There are so many ways to have a conversation. From in-person to texting, over the phone or even the old instant message route. In the world of fiction, just like in the real world, dialogue is never just dialogue. And that’s just contemporary fiction. If you’re in the fantasy or sci-fi realm, you may have telepathic conversations between figures of the same species and inter-species telepathy or something completely different.
With all of these different ways of communicating, how do you pick the format to signal to your reader that they are reading a conversation that is occurring in some other fashion beyond just talking directly to a person standing in front of you without causing confusion and without disrupting your narrative?
This is something I am struggling with right now in my writing and it is one of the reasons that I have shied away from contemporary fiction in the past. I just don’t know what to do with a text conversation. My new work in progress is set in the 2016, so texting is definitely A THING. To avoid it altogether would just be strange. And here I am in chapter two and just starting this new writing journey and now my characters are texting one another. I had a good flow going too and then I started to notice how confusing it would be for the reader and also how texting is lacking in inflection and those sorts of auditory or visual cues. Remember how easy it is to misread the tone of a text or an email in real life? Well that’s not just real life, apparently. It’s in fiction writing, too, if you’re not careful!
One of my favorite examples of how an author deals with an alternative form of communication is the awesome Jay Kristoff. In his Lotus Wars series, the main character has the ability to communicate telepathically with the Arishatoras (a Gryphon-like figure). Buruu, the main Arishatora in the first book of the series communicates in italics and all caps with Yukiko, the story’s protagonist. It’s comical, but absolutely fitting. We all know from texting and online etiquette that the use of all caps signals yelling. So, basically, Buruu is yelling in Yukiko’s head each time they communicate. But, it’s absolutely fitting because he is a giant monster and it tells you a lot about who Buruu is as a character. To me, it suggested that he was wild and unable to be tamed and perhaps lacking in respect for Yukiko (at least in the beginning).
With texting, it’s a bit more complicated (and maybe in other ways, a little more simplistic, depending on your perspective. I mean, you don’t have to deal with characters being in each other’s heads with texting, right?). You could signal yelling by using all caps, but that’s typically considered rude and that may or may not imply something you want about your character by doing this.
For me, I’ve decided that keeping texting conversations to a minimum is a plus. It’s really tough to switch from text to showing the chapter character’s perspective to the conversation and then jumping back into the conversation. Also, I don’t want to bore the reader. To combat this, at least in this current chapter, the two characters are texting and then one of them gets so excited about the conversation that they call and continue it via voice. At least this way, you can get some voice inflection details in there and write about the chapter’s leading character’s reaction to the conversation and to the person with whom they are conversing.
As for format, I’ve decided to indent all lines of texting conversations and italicize them. Additionally, this form of communication will not make use of quote marks. I believe these actions differentiate a texting conversation enough from regular dialogue that even when a person just glances at the page, they will understand that a different type of communication is occurring.
We are lucky to have so many different forms of communication at our finger tips. But, as a writer, those same assets can pose a tough challenge in storytelling. As I mentioned above, I have often avoided writing fiction set in modern times because of the challenges that modern communication poses. This, of course, is only one reason why I have avoided writing stories set in the current day. But, as I work through this issue, I think it’s a good challenge to put before myself. It forces me to think and innovate and solve problems and hopefully will lead me to becoming a better writer and storyteller as I continue to grow.
Do you write fiction set in modern times? If so, how have you handled things like mobile phones, texting and the internet in your stories? I’d love to hear how you’ve faced these potential challenges (or assets! They can also be very helpful in driving your story forward if used properly). Please share your thoughts in the comments!