WTF is a Twabble? Twitter and Fiction for a New Age

What do Twitter, Japanese poetry and nonsense verse have in common?  This is not a joke….

A quick literary history lesson for context.

Centuries ago, Japanese poets developed type of collaborative poetry known as a Renga.  The Renga opened with a hokku, a short starting verse that would form the foundation for the following collaborating poets to build on.  The hokku was considered the most important and most respected section of the Renga, and only the most masterful poets were permitted to compose it.  In the late 1600s the hokku began to emerge as a stand alone piece, and in the late 19th Century, poet Masaoka Noboru, more famously known as Masaoka Shiki, renamed the form Haiku.

The delicate art of haiku expanded as a poetic form and spread across the world. From the kigo (a seasonal theme), the kireji (a contrast or comparison between two themes or images), or the modern free themed form, the haiku has retained its short, distinctive format of three lines of five, five and three syllables.

In the 19th Century, the limerick a short form of nonsensical poem was popularised by Edward Lear. The limerick existed long before Lear’s Book of Nonsense (1845), some scholars believing it was adapted from a folk format, much like a joke.  The limerick, like haiku, has a strict length and syllabic meter. It is composed in five lines with an ‘aabba’ rhyme scheme, and traditionally expresses some kind of social taboo.

Flash forward to the 21st century where social networking site Twitter has revolutionised the way millions of people communicate with each other in messages of 140 characters or less. Uses of Twitter vary from messaging, marketing and making random comments, and for a growing number of Twitter users, publishing fiction.

twitter fiction

The similarities between haiku, limericks and fiction ‘tweets’ don’t end at both having a defined amount of space to work with.  Pop Cultured spoke with a few Fiction Tweeters to find out more.

Most types of published fiction have some form of standardized category.  Speaking generally, a novel needs at least 60,000 words to be a novel.  A novella has less than that, a short story doesn’t go higher than 20,000 and flash fiction comes in between 300 and 500 words.  So what do you call a piece of fiction written in 140 characters or less? “I have seen them referred to as Twit-fiction, Twitter length fiction, micro-fiction, micro-flash fiction, and even Twabbles,” says Christopher Ryan, author of Twitter fiction feed, @Terse Tales.

Pete Barker named his Twitter fiction feed @Blind Fiction because he writes fast fiction like a blinding flash.  Barker was inspired to try his hand at this very short form by the Twitter Fiction of Sean Hill’s @Very Short Story.  Barker describes Hill as “the undisputed champion” of Twitter Fiction, and with Hill’s feed attracting almost 76,000 followers it’s an accolade that’s hard to dismiss.

“I think of them as bite-sized,” says Hill. “Small enough to be consumed quickly as you’re browsing your Twitter feed but weighty enough that they stop and make you think.”

So, what kind of fiction can readers find in these 140 character micro-flashes?  Tying nicely into more traditional forms of short, stylised narratives, Ryan Mecum uses Twitter to publish haiku on his feed @Mecum Haiku. The poems are an extension of his published works, Zombie Haiku: Good Poetry for your…Brains (2008) Vampire Haiku (2009), Werewolf Haiku (2010), and his forthcoming Dawn of Zombie Haiku.  While Mecum’s haiku tweets are not limited to the horror genre of his books, they frequently wander into that territory.

@Dead End Fiction, as the name suggests, works primarily in the horror genre.  “Often the tweets draw upon the imagery or iconography of horror (horror stories or horror films) without actually being horror” the author says. “I think the writing style varies from tweet to tweet but hopefully always retains the themes of either horror or death.”

Ryan’s @Terse Tales deliver a generally speculative feel and tend to border on the unknown, with a metaphysical and often dream like quality.  “140 characters does not allow enough room to really tell a story, so I mostly try to hint at the story. I want to say just enough, then allow the reader to fill in the blanks,” he says. “Much of the fiction I enjoy utilizes this concept, and the Twitter format really brings it out.”

@Blind Fiction and @Very Short Story are more varied in their tales. “Erratic,” Barker says when asked to describe his style. “There isn’t really a theme to the pieces; they’re literally just things that grew out of random thoughts…Some of them are funny, some have twists, some are a bit more piercing.”

Similarly, Hill’s @Very Short Story features a range of themes and styles.  “I watched a lot of Twilight Zone and Monty Python as a child. This has lead me to like funny things with a twist.” Working from a background in improvisational comedy, Hill chose to work with Twitter for its interactive nature. He asks readers to submit a noun which he will use to inspire a tweet. “This makes the stories a collaborative process. There are so many stories that I’ve written based on reader’s suggestions that I just would not have written by myself. Together we can go some place that neither one of us would have reached alone.”

Despite the traditions of limericks, haiku poetry and other short narrative forms, numerous critics have questioned the literary and creative value of Twitter length fiction.  Can Tweets really work as fiction?  “Sometimes it feels like they are jokes with punch lines or that they rely too heavily on puns or wordplay. But the idea was that there would be a sense of story in these tweets, a beginning, middle and end,” says @Dead End Fiction

Barker agrees: “There’s a lot of power in the words that aren’t said; writing these just means figuring out a way of making the reader fill in the blanks.”

Mecum compares his creative process with @Mecum Haiku to a photograph, “another way to capture one statement, visual, or idea,” he says.

Most of the authors that we spoke to generally agree that the 140 character format can limit creativity, but there is no sense of this being a negative thing. “It can be stifling as well as inspiring,” says Ryan. “Every piece must be compromised in some way in order to fit the size constraint, which you can say limits the creative process, however when forced to frame your writing into such an extreme condition it often brings things out that you otherwise never would have thought of.”

Mecum agrees: “I think it totally pushes the creative mind. One must think outside the box in order to fit what you want to say back inside the box that has exact 140 character dimensions.”

How does the writer go about fitting a story into such a small space?

@Blind Fiction starts with the larger scope. “I think of a thing, a scenario or an outlook, and then try to word a flashbulb image of the important bits; readers can do the bits round the edges themselves, and things turn out more varied that way anyway,” Barker says.  Likewise, nearly all of the @Terse Tales need to be trimmed into the shape of a tweet after the initial idea has been formed.  “A concept or perhaps a piece of dialog will pop into my head and then the task begins of cramming it into 140 characters without losing too much. It really makes you think about language itself,” Ryan says.

Hill describes @Very Short Story starting in a similar way: “I usually start with a suggested noun or an idea from my own head and write it down without worrying about fitting in 140 characters. Next I jiggle the words around a bit, removing any that are not really needed to tell the story.”

It can be argued that Twitter Fiction is the ultimate creative expression representing the age of copious amounts of instant information and our ability to interact with that to an extend that has never before been possible.  Ryan tends to agree. “The form certainly mirrors the current state of information consumption in that it is immediate, widely available, short, and to the point. The key is to use these strengths while maintaining some level of literary depth.”

Twabbles. So now we know.


The Best Twabbles
Selected by the Authors

The gutter overflowed again, full of leaves from the oak I planted for you, all those centuries ago.
Pete Barker, @Blind Fiction
5th August 2010

My husband did not believe in ghosts, so I was intrigued, after his funeral, to find him sulking in the attic, too embarrassed to haunt me.
11th June 2010

The crowd stared, impatient. The magician probed the interior of his hat, finding nothing but a note written in a crude hand: NOT TONIGHT.
Christopher Ryan, @Terse Tales
24 March, 2011

“Firetruck! Yelled 5 year old Billy. His Mom had told him his Dad was a fireman. When he got older, he set fires, hoping to meet Dad.
Sean Hill, @Very Short Story
May 2009

Take a matchbox car / and cover it with jelly. / Once ants find it, push.
Ryan Mecum,@Mecumhaiku
6 May 2011


Follow the Authors

@Blind Fiction

@Terse Tales

@Dead End Fiction

@Very Short Story

@Mekum Haiku


Kate Krake

Kate Krake (aka Kate Murphy) is a writer with a long established passion for all realms of popular culture. She lives in Brisbane, Australia. Find out more on Kate's Blog.