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The short and the long of it

Lizzy Tinley considers the difference between short form and long form storytelling. Here, Tesco does it in six and a half characters. Image courtesy of Tesco Plc

I spent a month in Wolf Hall. During that time, Thomas Cromwell was as real as if he sat, fleshy and frowning, opposite me at work. At the end of that month, I went for a run to shake him loose and spotted a story that had been in the back of my mind for a year or more:

‘Freshly Clicked.’ 

Going from 150,000 words to 15 characters in under a minute signals something of a storytelling paradox, and 2013 has been rife with them: in addition to Tesco’s clever play on words campaign, it’s the year Lars Von Trier made a five-hour movie, and the year of the Tribeca Film Festival’s competition for six-second videos captured on Vine. And if you’ve seen the Vine of the little girl surprised at kindergarten by her soldier daddy, you’ll know that a story about love and distance can indeed be told in as short a time as that.

A good story is a precious gem, perfect in its size, shape and clarity. You carry it around, from time to time take it out and stroke it, purr over its beauty. It doesn’t have to be Hilary; it’s very rarely Hemingway, yet every time I see Tesco’s ‘Freshly Clicked’ in front of me at the traffic lights I think, ‘What a little diamond that is’. It’s the line you see every day, the story you’ve heard a thousand times, with a twist at the end that transforms it into something new – the very essence of modern storytelling.

The paradox of the long story and the short makes sense to me. The two hours we’ve collectively found in each 24 to browse Twitter and Facebook, and apps such as Vine and Instagram, has, somewhat unsurprisingly, given us less time to spend on stories of a more traditional length – your average book, article, album or movie. But such is our will to tell and hear and watch stories, we naturally adapt them to fit back into our bulging lives. Witness the rise of Twitter fiction, of stop-motion animation on Vine and the 10-minute web series on YouTube – stories that satisfy our inherent story cravings while allowing us to get on with more important things. Like email.

Yet there’s a problem. The utter slog it takes to craft a luminous story, whether on paper, film or in any other medium, means that relatively few people do and quality is easy to come upon. Pick up an anthology of Alice Munro and you’ve got a pretty good chance of getting the literary kick in the guts you’re after, the sort that aches for days. But mediums that trade in brevity also trade in mediocrity, or worse.

In the social media era, anyone can make and publish stories, and if we’re not careful we can find ourselves trawling ‘content’ that leaves no lasting mark on our hearts and minds. In fact, despite the rise of programs that filter and curate, I’ll wager that those extra two hours of internet time are mostly spent scouring the ever-increasing rubble pile, looking for that ruby of meaning, beauty or humanity; for a Hemingway moment. Because who ever managed to erase from their memory, ‘For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.’?

So we find ourselves in a new world. One in which it’s perfectly possible for a million people to see a six-second clip of a soldier interrupting kindergarten, yet also one that saw thousands buy a ticket for the eight-hour long play ‘Gatz’. How many more will clear a whole weekend for a ‘Homeland’ marathon or soak in all 832 pages of Eleanor Catton’s Booker Prize-winning ‘The Luminaries’ under some winter sun? Try as we might to survive on tidbits of micro-stories, chances are we’re eventually going to find ourselves up at 2am gorging on the Booker longlist.

These micro and macro-stories fuel each other, even balance each other. They are the yin and the yang in our increasingly tech-laden lives. And if there’s a lesson to be learned from that premise then let it be this: storytelling is an absolute necessity to us. We look at stories, listen to them, watch and read them every day. We also make them, weave ourselves into them and build our lives around them. And when skinny stories can’t sustain us, we lock the door and indulge. So the most important thing to know about storytelling is, simply, to let it into your life, every single day.

Lizzy Tinley started out as a D&AD workshops grad and is now a freelance copywriter for some of London’s biggest digital agencies. She blogs about living and working in the digital mediaverse hereThis feature was original published on

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