by Vivian Wagner
For the last few years, I’ve been participating occasionally in a daily contest run by the journal Creative Nonfiction. It takes place on Twitter, and it involves telling a story in a tweet and using the hashtag #cnftweet. The winners of the contest are published on the Tiny Truths page in the print version of the journal. Sounds simple, right? Well, yes and no.
It’s pretty much the shortest possible flash nonfiction, and I’ve learned that it requires some skill and practice. Not just any topic can become a good #cnftweet. When I want to post one, I’ll often write out dozens of them. Sometimes I go through old, unpublished essays or freewrites, looking for a kernel of a story that might be reworked as a tweet. I think about stories that can be told briefly, trying to consider both those that would work in this format and those that would have some appeal to a broad readership. And I think about how to craft the tweet so that it makes sense as a story, even though it’s almost absurdly short.
Just because they’re short doesn’t mean they don’t have structure.
Here’s one thing I’ve discovered about #cnftweets: the best ones—or at least the ones I like best—follow a traditional Aristotelian plot structure, with rising action, a climax, falling action, and a dénouement. Just because they’re short doesn’t mean they don’t have structure. An effective #cnftweet has a reason for starting where it does, and it spends its first sentence establishing the setting, introducing the characters, and putting the plot into motion. Somewhere in the second, third, and/or fourth sentences, then, there’s a climax, in which the plot turns and changes, as well as a dénouement or resolution. And some #cnftweets are just one sentence, in which case the best of them include all of these elements in that sentence.
Here’s an example of a #cnftweet that has this kind of structure, tweeted by Anika Fajardo on Jan. 16, 2014 and published by Creative Nonfiction (Issue 52, Summer 2014): “I swerved to avoid hitting a turtle in the road today and felt the warmth of compassion. Turned out it was a chunk of dirty snow.” We get, with this story, the scene and the main characters set up in the first sentence, in a car on a road, with the driver and the (supposed) turtle. The second sentence brings the turn, the shift, the realization: it wasn’t turtle, but snow. And in this shift, the speaker is momentarily deflated, chastened, changed.
Here’s another that I like, from Chris Galvin Nguyen, tweeted on July 13, 2012 and published in Creative Nonfiction’s print issue with the theme of Sustainability (Issue 51, Spring 2014): “‘Weeds,’ he said. ‘Beautiful flowers and a complex root system holding up the hillside,’ she answered. He looked again, smiling.” This one, using just dialogue, brings to life two characters. The first, who sees weeds, sets up the story. The second, who sees complex ecology, gives us the turn. And the final sentence gives us a resolution, a sense that these two characters will continue having such dialogues—and enjoying them.
“I swerved to avoid hitting a turtle in the road today and felt the warmth of compassion. Turned out it was a chunk of dirty snow.”
It’s true that not all #cnftweets are structured like stories. Some are meditative or contemplative, offering insights or observations, bits of a life, fragments of a day. The ones I like best, however—the ones that stick with me, that I remember, that I return to—are the ones that tell a story. They, I think, are the most challenging to write and the most intriguing to read.
Writing story-based #cnftweets takes discipline and focus, and it pushes us as writers to distill stories down to their most fundamental elements. In addition to being interesting to write, these tweets are also a pleasure to read, each one giving the reader a hyper-mini-story that can be read and comprehended in a few seconds. If you’re easily distracted, like me, #cnftweets are a good way to read multiple stories, get exposed to many different worlds, and follow numerous plots, all within the space of a minute or two. Granted, a #cnftweet might not offer the same degree of readerly involvement and satisfaction as a longer work, but it does give a short burst of story that fits easily into our hyper-mobile, small-screen worlds. #cnftweets are, in short, stories for the digital age.