Writing Prompt: The Medium is the Message


Jennifer Egan’s near-future science fiction story “Black Box”, written in the form of “mental dispatches” from a spy living in the Mediterranean, was originally published in serialized form as a series of tweets on The New Yorker’s Twitter account over nine days beginning May 25, 2012. You can read the collated installments here: “Black Box” by Jennifer Egan.

Handwritten notebook pages showing part of Jennifer Egan's plan for her story 'Black Box'
Image: Part of Jennifer Egan’s plan for her short story “Black Box”; notebook page courtesy Jennifer Egan via The New Yorker.

Let’s take explore Egan’s approach to story and publication in “Black Box” as a writing prompt.

1. Write in Bite Sizes
Write a story as a series of stand-alone units of 140 characters each or less. You can include more than one sentence in a unit but don’t run a sentence on into the next unit. (You can use this constraint whether you have a Twitter account or not; the point is not Twitter itself but its character constraints.)

2. Write for a Platform
Better yet, choose your own platform or distribution method to write for. Be as innovative as you can. Text messages, letters, post card, telegrams, messages in bottles, semaphore and smoke signals are all fair play.

Tip: Pick a medium with difficult built-in constraints to spur your creativity.

3. Justify your choice
Why are your charracters or narrator communicating through this method? How does the communication tool relate to the story world? How does the means of communication affect the story?

4. Complicate your choice
What happens if the tool breaks? For example, in Mark Dunn’s lipogrammatic novel Ella Minnow Pea, a fictitious island’s government keeps banning letters of the alphabet–the story is told through a series of notes with the rapidly dwindling number of letters at their disposal.

What other stories can you think of that take this kind of approach? Another that springs to mind is Griffin and Sabine by Nick Bantock, a story told in a series of removable letters and postcards. In a way, found footage films can be cinematic variation on this idea, too.

Go ahead, give this a shot and have fun with it. And let us know how you fare.