Softly Glowing Screens

Fear is flexible.

And writers who like to create fear? They’re adaptable too.

Lately, Twitter has been adopted as a vehicle for scary stories. As I see it, when you tell a story via texts or tweets, you’re armed with three weapons, each with its pros and cons: first-person narrative, compact expression, and multimedia.

Yes, we’ve had things like Jay Kristoff’s retelling of his brief stay in a haunted house. He’s hilarious and, no surprise, an author in real life. But his shared experience isn’t very satisfying as a “story” and, more significantly, still takes a traditional approach: The events are over, and now—campfire style—he’s relating them to us.

What I really want to talk about is Twitter as a tool for unfolding scary stories in real time.

No existing stories that take this approach are exactly “literature” (yet!). But their writers are prodding at the boundaries of storytelling, experimenting with how new platforms could be co-opted for storytelling.

And that’s incredibly cool.

(Spoilers for TheSunVanished, Everything is Fine, and Dear David upcoming.)

1. First person narrative: First person (e.g., “I think”, “I feel”, “I run”) is inherently challenging for storytelling. It’s a lot more popular right now than in previous decades! But it’s still a much tougher option than you might think: Voice is critical. Reliability of the narrator is a constant consideration. Point of view is a pain in the ass.

That said though, first person is a potent tool for fear creation. It allows for a firsthand, real-time account of events. Or better yet, it can put the reader into the body that’s inside the action. And platforms like WhatsApp and Twitter? Applied effectively, they can supercharge the best advantages of first-person narrative.

The Sun Vanished is a good example. The Twitter account “TheSunVanished” opened with a one-word tweet on April 30: “Help.” The account holder has woken up in a dark world. The sun is gone. He obeys the media’s instructions to stay put… but then the electric cuts out. The individual is suddenly trapped in his home, in the dark, with tornado sirens and random gunshots echoing in the distance.

By following TheSunVanished, readers get updates almost instantly, learning about the story’s world as the account user experiences it himself. You know those “choose your action” books and video games? The addictiveness of that immersive quality? Twitter lets the writer of TheSunVanished immerse the reader to an intense degree: Should I do this? Should I do that? What do think?

It takes first person to another level: Even with weak voice and limited character development (two issues the story does suffer from, in my opinion), TheSunVanished demonstrates how Twitter can convince the reader that the narrator is nonetheless a real person… or at the very least, a valuable one, since the narrator (or account user) is our only set of eyes into what’s going on.

2. Compact expression: Dickens wouldn’t do great on these platforms. The format forces the writer to scrap a lot of description. Scene setting is tricky. Character development is difficult. Location, layout, mood, atmosphere, backstory, character relationships: It all has to be done hyper-compactly. We know that stories that communicate via showing, not telling, tend to be more fun! But showing tends to involve richer situations, more subtlety, more description of interaction… more words.

In short, the limited word count puts these stories at risk of being purely event-based— e.g., “I did this. I did this. I did that.”—without anything else going on in them. TheSunVanished, as fun as its creativity is, falls into this pitfall a bit. The world rules are definitely intriguing. But beyond that, I find it a little dry. The best character so far is the narrator’s neighbor, who is presumably dead, and who we meet only via his journal; almost nothing about other characters’ motivations or lives beyond the event itself is known.

Everything is Fine, in contrast, plays incredibly well with the Twitter format.

Everything is Fine lays out Manuel Bartual’s terrifying one-man vacation. He walks out to the hallway of his own hotel room to find a tall man standing there, babbling anxiously in mangled Spanish (Manuel is in Spain, and the original thread is in Spanish). The man eventually leaves. When Manuel spots him at breakfast the next day, the tall man’s personality seems alarmingly different. Manuel begins to become anxious himself when he discovers his own doppelgänger roaming the premises, seemingly now in league with a doppelgänger of the original tall man.

Yes, the version I read was the translated version in English.

It’s possible that in translation, some syntax may be a bit different, maybe some exclamations were lost.

But even so, I’d argue that this story is beautifully minimalist. I know, yeah: It’s TWITTER. Everything is minimalist. I’m trying to say that Manuel’s story (in particular the tweets that compose it) is especially so. The vast majority of his tweets are a single sentence well short of the character limit. Not one tweet is wasted. Outcries of concern are minimal and well placed. Almost every tweet is critical to the story, and most indicate physical movement, and because of that, the suspense builds rapidly and effectively for the most part. It’s just plain well done.

3. Multimedia, bitches: Photos. Videos. Audio recordings. Twitter and WhatsApp are borderline cyber-theater. When it comes to multimedia decisions for scary stories, the big decision is balancing going too far with constantly notching up the tension. Go too far, and the whole story becomes hokey. One false step can take it from Edgar Allen Poe to Scooby Doo (nothing against Scooby, but those “meddling kids” don’t really impart the horror buzz I’m looking for). Wielded effectively though, multimedia can build a multidimensional experience that lets the writer overcome the potential limitations of word count and first person.

Dear David is a hands-down stellar example on all counts for multimedia usage in a scary Twitter story. Adam Ellis is the genius behind it. Part of what makes Dear David so fun is Adam’s voice. He’s a relatable dude trying to deal with a ghost in his apartment. He’s freaked out, but his behavior remains logical and believable. Now, Adam’s got a leg up as a writer: He’s tweeting as himself. It’s a lot easier to sound like your authentic self than to sound like a character.

The real genius of this thread though, I would argue, is Adam’s multimedia usage.

At the start of Dear David, Adam spends several tweets catching us up on the situation. He’s had some odd dreams while living in his first-floor apartment: A girl informs Adam that he can ask “David” two questions prefaced with “Dear David.” However, if Adam asks a third question, David will kill him. Naturally, upon encountering David again in his next dream… Adam screws up. This simple mythology goes a long way in creating what feels like a rich background for the haunting. Adam then continues the story by tweeting about his new experiences while or immediately after they happen.

Images help us visualize his whole apartment (front door, attic door, living room, bedroom, etc.), his day-to-day walks, his trip to Japan. He offers videos, Sleep App recordings. He gets a Polaroid camera, and we get images posted of his own photographs. Screenshots off his phone.

Almost all items of evidence keep us just shy of anything concrete, and the effect is that every smudge, every blurry corner, every twitch in his cats becomes a tremendous scare. It’s a delicate dance, and I do think sometimes there are missteps: The small child’s shoe and the marble in the ceiling hatch, and certainly the final two or three photos which claim to show the top of David’s physical head, went slightly too far for me. I would’ve personally liked to see tension build via a tiny bit more unfolding of David’s behavior, backstory, or mythology instead.

Regardless though, Adam does the best job of all three stories discussed here of blurring that line between fiction and reality. And much of that blurring, I’d argue, is thanks to his consistently clever multimedia usage.

So… can you tell scary stories live via Twitter? 

Uh, hell yeah.

The three stories discussed here have their weaknesses. But they also each demonstrate how to overcome the limitations of Twitter as a storytelling platform while capitalizing on its advantages.

TheSunVanished so far has been almost exclusively about exposing world rules: There’s been very little actual story. Maybe that’ll change with new updates. But TheSunVanished applies refreshing low-budget simplicity in its multimedia: Most everything is so dark you don’t see much, yet the creator is effectively building an entire world spanning far outside a single apartment or even building.

Like Dear David (e.g., with Adam’s final captures of David’s literal, real-world head), TheSunVanished also wanders into the realm of hokey as it progresses. TheSunVanished takes on an almost video game-ish look with the scrawled hidden notes left as clues. However, partly because TheSunVanished relies less on the reader’s belief that the events are “real” (as opposed to Dear David), and probably partly because of nostalgia, I find that cheesiness more endearing than disruptive.

Everything is Fine does stay barebones: No answers, no particularly defined world rules. Regardless though, it’s a great little story. In one cheeky flurry of tweets toward the end, Manuel throws several theories out at the reader: Aliens? Time travel? Magic? It feels like a nod at the readers desperately trying to guess at the nature of what’s going on. The ending might otherwise be a bit at risk of being a clunky “gotcha!” type conclusion, but the story’s self-awareness about its own vagueness braced me for the burden ultimately placed on the reader: “You figure out,” the author essentially says.

And Dear David? Adam did such a good job with Twitter as a storytelling device that a chunk of the internet is referring to it as a “hoax.” The story is literally provoking ethics debates about how deceptive Twitter users should be in trying to create a sense of “reality” when telling a story that’s not true.

Side-stepping the question of ethics for now… Twitter is, in short, a brilliant platform for storytelling.

The F***ing Epic Twitter Quest of @MayorEmanuel came into being via Dan Sinker’s fake Twitter account for Mayor Rahm Emanuel. The compiled tweets are now available in book form. I haven’t gotten to read it yet, but the excerpts alone are hilarious and, apparently, the story cements itself as something unique by actually granting the “quest” an ending. It’s political and humorous, by my understanding: Definitely not at all a scary story.

But it does seem to indicate a turn in people’s willingness to accept writing posted live via tweets as actual, you know, writing (as opposed to just raw information delivery).

Dear David apparently has a movie deal. TheSunVanished is attracting enough attention that it’s being called out as a sort of plug for Cloverfield. Everything is Fine has been translated into at least three languages.

I’ll be honest: I’ve been staggering along in terms of Twitter usage. It’s a frustrating newfangled thing that makes me grumble. But as creative minds keep manipulating Twitter as a tool for sharing narratives, I’m more and more compelled to learn how to follow along.

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