3 Ways To Show A Text Conversation In A Book – And One Right Way

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Your humble host

 

We know how to write a sentence: noun, verb… a period at the end.

We know how to show dialog when our characters speak.

Dan scratched his head. “We do?”

“Yep,” she said.

 

But it turns out, we DON’T know how to depict a text conversation in a story! I checked.

There’s no uniform way.

Oh, The Chicago Manual Of Style (CMOS) has a suggestion in the Q&A – but it sucks.

And other authors are trying to nail it down, especially the YA writers. Or they write around it.

Look, anybody can do this:

“how r u,” he texted;

“ha ha Daddy I can’t believe you use ‘r u,’” she replied.”

AWFUL. You wouldn’t use so many tags in a conversation showing speech, or regular conversational dialog, but here it’s supposed to be okay?

No.

No, no, no, no, no, no.

I (accidentally) used several styles of showing text conversations in Poggibonsi. Turns out, I didn’t do such a good job after all. My recollection at the time was, and still is, nobody else could say there was a definitive way to do it. I thought that may have changed by now. Nope.

But!

That means if we come up with a good way, we can set the standard. I’m all for inventing a way. (Then we get to name it after one of us, like they do when they discover a new star.) From looking at the examples below, it seems like LOTS of beats works best. Funny if that’s the way to go.

What happened in Poggi (find out about being a beta reader for Poggibonsi: An Italian Misadventure by clicking HERE – LIMITED AVAILABILITY through March 5, 2017) when it was in my critique group was, everybody ended up saying just be consistent. But read these, see what jumps out at you, and go from there.

I think this:

  1. Definitely italics
  2. Beats
  3. Tags if you have to.
  4. Keep the text conversation short.

That’s it.

Probably can’t do lengthy text conversations in books without one of #2 or #3. (To me, italics are a must.) It just doesn’t appear smooth or read smooth if you don’t. But like I said, whatever we come up with can be the standard.

Here are some Texting conversations in stories

Example 1 (Names in all caps. My recollection is NOBODY liked this, the ME/SAM all caps stuff), from my book Poggibonsi.

When I went back into my office, there was a new Real Time message from Sam.

I know you’re still up looking at my amazing reports on Italy. Go to bed.

I smiled. The lady knew me too well.

I messaged back. Can’t sleep.

Her reply was immediate. Too excited about Italy?

ME: Among other things.

SAM: You’re lucky. There’s a lot to do.

ME: Is there? Mattie has us going to Rome for three days. Rome should be about a three hour trip. Coliseum, Parthenon, Vatican, done.

SAM: You mean Pantheon. The Parthenon is in Greece.

ME: Two hours, then.

SAM: Gee, you have high standards. What about museums, aquaduct?

ME: Googled all that already; I’m good. But gotta keep the Mrs. happy.

SAM: Happy wife, happy life!

ME: Guess so.

SAM: Okay. U seem tired. Remember you have a doctor’s appointment tomorrow.

ME: Thanks. Talk later.

I turned off my office lights and grabbed the remote to watch Sports Center, rocking way back in my chair. The story about Deidra and Alex really weighed on me. Twenty years of marriage, gone. Now the poor schmuck doesn’t even live in his own house, and only sees his kids every other weekend.

Example 2 (no quotation marks, capitalized names e.g. Me/Sam. This was the BEST received on CC and other places but probably still needs to lose the Me/Sam stuff.) Also from my book Poggibonsi.

Not drinking yet, but awake. Maybe I could get an update. I sent her a text. What’s up?

Her reply was quick. How are you liking your little town in Tuscany?

Me: If the town is anything like the wine, we may never leave.

Mattie was enjoying her Chianti. “Tell Sam the reds are amazing. I’m bringing her some.”

I relayed the message. The Asti is pretty good, too. I’m on my second bottle. I was all thumbs when I texted on a cell phone sober; by now I was barely coherent. Thank God for autocorrect.

Sam: It’s more fun texting with you when you’ve been drinking.

Me: I bet. I don’t care. I’m on vacation. Plus, Italian TV is better when you’re drunk.

Sam: Why are you watching TV? Aren’t there more interesting things to do in Italy?

Me: When you see Italy with a four year old, you tour at a four year old’s pace. That means looking for Spongebob on the satellite, who is actually funny in Italian. But Sienna just went to sleep and Mattie is still planning our sightseeing, so, I’m watching the “TopCrime!” channel.

Sam: Got it.

Sam seemed happy to see Mattie and I enjoying ourselves.

I was, too. It had been very satisfying to sit back on the couch and just enjoy the peace and quiet with my family and a nice fire. Mattie switched from her computer to mine, so we could have one charging on the lone converter we brought.

Example 3 (some quotation marks – this was also not popular. They didn’t like the quotation makes in the texts) again, from my book Poggibonsi.

I sent her another text. Try sending them again in the morning. Maybe the winds will be gone and I can have a good signal then.

A second later my phone pinged with her reply. Okay.

I chuckled to myself. “Besides, I didn’t spend half the night getting my wife looped just to text with you, Sam.”

Sam: “Okay, lovebirds. I can take a hint.”

I clicked off my phone’s ringer and looked at my computer sitting on the coffee table. Mattie had left it open and on, but plugged in and charging.

 

My conclusion at the writing of Poggi was something along this line would be best:

I sent her another text. Try sending them again in the morning. Maybe the winds will be gone and I can have a good signal then.

A second later my phone pinged with her reply. Okay.

(But you can see – that many beats will get old quick.)

I looked at over a dozen sources and most do stuff that’s avoidance, e.g.:

I looked at my phone it was Dora texting me. “Where r u?”

 

Others did the all caps names, or just names and colons, using italics and/or quotation marks

Dan: “I don’t like this.”

Allison: “Me, neither.”

Or

DAN: This kinda sucks, too.

ALLISON: Damned internet.

CMOS’ answer was BS, and since editors pray to that bible, that’s where they’ll come down. “…just use quotation marks. It’s never been considered necessary to have a separate style for phone conversations, e-mails, or other types of communication, and texts are nothing new in this regard. The context should make it clear: “how r u,” he texted; “ha ha Daddy I can’t believe you use ‘r u,’” she replied.”

Again, awful.

That’s why they’re editors and not writers. And that’s why it’s a manual of style as opposed to rules. Styles change. This will evolve into a standard in a year or two and that’s when CMOS will adopt what we’re doing now. You may need it in 30 days; I need it a few months later. We’ll be the ones who decide what the standard is, along with a bunch of YA authors who are trying to figure it out as we speak.

The most useful is what we’re trying, a combination of tags, beats, and italics – and consistency. Teach you reader what a text conversation looks like. EVERY example I’ve found has reasons why it’s confusing.

Allison needed to do it in her book The Fourth Descendant. “For the record, I used italics with beats in Descendant and no one has fussed about it.” – Allison.

Here are her examples.

Ten minutes after they’d left the park, they arrived at Anna’s house, and Michelle stole away to the bathroom to type a response to Damien. That’s so great! She sighed.

His message came a minute later. Yeah. It’s a relief.

She wiggled her thumbs over the keys, contemplating what to say when another text appeared.

Jonah’s heading to Virginia on the tenth.

It was about time someone talked about that. Jonah had said he’d arrange for the rafting trip to happen in June, and June was just three days away. She typed a response. Okay. Are you going?

I think so.

After a short pause, another text appeared. Are you?

She swallowed. She wanted more than anything to spend a week on the river with Damien, but she needed to figure out how to make it work. Not sure. I’ll text you tonight. Congrats on your project.

She flushed the toilet and washed her hands to give the illusion she was in the bathroom for its intended purpose. Her phone chimed again as she walked back to the kitchen.

Thanks. Looking forward to tonight.

She smiled and deleted his last message.

Another example

“Yeah.” He picked up the small bag that rested by his feet. When his phone chimed and he glanced at the text, he tried to keep from beaming as much as Jonah.

I’ll be able to make it.

He waited until he sat in the back seat of the 4Runner to return the text. I’m so happy to hear that. When do you think you’ll get here?

So it seems we’re on track. Italics, beats and a (hopefully rare) tag when necessary, keeping text conversations short and trying not to do them too frequently.

But the biggest things?

Be consistent in what you do, and you’ll teach your reader to recognize text conversations in your story.

When we get it right, we’ll know.  Now: do we name it like a font, like Arial? In this case… Allison?

Wait! I thought of it first!

60 thoughts on “3 Ways To Show A Text Conversation In A Book – And One Right Way

  1. Really interesting and timely post Dan. I’d like to know what you make of my stuff, the ‘diablog’ posts of a mostly internet messaging based story… style I mean not so much the content but always up for feedback. I’ve tried to be consistent and not had any negative comment on style as yet. ‘Sam & Erin’s’ messages are written in a way that makes it obvious who from, never tagged, and use of names within message quite minimal. As best I can tell it seems to work, from the feedback I get folk seem to relate to the story and get it. Eric.

    Like

      • Ok here goes…just short of a 1000 words posted on 14th February…

        Day 46 (Wednesday)

        “Good to hear I’m home? You are completely confusing me! I am trying to help you but you do not seem to need it? I thought we had something, yet you can’t wait even a day for me. Got me thinking!”

        “Can we just slow down a bit, I am feeling really overwhelmed with all that’s going on and I need to be with someone I know, that’s all I’m saying. You are getting too heavy to fast, and I can’t cope right now, ok!”

        “I really feel for you, you know that, whatever’s going on in your life right now little if anything seems good. I can’t say I understand because you’ve still not told me anything? We have something good don’t we?”

        “I really don’t know what we have if I am being honest, I think I have feelings for you but I can’t deal with them right now. I’m feeling pressured and I hate that. You are truly a great guy but I just feel, I am so sorry to say this, that you are suffocating me. I just want things to slow way down. Please give me space to sort myself out. Sorry.”

        Day 47 (Thursday)

        “I’ve thought a lot about what you said but it’s not that easy for me now. I feel so inhibited and do not think I am able to carry on just messaging on this site. We both know that we need to move forward, for me it needs to be this week. Trust me, I am not pushing you, it’s just the way it is.”

        “Ok, well I am reading that and it seems that you are not really as into this as I am I guess. Yes I know that we have to move to the next step and that’s what we’re trying to do aren’t we? If only it could be a bit easier that’s all!”

        “I am sensitive enough to have long realised that there are complications in your life and so wish you would open up to me. At times I sense real desperation in you which makes me annoyed with myself that I have failed to earn your trust. Who knows, perhaps talking to me might help, you know I would listen.”

        “I do find it hard to open up about problems, but that is because I have had it thrown back in my face before. I’m sure you are trustworthy, but maybe it is my own courage that’s the problem?”

        Day 48 (Friday)

        “We both appear to be struggling. I want to tell everyone about you yet you can’t bring yourself to tell me anything, even here. I try to be a decent man for you but find my self-respect waning. My mind says you are unable to give, my heart says otherwise.”

        “Ok cards on the table….. I want to be with you, I mean everything I say to you but I also feel pressured by you at the moment into moving on so hurriedly! It’s not really your fault I am feeling pressured, it’s in me to react to pressure so I apologise for that but please understand, I am not having a go at you, I am just asking you to let me sort myself out, in my time. I will be with you, I promise you that.”

        “Sometimes I wonder if you actually believe some of the seemingly credible excuses you come up with. Why don’t you simply have the decency to say that you enjoy the fantasy of messaging and that though you may believe it at the time when it comes to the reality of commitment in any form you are incapable of showing it. I feel such a fool to have let you mislead me.”

        “I am not at all sure how I respond to that message! Nobody is saying you are a fool but you are not truly giving me the time and space I need. I keep telling you I hate being pushed but you keep on doing it. Please don’t be like this, I hate that you think I don’t trust you because I do. I promise you will find it will all be worth the wait, and one day we will laugh about this.”

        Day 49 (Saturday)

        “My heart is shattered, my every nerve on edge as I tell you that I am not able to go on like this. This site for you is a sanctuary for me it is a prison. I have said and done all I can to bring us together but to no avail, there is nothing else I can do. To stay on here would be torture, you probably cannot see it but you are pushing me away, pushed me beyond the limits of what I can take.”

        “Come on, please do not be like that, I did not realise you feel I am pushing you away, this is just madness. We have a good thing here, I don’t want it to end, I really care for you, and will make it happen soon. That is if you still want me.”

        Day 50 (Sunday)

        “I am not going to message for a while perhaps only a couple of days I really don’t know? Perhaps if you re-read your messages you may see what I see, someone who cannot bring herself to give anything for us. Your reasons, no doubt good ones, I would not know?”

        “Ok well go then! Honestly I am totally gutted that you can just leave me like this! I thought we had something special. I will read over all of our messages when I can later and maybe speak to you in a couple of days’ time?”

        Liked by 1 person

  2. The italics example looks okay by itself, but many authors already use italics for internal dialogue, emphasis, or foreign words. I’d think it would get confusing. Not to be contrary, but I’m leaning toward the side of CMOS here. Using quotation marks doesn’t necessarily require all those tags, like in your first example (which I agree looks awful). Wouldn’t the last example you gave would be just as clear if the texted parts were in quotation marks and not italicized?

    Or is the issue that these are paraphrases? That is, it’s not exactly what the person typed, because they’re actually typing LOL and brb and r u dun?

    Liked by 1 person

      • I use Arial Narrow bold for texting in contrast to the regular font. Of course in an ebook it’s just bold, but I only use bold on the first 3 words of the chapter and then for texts, e-mails and other forms of electronic. I intro it in each book with. something like:

        Lizzie read the text and replied. Where r u? Had she been too hasty?.

        That way I can still use italics for thoughts.

        Like

  3. That’s a good point to address, how do you show texting dialogue. My instant thought is to have the text in a square box, as in what looks in your phone. You would have a light gray shaded box and the other one texting would have a different shaded or colored box. I think that makes sense and it indicates you’re texting, which is different from speaking.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. One of the things I’ve seen frequently is the use of both italics and underlines when denoting a text-based conversation. So Person A’s texts would be italicized; Person B’s texts would be underlined. This can help eliminate the need for tags and still help the reader remember who is saying what. I’ve also seen writers use different fonts for text-based communication, which can help separate a text from an italicized thought.

    One thing I’ve never seen is texts with quotation marks. Even in a story with the worst SPAG imaginable – that seems to be a punctuation mark too far.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’d have replied sooner but I had to look up what SPAG meant.

      Already we’re up to three different type of texting in these comments. Here’s the thing about fonts and underlining: different fonts may not translate over to the eBook, and some eReaders won’t see the underlining. For trad publishing, they may not like either (but they’ll have their own way of doing it, too, so you won’t have to guess – for them).

      I know. Frustrating.

      Like

  5. I did some research on this a while back and there seemed to be no single correct answer. Like you say, consistency is best. I opted for using a ‘computer display’ style font for text messages and just hope that by using it consistently, my readers will get used to that being ‘how I do it’!

    During my redrafting of LA2 I have been trying to reduce my use of texts by writing about them instead. However, sometimes a text just needs to be a text. I have chopped chunks of backwards and forwards texts to keep the page looking tidy, but again, sometimes the story needs to show them. So yes, consistency is the key.

    Having read The Water Castle all the way through, I think I could pick up a random piece of writing by you and understand your style with little difficulty. I had never seen italicised internals in third person POV before, neither had I seen a POV that floats backwards and forwards within a single chapter. That doesn’t make them wrong, it makes the style yours, and now I understand it, I can follow it easily enough. Go on, now change it, just to confuse me!!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Dear Dan,
    I never thought about it before. If I have a vote I think the way you approached it was easy to read and needed no figuring out, that is, using italics and separating the voices with paragraphs. I could follow it without problems and never lost the flow of the conversation.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. What about offset like in the box without the box? You know? (except italic or clear it up even more since it’s written talking (like thinking) instead of out loud.)

    Hey girl, whatsup?

    Nada, what about U?

    Need some Gretchen
    time! U available?

    Yeah! Where shld we
    meet?

    The Bean Shop. I want
    a mocha.

    K C U in ten

    With this it’s like a tab for one person and a double tab for the POV person. For consistency, the POV person would always be the double tabbed one (farther to the right) like in a text box on your phone. The person texting you is always on your left and you are always on the right (or at least that’s how it is on my phone and computer). Keeping the lines shorter and have double space between speakers also gives the appearance of texting. I’ve never thought of trying to write text speech in a book, so it’s an interesting concept to consider! (If the formatting of my example above doesn’t show, then you’ll just have to imagine it! 😉 )

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Interesting that there’s no set way to do this. In my manuscript, I too put the text messages in italics. No names though. I treated it the way I would treat dialogue, with accompanying actions and minimal tags. That’s what looks best to me and makes the most sense. Nice that other writers think so too! I think we should all work on making this style stick. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I never considered this until now–mainly because I write fantasy-centered works where there’s no such thing as texting. 😉 But just by reading through this, I feel that italicized text along with the sender’s name at the front:
    Bob: Hey, How R U?
    feels more text-like to me. Though I do like Allison’s examples too; even though they’re written different, there is a text feel to it. I think it’s more difficult to write text in that way, because it’s more wordy though.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I completely agree. Texting convos in your series whatever MUST be consistent throughout. Then it really doesn’t matter as long as the reader understands. I actually dislike using italicis for texts because that’s more for ‘thoughts’. But people use italics to indicate like written notes or emails so I guess it could work. I prefer using bold type for my texts and definitely doing the name tags. When you look at a phone text convo it has a name tag, a bubble and a time stamp. I don’t do the time stamp. But the name tag is always important. I give my texts their own line.
    Great post though. This is definitely an aspect that needs to be incorporated in contemporary fiction especially for YA and NA fiction.

    Like

    • It’s gonna be the YA authors that develop it for the rest of us because they’ll encounter it the most. The problem with different fonts and bold (and other versions) is, they don’t easily translate into every format. Finding a uniform method will help us all.

      Glad you found this useful and THANK YOU for the input. Don’t be afraid to come back and post new examples you find that you like.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Great post and although I haven’t used texts in my stories or book yet I’ll keep this in mind. The last two worked very well as I did find the Labelling in earlier examples of who was texting as clunky. I like the way films present texting these days, quite swish and follows the real experience.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I recently started to write a new book and it is based on two people texting on kik app. after reading yours I guess I need to make changes. I cannot bold the names here but in my book I did. This is just its and bits of the conversation they exchanged and is a first draft.

    Could you please tell me if its ok. I posted this story a while back on wattpad. At the beginning, I used the same format like you mentioned in the last para of this blog but the readers there said It confused them if they were texting or talking in person.

    so I had to come up with this. after reading this article, I think I will change it.

    Basically, in the book, the names were in bold and convo in italics.

    ****
    She continues to work on her report when she hears another ping from the naughty Brian

    Brian : What do you think?

    Priya : hmmm. Let me check?

    She enlarges the display picture and gazes at it for a couple of minutes. She is captivated by his baby blue eyes and short golden brown hair and his sinful smile.

    Priya : I think you are for real. But I will never know 😉

    Brian : LOL! that is really me, woman.

    Priya : Okay I believe you.

    She rests her phone back on the table when it starts pinging again and a notification pops up ‘New image’.

    *****

    Brian : I am so disappointed in you.

    Her brows twitch together in confusion, doubting and wondering if he sent it to the right window.

    Priya : Disappointed? I think you sent it in the wrong window?

    She waits for his reply as the little letters “Blake typing” jiggles on the top of the chat screen.

    Brian : No. I sent it in the right window. Disappointed that my phone ain’t spammed by your pictures.

    *****

    Liked by 1 person

  13. I agree with the statement, start of quote, It’s never been considered necessary to have a separate style for phone conversations, e-mails, or other types of communication, and texts are nothing new in this regard. The context should make it clear: “how r u,” he texted; “ha ha Daddy I can’t believe you use ‘r u,’” she replied.” end of quote.
    In my stories, I just say ‘texted’, and the context should explain all. I would not use italics because these are reserved for internal thoughts of the main character(s).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Except that I think the Chicago manual of style is wrong on this one.

      Gasp!

      Well, it’s not the first time.

      When there are whole excerpts and other types of communication, well… those are often put in italics. Internal monologues are put in italics. Long passages of a letter are put in italics or indented. Foreign words go in italics. Emphasized words do. So CMOS is inconsistent in their statement, and let’s face it: they weren’t thinking it through. And they’ve made mistakes like this before. And in the past they’ve been slow to adapt.

      That’s why it’s the Chicago manual of style, not the Chicago manual of iron-clad rules.

      Bottom line, the train has pretty much left the station on this. As we said would happen, writers will create the way to do it – and they did. The way we explained how to do it has, in the last six months, become the de facto accepted way to do it, and CMOS has not updated itself to keep current.

      This has been the most searched topic of 2016 and of 2017 to date, garnering almost 4000 views from my blog alone in the first three months of 2017, so it is a common problem, and a lot of authors are looking for a uniform way to do it.

      They largely agreed with what we said here and adopted it.

      Now, the bottom line is: whatever YOU do, be consistent in it.

      Circumstances will dictate what’s best for each individual author, because how a ten-year-old texts is different from how a 50-year-old texts, but as a group the way we have described doing it has quickly become the most popular way to do it, and is now basically the standard. Looking at any published works over the last few months confirms this.

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