Texting in Text: How Do We Write Dialogue that’s Typed?

I’ve been thinking about text messages in stories lately. My next book has texting, though I’m having to remember what it was like to write text messages in 2004. I also laughed really hard at two jokes in Barry, a new show on HBO that’s quickly becoming a new favorite; and both jokes involved texting.

Texting has become its own form of dialogue. I’ve seen it portrayed in various ways — and with various results — on film and in print. I find it fascinating to see how it’s depicted, and am also curious if we’ll ever see an agreed-upon format in the future.

Texts are written, and italics are usually used to denote writing. I do this myself. It’s easier to type and means less fiddling around with fonts (fonts that may not even remain in an ebook if someone changes their Kindle settings). I do this for handwritten notes, emails (especially since I just include the body of an email — I don’t like including email address, sender, subject line, time sent, etc., but that’s for another blog post), and text messages.

However, I found that using italics for text messages isn’t always so simple. Please Give uses text messages second only to spoken dialogue in terms of how the characters communicate. I love writing dialogue, but lines of quotes read very differently when they become lines of italicized text — especially lines of italicized text that need to indicate a back-and-forth without constantly writing, “She texted ____. He texted ____” (I find that tedious, and thankfully, it hasn’t appeared too much in the books I’ve read — not nearly as much as excessive “she said/he said” lately, which is also for another post).

My solution was to try and only do this for three or four lines if I needed to, or to put in the few (or sometimes several) minutes it often takes people to text back and to keep the responses short. One of the questions I had for my beta-readers was if it was clear who was speaking to whom and who was texting to whom. They all said yes, and I hope that other readers agree!

But writing the act of texting is a challenge, and while I’ve seen smooth integration of text messaging in books, I have yet to see a universal format. One book I read put the entire exchange into a centered block denoted by each sender’s initials. It read like a chat screen, and while it made the exchange very clear, it seemed a little odd placed in the middle of regular text in the book. The book I’m reading now denotes text messages in its own line, and in a fixed font that’s smaller, bold, and in a colder font. It’s also very clear, and while momentarily a distraction, it flowed more seamlessly than the block of chat-like text. It flowed like what text messages are: dialogue.

As a reader, what formats have you seen in books for text messages? Are there any you prefer?

As a writer, how do you incorporate text messages into your stories?

Whether a reader, a writer, or both, I’d love to hear from you in the comments!


As a P.S., I wanted to talk a bit about texting in TV and in film. That’s something I’ve watched with great interest, from both my communications and film studies perspectives. Texting as dialogue onscreen seems to be evolving, even though there still isn’t an agreed-upon format. Most movies and TV shows seem to have moved away from characters reading text messages out loud, which is a blessing — it had the same lack of naturalness as the one-sided phone conversation where the person onscreen repeats whatever (we presume) the person on the other end said.

A popular form for a while now — and still in use sometimes — was to put the text messages on the screen, sometimes like typed-out subtitles and most often by text windows popping up on the side like Pop-Up Video. I found this awkward and weird, but something that couldn’t really be worked around — much like fixed font text messages in a book.

More shows and movies, though, seem comfortable just showing someone’s screen with the text message on it. This is easier to do with bigger phones and clearer, more colorful screens; and I prefer this method. Text messages aren’t spoken and they also aren’t word bubbles like dialogue in comics. If we can see the phone’s screen, we should. As I mentioned above, I recently saw this used to great effect on Barry, which in addition to just showing the iPhone screen with texts, incorporated some of iPhone’s text message features, like confetti falling over the screen when a celebratory text is sent (and the text message the confetti accompanied was a very dark thing to celebrate). I look forward to seeing how communicating text messaging in stories continues to change over the years — or given technology’s current pace, over the coming months.

Remembering Anita Shreve

anita shreve
Anita Shreve. Photo from Associated Press/New York Times.

I found out over the weekend that Anita Shreve, one of my favorite novelists, died at age 71 from cancer.

I was heartbroken. Shreve was one of my first favorite authors and remains so to this day. I first heard of her when The Weight of Water was adapted into a movie. I never saw the movie, but I picked up the book from the library. I was drawn into both the historic murder mystery and the modern-day plight of a woman who can’t quite prove her husband is cheating but feels it in her bones.

The Weight of Water was the first of many books I read by Shreve. My favorite was Fortune’s Rocks, about a 19th century girl who falls in love with a man, has a baby, loses both, then manages to get both back — though the baby comes back through a sensational custody trial.

Shreve was from New England. Though I only lived in New England for four years, I feel drawn to authors from the area and to stories set there. Almost all of her books take place there, namely in seaside towns or on the beach. I learned when reading her obituary that Shreve once took a photo of a beachside house in Maine, and that photo served as an inspiration for several of her books.

Shreve had a talent for writing stories that were both romantic and melancholy. I felt comforted reading her prose, even when it was sad. She will be missed.

If you’d like to read her books, a few of my favorites are below:

A Rundown on Dialogue

A couple weeks ago, I posted a Q&A between myself and Evelyn Duffy, my editor. There was one question she asked that was cut from the final post:

In all your work that I’ve read so far, your characters do best when they have someone to talk to — you rely on and use dialogue extremely effectively. I find that many first-time authors struggle with dialogue. Do you have any tips for them?

I do have some tips. I cut the question, though, because as I answered it, my answer became quite lengthy and I decided to share it via blog post.

I love writing dialogue. I love it so much that sometimes I have to watch myself if a manuscript starts to look more like a straight-up script. But writing dialogue helps me understand what my characters think, do, and feel more than any narration I write on the first attempt.

I think one reason dialogue is difficult is because the nature of speaking is so different from the nature of writing. You can think about how you speak and how you react to what’s spoken, but that’s all one sided. A conversation is between two, and writing is a solitary craft.

As such, I recommend one tactic that you can do in the privacy of your own home and one I find to be very helpful: talk to yourself and pretend that you’re speaking to someone else. Ask yourself questions and answer them. Do it out loud, even if it’s just muttering to yourself. Do it at home or somewhere alone so you can really let loose.

This is helpful because talking to yourself is what you do when you write dialogue.  You’re creating a conversation between two (or more) people whose thoughts, feelings, motivations, and personalities are all in your head. By talking out loud to yourself, you’re practicing this in the more natural form of speaking instead of writing.

This also helps with what I think is the biggest hurdle to writing good dialogue: writing reactions as opposed to explanations. The clunkiest dialogue I’ve read (and written) is dialogue that narrates. I took an electronic media writing class in college, and one of our assignments was to write commercials. One of my professor’s cardinal rules was to never have the characters serve as the spokespeople. They should speak like normal people, and only the spokesperson — ie, the voiceover — should describe and sell the product.

This is applicable to fiction and dialogue. The narrator describes the story, but the characters live it. They live it by speaking within it like everyday people. And to speak like everyday people is to listen and react, not narrate and explain (well, not only explain — more on that later). No one likes talking to someone who only explains and never listens or responds to anyone but themselves. No one wants to read that someone either.

As such, I find that dialogue is always better when the next line is a direct build from the previous one, as opposed to just being the next step in advancing the story. I see lines of dialogue as stairs. Stairs build up, but rest on the edge of the previous one in order to climb. So do good lines of dialogue. This can come in the form of a question or clarifying statement, or some form of “Oh, I know — I do [blank] and this is how I do [blank] uniquely.” Sometimes I see an opportunity for jokes or tangents in response to a line, and add them even if they don’t advance the plot or reveal anything important. Not all dialogue has to. It does, however, need to sound natural (and it helps if it’s funny — even dramas or dark stories need good jokes).

calvin-conversation
Calvin may have been off-the-mark on conversations, but he does have some good advice on writing dialogue. Try not to have your characters interrupt each other too much though (unless they’re fighting — that’s more realistic).

Dialogue is at its least natural when it’s narrating — and this is where my final tip may be a little infuriating, because it will sound like I’m negating that observation. It’s the narrator’s job to explain things like setting, internal thoughts, and background. But sometimes, these things are better left to the characters to share via dialogue.

Now, I don’t think this should happen with prolonged explanations and backstory. It’s very, very easy for a character to start talking about their history and have them sound like a James Bond villain waxing on about their evil plans. If a character is going on and on, maybe consider giving that character their own section narrated from their point of view (whether first or third person). Such monologues can also be broken up by another character reacting — asking questions, saying what they think or what they would do, etc.

But no matter how it’s broken up, if a character’s background is being shared or revealed, it’s best to let them do it themselves. I find this applies whether or not a story is in first or third person. Narration should explain things about the protagonist (or, if switching focus/points of view, the person that is the focus in that section or chapter). But anyone else should speak for themselves.

I witnessed this particularly when writing Please Give. It’s told in first person, from Beth’s point of view. One of my most common revisions was to go back to a scene where Beth explained everything about everyone, and change it so that everyone else spoke for themselves instead. This made Beth seem more realistic, since she was no longer psychic and all-knowing about everyone else; and it also resulted in more realistic dialogue and narration.

This was especially true in Chapter 2, where Beth is at a staff meeting and listens to three nonprofit presidents — Mary Chau, Justin Moore, and Sally Wood — give presentations. In the first draft, Mary and Justin didn’t speak much on paper. Beth narrated their backgrounds and their organization’s backgrounds, leaving very little space for their own words. In turn, Beth’s narration both explained their history and her thoughts on them. This was clunky and didn’t read realistically at all. It read like an article or a blog post summarizing a presentation.

But narration shouldn’t be a summary, and dialogue helps it to not be one. This was the case with Sally, who spoke more even in the first couple drafts. She spoke for herself, and Beth’s narration was mostly in response to what she was saying — a reaction as opposed to an explanation. It flowed much better, and I realized that in order for the chapter as a whole to flow better, I needed to extend the same courtesy to Mary and Justin.

So, I went back and let them say what Beth previously described. They spoke about just enough history to sound like a presentation, as opposed to narration in a book (much like you want your make-up to look like you’re not wearing any, you want your dialogue to read like it wasn’t written). And rather than serve to explain, Beth’s narration broke up these lengthy speeches with her responses and thoughts — which in turn served to clarify and fill in the context for what they had to say. Because she had reactions as opposed to explanations, the scene read more realistically to me — and it did so because these explanations became a form of dialogue between Beth and the people speaking.

Dialogue is an effective tool, and one that many writers seem to fear the most. I think this comes from thinking too hard about what should be said or how what’s said fits into the narration as opposed to the narrative. At the end of the day, dialogue should fit into a conversation, not the narration. So let your characters loose — let them speak, let them react, and let them converse until it’s time for the narration to come back in. You can always go back and whittle the conservation down in a second or third (or eighth) draft.

And, try talking to yourself. Trust me, it works.


I’ve talked a lot about talking, but if you want to read a little more, I’ve shared similar advice on the blog before — namely, on talking to yourself in the form of interviewing yourself.

I also recommend checking out the actual conversations between me and Evelyn Duffy. It’s a conversation in two parts: Ask the Editor and Ask the Author.

Thanks for reading!

Let’s Get Social: Facebook

Over the weekend, I caught up with 2008 and set up a Facebook page. Previously, I created a page for The Crow’s Gift and Other Tales. Rather than set up pages for each of my books, I figured it’d be more efficient to just have an author page.

So, here it is! Right now you’ll see links to all three of my published works. Over the coming weeks, I’ll post quick updates on upcoming projects, ones too long for Twitter, too wordy for Instagram, and too quick for this blog.

If you’re on Facebook, please like and follow my page. Thanks for reading!

What I’m Reading: Nocturnally Beautiful Agendas

I’m working on my next novel almost every day. It’s my main focus, as a work-in-progress should be. However, I’m also making sure to keep some time open to read every day. I am typically a voracious reader, but when I was in the thick of writing Please Give, my reading took a notable dip. For instance, I started reading Bruce Springsteen’s memoir last fall, and what would normally take me 2-3 weeks to finish took me almost three months.

Reading, though, is just as important to keeping the writing wheels going as writing every day. It helps me see new ways to phrase things, shows me different ways stories can be told, and makes sure I’m seeing more words than just my own each day. Plus, it’s both fun and relaxing. Writing is fun and relaxing, but it’s also work; and all work requires a break.

Right now, I’m reading Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall by Kazuo Ishiguro. I’m a big fan of his work, and was happy to see he had a collection of short stories available. I’ve read three of the five stories, and all three have shown Ishiguro’s talent for slipping in a line that’s beautifully simple, yet fills you with a slow burn sadness as it settles into your consciousness. Thus far, the story that does this the most is “Come Rain or Come Shine.”

I just finished Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli. I wanted to read it before the movie adaptation (titled Love, Simon) was released. Whether I’ll see the movie is TBD, but I adored the book. It follows a closeted high schooler named Simon who finds himself falling for a mystery classmate he knows only as Blue, another student he connects with after seeing his post on the school’s Tumblr (a side note: this is the second YA novel I’ve read where Tumblr played a huge narrative role. Tumblr didn’t exist when I was in high school, but forums were everywhere and I was on quite a few. I can’t imagine wanting to be on a forum connected to my school or even my classmates. But I digress). The book switches between Simon’s narration and the increasingly romantic email correspondence between him and Blue. It was funny, tender, and ripe with a rich cast of characters.

A few books before that, I read a book that’s at the top of my Favorites of 2018 right now: Everything Here is Beautiful by Mira T. Lee. It tells the story of two sisters, Miranda and Lucia; and how Miranda, Lucia’s husband, Lucia’s boyfriend, and Lucia herself all try to care for her as Lucia’s illness grows worse. It was a wonderful book, with both poetic prose and a great story. I highly recommend it.

Once I finish Nocturnes, I have a couple different books lined up. Over the weekend, I purchased Afterlife with Archie, Vol. 1: Escape from Riverdale. I read the first issue way back when, but I have little time and patience to purchase and read comics one issue at a time. This is why I gravitate towards dailies (like Questionable Content), graphic novels, or collected treasuries/trade paperbacks. So, I was very happy to see this unique Archie series collected in a book; and even happier to see that Volume 2 is set to come out later this month.

I also recently purchased I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer by Michelle McNamara. I became familiar with this book after McNamara’s untimely death (I am a fan of her comedian husband, Patton Oswalt; who is also a gifted writer), and I look forward to reading this one.

What are you reading? If you have any recommendations, please leave them for me in the comments. I am always looking for something new to read! And, if you want to follow me as I both read and write, give me a follow and send me a friend request on Goodreads.

Coming Soon: Paperbacks!

Both The Crow’s Gift and Other Tales and Please Give are available now as ebooks. Soon, you’ll be able to order paperback copies!

Paperbacks were a format I considered as I readied both books for publication, and finally had the time to set up through CreateSpace. Doug Puller, who designed the covers and formatted the ebooks, formatted the paperback copies and also designed the back covers. I’m very grateful for his work, and am lucky to be able to work with someone so talented.

Receiving my proofs in the mail made me very giddy. While an ebook is still a book, there’s something special about holding these works in my hands as bound books, with covers and pages to turn. When I saw All the Pieces Coming Together — the first short story I wrote when I got back into writing in 2016 — in print, I felt very happy.

I am reviewing the proofs now, and will let you all know when they’re available to order. For now, you can order both The Crow’s Gift and Other Tales and Please Give on Amazon and Barnes and Noble. And if you’ve read either (or both), I’d like to ask you to please leave an honest review online. Thank you for reading!

One Year of Writing About Writing!

One year ago today, I started this blog. I initially started it as a way to share pieces of writing old and new, as well as to talk about some short stories I’d written and a novel I was working on.

In one year, sonorawrites.com has grown into something more (including its own domain name). It has a proper front page, and pages for The Crow’s Gift and Other Tales and Please Give, the two books I published in 2017.

But at its heart, it’s a blog where I share my thoughts on writing. From process to progress, writing to reading, joy to sorrow, it’s been a space where I’ve enjoyed getting these thoughts written down, sorted out, and shared with all of you.

Thank you for reading. I hope you will stay in touch in 2018 and beyond!