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.”
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.
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.
To: Fedora ShaefferFrom: Mugsy TootsalotDate: February 30, 2014 02:14:33 PSTSubject: You are mean
Watch your back. Maybe ice can catch fire.
“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 TootsalotFrom: Fedora ShaefferSubject: Re: You are mean.
That doesn’t even make sense. Leave me alone or I’ll make your face wish you did.
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 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!