Take a tip from Norm MacDonald

#RIPRobinWilliams tweets show how to serialize your story

What can you learn from Norm MacDonald’s Twitter tribute (would that be twibute?) to Robin Williams? What can’t you learn?! MacDonald shows us how to serialize our stories, how to get the word out in 144 characters or less — and when to stop typing.

Serialize your story

Serial killer Norm MacDonald’s serialized Twitter tribute to Robin Williams kills. What can you steal from his approach?

Here are six tips to take from MacDonald’s tribute:

1. Tell a story.

Heck, tell two stories. Why not make it three?

MacDonald’s 19 tweets compose three stories: the Jewish tailor story, the Chinese order-taker story and overarching the “Funniest man in the world walks into a dressing room” story.

2. Serialize your story.

Newspapers have been publishing serial narratives since a young reporter named Charles Dickens write the first one for London’s Morning Chronicle in 1836.

Suddenly, Twitter is the place to go for serial narratives: The FBI Press Office serializes stories. So does NPR. The Boston Globe’s Kevin Cullen covered Whitey Bulger’s murder trial via a serial Twitter narrative.

Serializing your story is a great way to make your tweets go further. But do it right:

  • Break it up. MacDonald sees his story as a series of scenes. That makes it easy for him to break it up into tweets.
  • Keep it together. You can repeat the main headline, add Part I and Part II or use words like “therefore,” “continued” and “update” to signal that these tweets have something in common. MacDonald uses the hashtag #RIPRobinWilliams to organize individual tweets into a complete story.
  • Post in reverse order so readers see the “first” tweet first in your stream. MacDonald tweeted in order, which means followers must read this Twitter tale backward.

3. Start strong.

The most compelling stories have one strong summary sentence close to the beginning, Catherine Burns, artistic director of the Moth, a New York City-based organization dedicated to storytelling, tells Real Simple.

“‘I fell into the pool in my wedding dress,’ say, or ‘A violent stomachache ruined our first date.’”

MacDonald’s lead strikes the same chord: “It was my first stand-up appearance on Letterman, and I had to follow the funniest man in the world.”

Notice that MacDonald saves the background section for after he gets your attention: “I was a punk kid from rural Ontario and I was in my dressing room, terrified.”

4. Keep it short.

All three of MacDonald’s stories together weigh in at less than 350 words, give or take a few hashtags.

5. But don’t compress the life out of it.

Notice that MacDonald didn’t lose details when he tightened his tale into tweets. Regardless of how tight the space, MacDonald keeps our attention with concrete details like:

  • He was a Jewish tailor, taking my measurements.
  • He went down on his knees, asked which way I dressed.
  • The place was out of Moo Shoo Pork …
  • … he ended with a Windsor knot.
  • He spoke mostly Yiddish …

6. Know when to quit.

Endings are as important as openings. MacDonald finished his story, though, a tweet before he stopped typing.

Notice the many ways that the final tweet does not work with the rest of this piece:

It adds emotion to observation. Tell the story you’ve observed, then let readers have the emotional response. This rule is also known as, “Make the reader cry; don’t tell the reader you cried.”

“Have you ever noticed,” asks a character in Richard Yates’ Young Hearts Crying, “how your sympathy for someone’s story — anyone’s story — tends to evaporate when they get to the part about how long and hard they cried?”

That’s what happened to me when I read MacDonald’s last tweet.

It’s long. Most of the words in MacDonald’s tweets are one — maybe two — syllables long. Other than Ontario, though, “unacceptable” is the only word in this Twitter tale that’s four syllables long.

It’s abstract. As William Carlos Williams counseled, “Turn ideas into things.” MacDonald’s ending does the reverse: In a series of concrete words, this is the rare abstract one.

The true ending of this story is “Until now.”

When you finish your story, stop typing.

Take a tip from Norm Macdonald

When you finish your story, stop typing: MacDonald’s story ended one tweet before he stopped.

  • Master the Art of the Storyteller

    Whoever tells the best story wins

    It's “the most powerful form of human communication,” according to Peg Neuhauser, author of Corporate Legends and Lore.

    Master the Art of the Storyteller: Whoever tells the best story wins

    Indeed, stories can help you grab attention, boost credibility, make your messages more memorable — even communicate better.

    At Master the Art of the Storyteller — our two-day hands-on creative-writing master class on July 25-26 in Portland — you’ll learn to find, develop and write stories that engage readers’ hearts and minds. Specifically, you’ll learn how to:

    • Find the aha! moment that’s the gateway to every anecdote.
    • Elicit juicy stories with the key question to ask during an interview.
    • Organize your material into a powerful story in just three steps with our simple storytelling template.


Source: “A Good Story,” Real Simple, September 2005

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