Have you heard of the Zola Story?
It’s the tale of sex, betrayal, and murder that became a viral phenomenon in October when it hijacked Twitter feeds everywhere, and it packs a few powerful lessons for today’s writers. The basic story is this (in case you haven’t heard it yet).
This stripper named Azia Wells, aka Zola, meets another stripper at a Hooters in Detroit. The girls get on well and decide to take a trip to Florida to dance in upscale clubs that pay better than those in their hometown. What ensues is a dramatic tale of prostitution and murder that has news agencies, celebrities, and everyone else asking if Zola’s tale is really true.
Right away, people on Twitter weighed in on their #TheStory dreamcast while Hollywood sought rights to the movie version of Zola’s story.
Now, leaving aside the issues of feminism and race equality this story cropped up, Zola has a few things to teach writers who hope to capture the minds of readers at the speed of social media.
Dialect spelling is fine, as long as it’s current. I know, I know. Zola’s tweets just seem like everyday talking, but technically the non-standard English social media spellings and slang terms count as dialect. And that’s usually a no-no for writers. Anyone struggling to make sense of Huckleberry Finn’s dialogue these days—which spells out different character’s dialects and accents—knows why. Dialect spelling can slow down a story’s pacing as readers are forced to ferret out just what the heck your unconventionally-spelled words are trying to say. But Zola uses accepted social media spellings and shorthands that most everyone reading her story on Twitter is already familiar with. 30 years down the road, the Zola Story may need footnotes to explain what certain words mean the way Shakespeare’s plays often do. But today? The story just works.
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A clever turn of phrase makes your writing memorable. Thanks to Zola and her whirlwind story, we now have awesome words and phrases to throw around like “hoeism” and “hoe trips” and “trapping” (which means prostitution). Those words are already filtering into the lexicon, which will lead lots of new readers back to Zola’s story.
Setting just isn’t as important as it used to be. Zola pretty much just tells us we’re in Florida. We get the important details of setting only as they’re necessary. Their hotel room is “rank” and “dirty,” for example, which Zola tells us only because it illustrates another character’s deception. When Z finds Jessica tied up in the hotel closet, we don’t get long drawn-out descriptions of what that closet or hotel room look and feel like. The lesson for writers? Get to the point. If it’s true that social media has cut our attention spans, it might explain why many bestselling novels today omit the overgenerous prose. Gone are the days of florid setting descriptions, unless you’re writing for a literary audience. And writing literary is fine. But it isn’t where the viral is at.
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What still matters? Character, tension, pacing, suspense, and voice. Jarrett, Jess, Z, even the dreadlock dude—each of them have a distinct personality that deliciously complicates the story dynamics. Zola promises a story that intrigues from the opening line. Plot twists and tension keep suspense high. The story zips by at a steady clip. And Zola’s unique voice mesmerizes so well, we’re locked in from start to finish. At the end, we’re satisfied too because Zola isn’t the naive young stripper she was when the story started. She’s learned something about people and the world along the way, and her choice to ignore Jess’s cry for help at the end proves that Zola has completed that all-important character arc. These are the story elements that still matter.
If you haven’t read Zola’s story yet, told in 148 succinct and darkly humorous tweets, you’re in for a treat. It’s likely to be a blockbuster movie soon enough. And it’s proof positive that literature is alive, lively, and ever changing. It’s up to writers to keep up.
Have you read Zola’s story? What did you think? Tell me in the comments.
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