Tighten Your Narrative: Writing Lessons from Viral Short Stories

I love a good story, and I heart the internet. So imagine my glee when I finally caught the viral wave that is Pascal Chatterjee‘s Annie96 is Typing: a short story, told online like a real-time text message conversation on Stories for Your Screen. The site offers “viral short stories,” designed to be read in 1-5 minutes each. Though the formats vary, Annie96 and David Grilli’s Joralemon are two stellar examples of digital storytelling (even though the phrase “digital storytelling usually refers to video shorts, I think it’s apt here).

Annie96 is Typing is like the Blair Witch Project of internet stories. Mr. Chatterjee’s introduction to the story is that it’s a random internet chat history he stumbled upon. What follows is the text dialogue between David and Annie, while Annie’s home alone on a dark and stormy night. In Joralemon, we follow along as Jen and Marie text each other after Marie flakes out on their concert plans.

Both stories are told through the dialogue. The reader pages through by clicking the screen after each text message is “received.” I couldn’t skip ahead, as I am wont to do when a story’s suspense is too much. With these two stories, that wasn’t an option. I picked up my pace, clicking through dialogue almost faster than I can read.

I promise not to spoil the stories for anyone who hasn’t experienced them yet. But I think these gems offer great instruction to writers. Here’s a couple key take-aways for anyone who wants to add excitement to a narrative:

Format

  • Clicking along with the story makes it immediate. Even though I know, intellectually, that the story is already written, revealing each message one at a time makes me feel like I’m witnessing the scene in the heat of the moment.
  • There are no dialogue tags like, “said Marie,” slowing me down.

The effect on me was visceral, I could feel my anxiety ratcheting up as the stories hurtled to climax.

Dialogue

The text messages are essentially dialogue. There’s a few reasons why these two stories make it work so well:

  • First, they are active voice, not passive. As you might guess from these highly scientific terms, “active voice” suggests more power. I received the story v. The story was read by me. You get it.
  • Second, through the strict dialogue-only format, there’s no opportunity for an author to take short cuts by telling me how to interpret the actions. For example, look at this exchange in Joralemon:
    • Marie’s exclamation marks and all-caps messages signal her breathy excitement. Jen’s response, “didn’t you get your hair caught in a grate last time?” lets us know that she’s not the life of the party — underscored by Marie’s admonishment, “you have no fun stories.”
    • I don’t need an omniscient narrator telling me Jen’s intonation to know she is irritated.

These elements come together to make these very short, powerful, and downright creepy reads. They also give us examples of what I think is a mark of a great writer: the ability to make it look like the story is telling itself.

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