How should you show emails and texts in prose fiction?

 
My shiny and bright fiction coaching student asked me:
 
I have a question about formatting dialogue. Specifically, how do you format text messages, phone calls, emails, and things that are not actually speaking conversations?
 
Great question! Phone calls are handled just like regular dialogue, except that at the beginning of the scene or conversation you must make it clear that they are talking ON THE PHONE and not face-to-face. Then, I recommend using only bare dialogue or attribution for the person who is on the other end of the line from the viewpoint character. Thus:
 
The phone rang. I stared at it through three more rings, then sighed and picked it up. “Why are you bothering me?” I barked into the receiver.  [This line is sufficient to establish that it’s a phone call to follow.]
 
“Fedora Shaeffer?” the weasel voice croaked. “You still break legs?” [This is just attribution, with a bit of description of the callers’ voice, all valid.]
 
“Just my own. I told you not to call me, Mugsy,” I said, fussing with my Zippo with the dirty wick. [This is visual and tactile description, so we know it’s our viewpoint character.]
 
“I’m desperate, man. My blackjack system didn’t work.” [Bare dialogue, but we know who’s talking.]
 
“Imagine that.” [Ditto, but if there’s any doubt, just put in an “I said” or “he said” attribution.]
 
He sobbed. The son of a bitch actually started crying. It made me feel polluted.
 
“You gotta help me! Everybody knows Johnny Schmeckel offers the best protection in town!” [Note how the new paragraph — which is created EVERY time the speaker changes in a conversation, even if the “speaker” is just the main character’s thought or action — helps us keep track of who is speaking. Also the emotion and content make it clear that Mugsy is the desperate person speaking. Use every tool you can to let the reader glide smoothly through dialogue, not having to back up to figure out who is whom.]
 
“I don’t gotta help nobody,” I barked, and hung up on the sap. Then I said quietly to no one in particular, “Not even myself.”
 
So that’s a phone call, with the hard part being that you don’t allow the viewpoint character any information s/he can’t pick up from the conversation itself. No cheating! 🙂
 
 
Text messages can be handled a couple of ways, but again, you want to maximize clarity as to who is texting and who is reading for each 140 characters. (This also works for Twitter tweets and other single-line written communication. One way is by setting the message off by its own line, no quotation marks, centered (or at least indented). Unless you are “typesetting” the actual product that a reader will see, don’t use a different font. It just looks amateurish and like you don’t understand how fiction submissions work. (However, bold or italic might be a good way to make the lines “pop,” but only if you are offsetting the lines — DON’T make them bold or italic for in-line representation AND surround them within quotation marks. Pick one or the other to show a written communication is being represented.)
 
Another way is just by quoting it within the line. But remember, as with spoken dialogue, you must ALWAYS make new paragraphs for new texters. Let’s see how each of these works:
 
OFFSET LINES
 
Mugsy must’ve found a cell phone in the gutter, because now he was texting me. My iPhone knockoff bleeped and read:
 

My roulette system failed. I forgot about the green zeroes. HELP!

I shook my head. Mugsy was always so hopeful and always so goddamned stupid. Maybe those were the same. I flicked my fingers over the virtual keyboard:
 
I recommend you throw yourself off a bridge. Don’t give the goons the satisfaction of killing you.
 
I waited a few seconds, staring at my phone to see if could use emoticons to represent crying and pissing himself. Then a new message popped up:
 
Fine, Fedora. Then I’m going to roll over on you.
 
I deleted the conversation, closed the app, and turned off the phone. This was escalating just as I had hoped.
 

Nota bene: Please notice that if you’re doing it this way, you start a new paragraph for a switch in speaker, but you still put the text on the next line. Indent paragraphs normally OR indent at the beginning of a conversation and then put the texts mid-sentence if you like. (Of course, you can and probably will mix these techniques.) Thusly:

[indent] I must not have shut the phone off right, because twenty seconds later I could feel a vibration in my pants, and not the good kind. I pulled out my phone and saw

[offset] I was just kidding. LOL! For God’s sake, please help me!
 

[no indent] which I didn’t find compelling. If you want help from me, don’t screw my woman and give her the clap. Either one is a deal-breaker, but together? Eat shit and die. I didn’t text him back.

The other way to represent one-line or other very short messages is by putting them in you line like a regular quotation OR do them without quotation marks and put the lines in italic. DON’T DO ATTRIBUTION with “said.” Use verbs that remind the reader that it is being typed out on a screen or keyboard. Keep who is speaking clear by starting new paragraphs for new speakers. Like so:
 

I wasn’t going to help Mugsy even if it meant I had to skip town, so I texted back Let me know where to send your funeral spray.

A couple of seconds passed before I got a beep and You are a cold man, Fedora Shaeffer.

I tapped out Cold men don’t get burned and hit send.

 

 
Emails should be handled exactly like letters. There’s lots of references online for how to format letters, so do it like one of those. HOWEVER, unless the date and time or other ancillary info that we get with emails are somehow important to the story, leave off the headers. Maybe a “To:” and “From:” line to get it started, but not all the other letter salad we get with things. This is because in a few years, such header info and such will look impossibly dated. You want your book to be an evergreen. Here’s a quick example of how to do it IF the header information is important:
 
To: Fedora Shaeffer
From: Mugsy Tootsalot
Date: February 30, 2014 02:14:33 PST
Subject: You are mean
 

Watch your back. Maybe ice can catch fire.

 

Mugsy Tootsalot

http://www.mugsyisdead.org

(723) 327-7372

Twitter: @MugsyT

Facebook: ClarenceSchmidt

Tumblr: SchmeckelVictim902

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“Crime does pay, if you can make money at it.” — Henry David Thoreau

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

As you can see, that is a LOT of verbiage for one line of content. It slows everything down too much, especially considering that we as email recipients rarely even bother to read sig lines and such. If you do want to show all of this, however, do it ONCE at the beginning and then that’s it. Here’s the response to the above message, which was printed as shown above:

 
To: Mugsy Tootsalot
From: Fedora Shaeffer
Subject: Re: You are mean.
 

That doesn’t even make sense. Leave me alone or I’ll make your face wish you did.

F.S.

I would put a couple of lines between each email unless you’re going full epistolary novel. Then we have Mugsy write back:
 
To: Fedora Schaeffer
From: Mugsy Tootsalot
 
If I go down, I’m taking you with me.
 

And that’s it. See how it gets simpler, leaving out unnecessary header information. If it’s important to the story at what date or time each message was sent, then include them. But just do what’s necessary and pare it down as much as possible. Of course, these are single-line emails for the purpose of illustration, but longer messages work the same exact way.

 
 
You’ll notice I haven’t said anything about “textspeak” or emoticons in your representations of e-correspondence. Well, here ya go: Use it sparingly and only in order to reveal something about the character or their emotional state. To wit:
 
You want to show clear-headedness and formality: “If Schmeckel doesn’t waste you, I will do it myself.”
 
Or a little bit of emotion: “You better hope S finds you first”
 
Or a lot of emotion, pressing time, or other stresses: “if s doesnt get you i will”
 
But if you have two adults in a tense conversation, DON’T do this: ima kill u >:'(  It’s just distracting and ridiculous.
 

In general, unless you have a specific point you’re trying to make about a texting character, don’t use but one “shorthand” element per text. (e.g., If you use “U” for “you,” then don’t do “OMG” or other acronyms, unless you’re trying to show that this person is a vacant texthead. Even then, don’t overdo it.) Remember, we’re all thrilled with texting right now, but in 10 years it could be as outdated as going into great detail about how answering machine messages were represented when they were new. ALWAYS THINK EVERGREEN!

 
Have fun with experimenting with this. Maybe try translating some of your actual texts or Facebook chats into a fiction setting. Let me know if you want more on this, or on anything else in prose fiction mechanics!
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7 thoughts on “How should you show emails and texts in prose fiction?

    • Q.E.D. Lots of love will be sent your way, when and if you quit arguing with the grammar police.

      If forced to diagram the sentence “There is lots of people,” I still insist that lots is plural and there is is singular. It diagrams as “lots is there.” It’s just… wrong. Should be “There are lots of people.” Perhaps this comes down to the nature of love (ulp!) It’s actually singular, whereas people is a plural form. The format of the sentence is sort of putting the subject (love, or people) in a prepositional phrase, which can be eliminated from the sentence. Then either there’s or there’re will work with “lots.” So I suppose the prepositional phrase, used as an adjective, defines whether lots is singular or plural. Lots is actually the subject, but the prep phrase says lots of what, and determines whether it’s singular or plural. It shouldn’t, but it seems to do just that, in this case. Grammar is fascinating!

      • Nice! I mean with a verb that is different in its singular and plural forms. In any case, I think you’re right. I also think private messages would be a much better way to hold our grammar discussions. 🙂

      • Well, yeah, but then it would look like nobody’s reading! 8-P Anybody’s free to jump in and dispute what we’re bloviating about.

  1. Hey! Thank you, as always, for your comment!

    I’m using “lots” as a group noun identical to “a lot.” Maybe not exactly Fowler-eque grammatical, but I b’leeve it works for the conversational style I’m going for here. (Also, “there’re” is a monstrosity, a cure far worse than the disease, and I’ve never seen it used.)

    I enjoy your nit-picky ways! I’ll prolly go back and make some changes.

    • Hey. If you mean a lot (singular) then SAY a lot. Lots is plural, no matter how much easier there’s is to say (according to you.) There’re very few shortcuts with singular/plural that don’t make you sound… um… less literate. If you balk at “there’re” then say “there are.” Nothing monstrous about that. You’ve REALLY never seen it used? I postulate that you just didn’t notice it, because it was correct. Nyaa nyaa.

  2. Okaaaay, so you did a couple of little pet peeves of mine. See what you think.

    ” There’s lots of references online…” Remove the apostrophe and you have “There is lots of references online…” There’s is singular. There’re is plural. The grammar police are gonna write you a ticket.

    “… longer messages work the same exact way.” In this form, redundant. Is there such a thing as different exact? No? Then same and exact mean the same thing. Even “exact same” would work better, because there is such a thing as nearly the same or almost the same. There can be degrees of sameness. Not of exactness, though. It’s either exact or it isn’t. Mind you, exactly the same, is also acceptable, modifying an adjective with an adverb, and exact same could be seen as a variation of that. This, I realize, is nit-picky, but so am I.

    There was one other thing about which I’m still ruminating.

    “… don’t use but one “shorthand” element per text.”

    Pretty sure that’s a double-negative. You wouldn’t say “you don’t have but one day to live.” You’d say “you have but one day…” I believe your sentence should read “…use but one ‘shorthand’ element per text.” The but is the same as “only,” as in “…use only one…”

    Thus endeth the intrusion of the grammar fascists. All of your advice seems legit to me, but I’m not a writer, I’m merely a technician, who wants to see her favored few reflected highly. Ask Her Grace if I’m not correct about these things. Copy editing is getting to be a lost art.

    *lays red pencil down and wanders away*

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