How journalists are using Facebook, Twitter to write mini serial narratives

Since the mid 1990s I’ve been experimenting with serial narratives, stories of more than one serving, in which parts or episodes often end in cliffhangers, driving the reader or viewer to the next installment. Serial stories dominate American culture and are expressed in television stories such as “Glee” or “The Sopranos”; in book publishing with the Harry Potter series or “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” trilogy; in reality television (in which someone is always thrown off the island, or given a rose, or breaks the scale, or becomes the weakest link).

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While newspapers have moved away, to some extent, from multi-part serial narratives, there are signs of mini-serialization everywhere: in the cartoon strips and panels that let us visit our favorite characters each morning; in the racehorse coverage of local and national elections; in recurring news stories about Chilean miners trapped in a mine, or a British Petroleum well polluting the Gulf of Mexico.

A live blog is a kind of serial narrative constructed in real time, and Facebook and Twitter often resemble the grammar and style of direct, observed reporting. Early in 2010, I followed a series of tweets by Joanna Smith, a Toronto Star reporter, who was covering the earthquake disaster in Haiti. Each tweet was a scene or snapshot from an unraveling narrative:

  • “Was in b-room getting dressed when heard my name. Tremor. Ran outside through sliding door. All still now. Safe. Roosters crowing.”
  • “Fugitives from prison caught looting, taken from police, beaten, dragged thru street, died slowly and set on fire in pile of garbage.”
  • “Woman shrieking, piercing screams, ‘Maman! Papa! Jesus!’ as dressing on her wounded heel is changed outside clinic. No painkillers.”

This platform is not just for the young and geeky. Born in 1929, Dan Jenkins, the elder statesman of golf writers, used his Twitter account to offer play-by-play coverage of the U.S. Open. Among his dozens of updates were these on the progress of Tiger Woods:

  • “At this time in history, Tiger is 10 strokes and 40 players behind.”
  • “The birdies are falling all over the course. But not for Tiger. He needs to step on the gas if he wants to stay in it.”
  • “Tiger appears to be playing faster and walking faster like he can’t wait to get to his jet. And out of this season.”

I decided to experiment with a mini-advice column on my new Facebook account. Could I take a topic, I wondered, and play it out over a period of days or months, generating greater interest and attracting more readers along the way? This experiment happened to coincide with the beginning of my 40th year of marriage — to the same woman.

This was considered rare enough these days that lots of folks were curious about the qualities, attitudes and behaviors that lead to a long and relatively happy (or not totally miserable) life together. I decided to post a “love secret” almost every day.  What started as “the 10 secrets” became 25, then 50, then 100. Here’s a sample:

  • Secret #1: She may not be right, but she’s never wrong. Your male competitive juices may drive you to tell her she’s wrong about where to take your vacation. This is a huge mistake, which is to be avoided at all cost. The more she thinks that you think she’s right, especially if you validate her position, the happier she will make you feel.
  • Secret #21: At least once a year, come out of your room wearing a pair of her underpants on your head — at a jaunty angle. If she doesn’t laugh, file for divorce. You get extra points if you do it in front of company, say at Thanksgiving Dinner. I’ve heard of guys who added her bra as earmuffs, but sometimes less is more. Come on, kids. If it ain’t fun it’s never gonna last.

  • Secret #42: Learn to love her mom as much as she does! I’m blessed with the world’s greatest mom-in-law. I love Karen’s brothers and sister — and all their offspring. I even saw the good in my father-in-law, who was more Meat Cleaver than Ward Cleaver. He treated me better than his own kids. As outsiders, each of us can help the other see the best in the family legacy.

  • Secret #49: Tell her you love her every day. Every so often say it in a special way. Not just the cell phone: “Loveya, bye!” Try this: Hold her, look in her eyes, say “I don’t say it often enough, but I love you with all my heart. The best decision I ever made was to ask you to marry me. I’ll do everything I can for … the rest of our lives to be worthy of you and make you proud of me.”

This sample should reveal that while these posts are of the same length and on the same theme, they vary in tone, structure and, on occasion, voice. Though not journalism in the classic sense, they attracted a significant audience and generated lively conversations and debates among my “friends,” one of whom, Mike Weinstein, happens to be an editor at the Charlotte Observer.

Before I knew it, my advice was featured in that newspaper’s special section for June weddings. Several readers have encouraged me to gather and expand these posts into a book, a possibility that has my agent and editor curious.

What are some good examples of mini serial writing that you’ve seen?

Editor’s note: This is the third installment of an occasional series on writing for Twitter and Facebook. Here are parts one and two.

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  • Anonymous

    Yo, RP Clark. Back in ’07 you wrote a series on how to write serials. I read the first two pieces here on the Poynter site, & there at the edge of the cliff, you promised that Day 3 would reveal The Twelve Magic Steps. Here I am, clinging to the cliff by my fingernails, & I’m growing weak. I don’t know how much longer I can hang on. . .
    If you are a compassionate man, could you tell me where I might download the whole series. I will even pay Real Money to lay hands on them. The night grows colder . . .
    Best regards,
    Barbara Davenport, bbdavenport@cox.net