning. They were too heavy to be read in hand, so I lolled on the couch for weeks, buoyed them on my stomach and got lost in the world of jinns and magicians, courtesans and slaves.

A decade later Scheherazade comes to me in the palm of my hand, off my mobile Twitter feed, for some lovely person (@tweetthenights) tweets the stories sentence by sentence stopping each night at “But morning overtook Scheherazade, and she lapsed into silence”. Twitter has undoubtedly changed the way we write and devour stories. Besides handles like these that serialise entire books into 140-character bites, adventurous writers have used Twitter to mould this constantly evolving animal named twitter fiction – tweets that in themselves tell a story or do so in sequence.

Validation has come from various quarters – the Guardian regularly challenged world-renown authors to tell 140-character stories; Arjun Basu (@arjunbasu) and Sean Hill (@veryshortstory) have become household names in the art form and published books of their stories; online magazines of remunerated twitter fiction such as Nanoism have sprung up and thrived, and Twitter itself recently concluded its second virtual festival of Twitter fiction.

All this probably best proves that stories never die, only morph in form and size. And with each new medium of storytelling, the successes usually arise from well-matched marriages of form and content. Novelist and photographer Teju Cole recently said that being regular on Twitter kept the “literary part of his brain – the part that tries to make good sentences” constantly engaged. Cole once ran a long-standing series named ‘Small Fates’ where he condensed news stories from Nigeria into single tweets.

Besides brevity, writers have used the interactive characteristics of Twitter itself – retweets, mentions, pictures and replies – to tell stories. Author Elliott Holt once told a mystery story through three different characters/handles live-tweeting their experience of a party, and Ankur Thakur narrated a Bollywood tale with screenshots of subtitled stills from movies. The medium also enables a certain democratisation of stories with readers tweeting back their own versions, and even sequels to stories.

In India, fans and practitioners of twitter fiction are certainly growing. Terribly Tiny Tales (@terriblytiny), an outfit begun by ad agency Not Like That, has a strong following, larger on Facebook than Twitter. They hand out word prompts to writers who then craft stories that are shared online. The resultant pieces have even played with word shapes and space, often reminiscent of early modernist poetic experiments. Meghna Pant’s recent retelling of the Mahabharata in 100 tweets bordered on poetry too. Above all, where Twitter fiction probably triumphs most is in its ability to tuck stories into the chaotic feeds of our everyday lives, long past Scheherazade’s time.

Teju Cole once ran a long-standing series named ‘Small Fates’ where he condensed news stories from Nigeria into single tweets.

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