‘Cloud Atlas’ author David Mitchell tweets a short story


The first tweet of @david_mitchell’s short story “The Right Sort.”

Sentence by sentence, 140 characters by 140 characters, Nathan and his mother explore an eerie manor inhabited by “freakish” nobles.

Every sentence ends in a hook. Each new installment builds suspense as Nathan navigates the ghostly labyrinth with Jonah, the other boy (or “boy”) of the house.

And author David Mitchell offered it up to readers, free, over the course of a week on Twitter.

Mitchell is the celebrated author of “Cloud Atlas,” another experimental work examining multiple viewpoints and timeframes. (It was made into the Oscar-nominated movie starring Halle Berry and Tom Hanks.) Now, 280 tweets and 14,000 followers later, Mitchell fans have a new mystery to parse.

Mitchell embarked upon this Twitter experiment to promote his new novel, “The Bone Clocks” (Random House, coming Sept. 2). While “The Right Sort” and “The Bone Clocks” aren’t interrelated by plot, Random House executive editor David Ebershoff told The Wall Street Journal that both works are “of the same universe.”

The most retweeted tweet of the story is still the first sentence of the serial, posted on July 14.

“The Right Sort” follows Nathan and his mother as they visit the Briggs, where his mother plays piano and Nathan wanders around the garden with Jonah, another boy his age (or seemingly so) with a predilection for the supernatural. Nathan popped a few of his mum’s Valiums before visiting the house, but the visions he experiences may indicate something more sinister than a pill problem.

British publisher Sceptre Books has collected Mitchell’s story in this Twitter collection. Otherwise, reading “The Right Sort” proves a bit difficult — readers are either catching stray sentences in their social media feeds, or they’re scrolling, scrolling, scrolling to read all of @david_mitchell from top to bottom.

But Mitchell isn’t the first fiction writer to play with Twitter as a platform for experimental storytelling. The Guardian has asked authors to participate in a “Twitter Fiction” challenge, in which writers craft entire stories in just 140 characters. Literary powerhouses like Jackie Collins packed novel-sized narrative in tweet-sized missives: “She smiled, he smiled back, it was lust at first sight, but then she discovered he was married, too bad it couldn’t go anywhere.”

Perhaps most famously, Jennifer Egan (lauded for her experimental novel “A Visit from the Goon Squad“) tweeted a spy story over several days in 2012 and then published it in the New Yorker.

Elliot Holt created a murder mystery as part of the Guardian’s #TwitterFiction festival in 2012. Her story was tweeted from three different “character” Twitter accounts. She also retrieved other tweeters’ responses and asked some of them to supply the ending to the story.

Like Egan, Mitchell said he wrote his story in 140-character sentences and then broke it into waves of tweets, which Sceptre Books published from @david_mitchell. He eschewed hashtags and didn’t loop in reader contributions — but he did embrace Twitter’s potential for building suspense. Each new installment in Nathan’s journey builds to its harrowing conclusion.

Julia Carpenter is a digital audience producer at The Washington Post.
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