Everyone is Writing Texting Wrong

Since becoming a bona fide author, I’ve met a lot of other authors. And once you have author friends, you are going to do a lot of beta reading. Since texting and direct messaging in Twitter and Facebook are so much a part of modern life, it’s natural that the characters in these stories are going to do that. And I’ve watched as author after author struggles to convey these conversations. And I’ve noticed a consistent theme to their approaches:

Everyone is doing it wrong.

Everyone except me, of course. Because this is my blog and I get to define reality here. If you’ve read any contemporary fiction, I’m sure you’ve seen the various approaches:

  • Use italics or a weird font
  • Indent funny
  • Identify speakers like it’s a screenplay

It’s all horrible and distracting and unreadable. Let’s take an analogous situation. Suppose you have two deaf characters who are talking in sign language. Would you stop writing words and include a bunch of gestures? No. Of course you wouldn’t. You would use a couple dialog tags to convey it was a signed conversation and then move on, right?

“Hello,” she signed.

He smiled broadly. “How have you been?” he signed back.

“I’ve been well,” she said. “I’ve missed you.”

We establish that they are both signing, and then it’s just regular dialog. We’ll use normal tags like “said” and “replied” and “asked,” and we’ll occasionally throw in a “signed” in there to remind the reader that this is a silent conversation.

So why should texting be any different? Why are you trying to make the prose on the page look like the actual text conversation?

“Hello,” she texted.

He smiled broadly. “How have you been?” he texted back.

“I’ve been well,” she said. “I’ve missed you.”

See how natural that is?

In my first novel, the two main characters almost exclusively text (it’s about a Twitter affair), so I have a lot of experience in this and a lot of reader feedback on whether my approach works. It works. Texting is just dialog. Write it like dialog.

Here’s an example from Entropy (which is a really great book you should buy here).

“Good morning beautiful!” It was the first private message she saw when she went online in the morning. It was from him.

Her heart pounded. Okay, so he thinks I’m beautiful, she thought. Or maybe that’s just what he says to every girl.

She greeted him back, and after a few minutes they were chatting again. It was the same as last night. He still seemed uninterested in her as a woman, but engaged with her as a person. It was strange and new. They talked about a lot of things. They shared pictures of their families, and talked about their marriages. Lisa told him about Roger.

Lisa told him how things with her husband were boring and stable, but nonetheless exhausting. “I feel like I need to walk on eggshells around him all the time. I never know what’s going to set him off. And when he goes off, he can be so cruel.”

“Keeping things stable takes energy,” he replied. “I guess it’s a little counter-intuitive, since you think of Newton’s first law: a body at rest will stay at rest. But the reality is different. Think about an old water tank you find in the woods. It’s sitting there, doing nothing, and yet it’s slowly falling apart. Eventually the rust eats away at it beyond a certain threshold, and it collapses under its own weight.”

“Okay?” Lisa replied. She had no idea where he was going with this.

“But if you actively maintained that tank, it could last forever. You just need to sand it and give it a new coat of paint now and then. You must tend to it. It’s stable, but to keep it stable requires that you put energy into it.”

“Like my marriage,” Lisa said.

“Exactly,” he said. “A marriage takes work. You have to constantly put energy into it to keep it from falling apart. Going nowhere takes energy. Stability isn’t what you get when you do nothing. It’s what you can hope to achieve when you work hard.”

“And working hard is exhausting,” Lisa added.

That was a text conversation, but who cares? What’s important is the dialog, the connection, the power dynamic being established, all the usual stuff that character interaction gives you. The fact that they happened to be texting instead of talking is incidental and not at all important.

(End rant.)

3 thoughts on “Everyone is Writing Texting Wrong

  1. I have not read too much in the past year due to crazy work schedule, and what I have read is mostly non-fiction and seriously lacking in technical conversations. I do totally agree with everything you have said and will watch my own writings to ensure that I don’t violate any unspoken rule that would make my writing sound insincere or natural.

  2. You’re right that the content is what is important and the form shouldn’t distract from that, but I am curious if the form can ADD to it. Texting in real life is actually not dialog at all. You can’t see facial expressions or hear tone. Those things matter a great deal in dialog. Also, each character is in a separate physical space, which suggests a more off-set style in the narrative. Of course, that’s true of phone conversations, too, but we don’t write them differently. However, those ARE in real time. Texting is very much a turn-based kind of thing. Delays between time stamps can sometimes mean a great deal and sometimes nothing at all. And then there’s also the fact that everyone has a different texting style – abbreviations, acronyms, punctuation, etc. All of those seem to me to be interesting details to be played around with.

    Good post. This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately.

    • I think there’s definitely a distinction to be made between texting in real-time (which is like a phone call, for all practical purposes, in the narrative form), and texting with big delays. The kind of texting that I’m talking about is definitely the real-time dialog kind. I read a book recently in which the main characters were communicating via text, but with big delays, each writing multiple paragraphs. The author treated it the way you’d treat email or letters, which worked well. It’s the back-and-forth where that falls apart. It ends up looking like a screenplay, which is a terrible way to convey a story. The constant decoding of structure that the reader is forced to do takes them completely out of the moment.

      I’m skeptical that forcing a reader to decode typos, abbreviations, emojis and God forbid, GIFs would add anything valuable to the narrative form. Remember that the novel is first and foremost storytelling. It’s not performance art. Sure, you can do all sorts of weird stuff to convey the idiosyncrasies of your characters, but does the fact that your protagonist not know the difference between your/you’re or its/it’s and whose/who’s really help tell the story?

      Here’s a simple thought experiment. Go look at some of your own text conversations and imagine trying to convey them in exactly that form in a novel. Typos, fragments, incomplete thoughts, interruptions. Do you really hate your readers that much? 😉

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