Author How-To: Showing Text Conversations

So your novel contains text messages between characters. How very contemporary of you. Really, I mean it. Texting is a part of modern society and,  while it should appear in contemporary fiction there aren’t, as of now, any rules concerning how to format those messages inside your story. Personally, I could care less how an author shows text conversations as long as they’re consistent and easy to read.

But let me backtrack. CMOS (The Chicago Manual of Style – the guidebook for most publishers and authors) has at least one suggestion on how to handle text messages in your writing, but it’s unrealistic and looks horrible on the page, so I’m going to ignore it in favor of my two preferred methods, one for print books the other for ebooks.

Here are a few general rules for both methods:

  • Your protagonist (the POV you’re in at the time) should be the least indented in all text exchanges no matter who starts the conversation. ( or do the reverse as long as you keep things consistent. I choose to keep the POV character’s message more to the left because, well, it’s their POV)
  • You should have enough of a casual tag somewhere inside the exchange to keep each “speaker” straight. (I generally only do this once or twice per message and use a nickname or pet name if I can)
  • Keep the exchange as short as possible.
  • Keep it conversational.
  • Use a bit more punctuation than you would for a real text message just so things stay straight.
  • For goodness sake’s please don’t use text (SMS) spellings.  (this is a personal pet peeve of mine) If you’ve made it clear the characters are texting, the SMS language isn’t necessary. (Note: I’m also a former writing teacher and had to regularly battle students concerning the use of SMS language in formal writing. It was an uphill battle, and I’m still not one to use SMS in my own text messages.)
  • Make it important. Save the casual, “What’re you doing?” messages for face-to-face or at least a regular phone call, and if it doesn’t advance your plot, why are you including it at all?
  • Use italics and spacing to separate it from the rest of the story just like you would correspondence, poetry, or lyrics

Here’s a conversation from my novel Cleaning House formatted for print. My protagonist, Cent’s, messages are to the left, and her friend, Betty’s messages are to the right. This is probably the longest text exchange in the novel.

 Glad you made it safe. Call me when you’re settled.

Will do. Thanks, Betty.

 For what?

For talking me into doing this, and for the funds to do so.

 Just take care of yourself, baby doll. That’s all I ask.

You do the same. Okay?

 Sure thing. Love you, Cent.

Love you too.

Now here’s the same conversation formatted for a basic ebook (ebooks indent things strangely beyond the basic paragraph indent so you need to do something different).

 — Glad you made it safe. Call me when you’re settled.

Will do. Thanks, Betty.

 — For what?

For talking me into doing this, and for the funds to do so.

 — Just take care of yourself, baby doll. That’s all I ask.

You do the same. Okay?

 — Sure thing. Love you, Cent.

Love you too.

Good text messages in your fiction should be easy to follow, simple in content, and used frugally. Too many text messages will cause problems with your flow.

Here are a few other authors’ discussion on texting in fiction to help you along your way.

Go ahead and Google some others…  They’re all different and equally confused, which is rather my point. Do what works for you, for your story, for your characters, but always keep your readers in mind as you do so.

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