Ernest Hemingway famously wrote a complete short story in only six words ("For sale: baby shoes, never worn.") However, it’s unlikely he would’ve been inclined to replicate this feat enough to fill up an entire book. Lou Beach’s detail-rich stories contain slightly more than six words, but while they were initially compressed into Facebook statuses, they’ve now been gathered together in the single volume, 420 Characters.
These stories take a Dogme 95-like approach of finding creative freedom through self-imposed restrictions. Unsurprisingly, he arrived at the 420-character spatial limitation through a social media experiment. Lou Beach logged on to Facebook in 2009, out of basic curiosity—just to dip a toe into the zeitgeist and take its temperature. It wasn’t long, however, before the illustrator became bored with the rather mundane status updates he would see—not only other people’s, but his own too.
"You know, my life isn’t all that exciting," Beach says. "So I just invested the little space there with some fantasy. I always wanted to be a writer—that was a fantasy of mine as well. I just thought, what a great exercise to fill that space. I thought 420 characters would force me to edit and just get down to the basis of a narrative, and I guess it did."
"Her mouth is a hammer. I kiss it and fall, pummeled, to the floor, crawl to my corner and rest. She summons me later to mix a drink, plait her hair, massage her feet. I am clumsy - she cuts my cheek with a toenail, presses her big toes into my eye sockets. I lie there shamed, foot-faced and humbled, her all-natural organic toy, and wait."
As an illustrator, Beach found he was capable of more than just one mode of storytelling. Once it became clear that the status update stories were adding up to a larger work, he decided to expand the project, using his visual vocabulary to construct narratives as well. He included 10 images along with the text for the book. These are stories too, just in a different form. They are designed to have their own narrative, defined by the viewer. "I try not to explain anything regarding what the images are about," Beach says. "Let the viewer imagine what they will."
Working on the pieces in 420 Characters was an entirely different process than what Beach was used to in his career as a freelancer, working at the whim of an editor. "In an editorial situation, I have a story or a point of view that I have to make manifest," he says. "Here, I’m sort of working blind." He started off each piece by sitting at a large worktable, looking through boxes filled with idea-scraps—previously unused illustrations and images—and sifting through them until something struck a chord. Eventually he would find enough details that also captured his fancy, and then he would whip out the glue. "It’s kind of a magical process, and it happens to a great degree by chance," he says.
Whether writing stories or conjuring them from a graphical palette, the material all comes from the same part of Beach’s imagination. "It’s a dreamlike sort of state where I lose myself in the story—whether it’s words or pictures," he says. "When I put these stories together, they sort of form themselves. I arrange them until they lock into place and make some internal sense to me."
The results of this method speak for themselves, and that is by necessity—in 420 Characters there’s no room for explanation. See the images for yourself in the gallery above.