In this post, we look at instant messaging in storytelling and tell you how to use instant messages in fiction.
Texts, instant messages, and chat rooms are central to modern talking. When people talk, they do it online and through websites or apps. We talk on the internet almost more than we discuss things in person.
They are an important part of dialogue in storytelling.
TOP TIP: Learn to write better dialogue with The Dialogue Workbook
The first text was from Neil Papworth in 1992. It said, ‘Merry Christmas.’
Apps like Whatsapp, Messenger, and Telegram have millions of users. Instant messages are a modern dialogue type that no writer can ignore.
Instant messages make frequent appearances in the stories Cell, Beastly, and Gossip Girl. Texts are also used in shows like Sherlock, essential to its plot.
Here’s how to use instant messages and text messages in your story.
What Are Instant Messages?
An instant message can be:
- An SMS (text),
- A Private Message
- A Chat room
- An Email
How To Use Instant Messages In Fiction
When used in fiction, the Instant Message should always:
- Say something about your characters or plot.
- Explain something about your characters or story.
- Cause something to happen as a result.
An IM serves the same literary purpose as any scene with dialogue: to communicate.
Here are tips on how to use instant messages in fiction:
1. Use The Right Format
A chat dialogue or SMS (text) should stand out from the regular story.
Distinguish any chats in your draft with an indent, new paragraph, and underlined or bold text. Chats with multiple people should be shown like a script, with each speaker’s name aligned left.
Show emojis as typed-out text, or describe them using brackets. Do not use creative, downloaded fonts to show the use of emoticons or text.
William Shunn says that editors or designers make the final decision, but in your drafts, always underline to make chats clear.
InternetUser7: is the formatting correct?
2. Use Abbreviations
‘BRB’, ‘G2G’, and ‘LOL’ are common abbreviations where people talk on the internet. Get to know some internet shorthand. Pay attention to how people use them in real online conversations.
InternetMatters and Webopedia list thousands of internet shorthand terms.
Consider the tone, style, and context of the scene first. What would your character say, and how would they spell it?
- Good Usage: ‘Did you see that meme I sent you yesterday? Lol!’
- Bad Usage: ‘Grandma just died yesterday. Lol’
The bad example is common, and it comes from the rumour that LOL really means Lots Of Love. If you do your research, you won’t make the same mistakes!
3. Named Or Trademarked
Writers don’t always have to name a specific app or site in their story.
App or website names don’t have to exist. They can be made up for the plot, like Morley Cigarettes from The X-Files.
What about names like Whatsapp or Messenger?
It’s okay to say most brand names, as long as the mention isn’t harmful to the brand. That can be slander or libel, and a topic for another day.
- Real Common Noun: ‘Did you get my Whatsapp message?’
- Fictional Common Noun: ‘Let’s talk on SkyPlace.’
- Unmentioned: ‘I got your SMS/text yesterday.’
4. Take King’s Advice
‘Writing a story about phones. Here’s the first iPhone from 2007. No reason to post this. I just thought it was a hoot. For the children among you, SMS was text messaging.’ – @StephenKing on Twitter, July 15, 2018
Stephen King used Twitter to announce a story about phones in 2018. King wrote the novel Cell in 2006. Cell combined zombies, phones, and texts into one plot.
Riddles, maps, and texts appear often in Stephen King’s work. Cell uses them to build tension in the earliest scenes.
Another King tale, Mr Harrington’s Phone, also uses the text message as element of suspense. Reader discussions on the Stephen King Forum discuss these often. For suspense, it worked!
‘I just checked, and one message read. *C C C sT*. Maybe it meant something, maybe Mr Harrigan wasn’t that dead after all.’
5. The Longer Chat Room Chat
Groups are different to simple, two-person chats.
Beastly by Alex Flinn (2007) is one good example of group chat dialogue. The first chapters introduce characters through a chat room.
- Group chats have more than one speaker.
- Distinguish, like a Q&A interview, with speaker names and sentences separated by a colon.
- See one dialogue ‘bit’ as one scene.
- Never stretch chats to several pages: short and relevant is important.
Study real chat rooms. Writers write, but also eavesdrop for their craft. Online board games can get writers used to the tone and style of typed conversation.
User12: hey guys
User12: what’s new?
6. Use It As An Element Or The Whole Plot
Chats can be a small element, or the whole plot.
Messages are used often to the Gossip Girl novels (2002 to 2011) by Cecily von Ziegesar. Texts fly back and forth between almost each chapter.
Cell doesn’t use them as much.
Include chats in your outline. Know how many, and what is said. Write down what the consequence of the chat is.
A single text can brighten or sink your day, right?
What will texts mean in your plot?
These are texts that could have powerful meaning, and implications, for any person who gets them.
- ‘Please send help, xtra-terrestrials are coming!’
- ‘I’m pregnant. Call back.’
- ‘We need to talk.’
7. Spelling & Grammar
A 2011 study shows that texts don’t reduce a child’s ability to spell. Contrary to prior belief, exposure to internet-speak might actually improve spelling instead. Scholastic confirms the same idea.
Grammar is still important, even for instant or online messages.
An SMS (text) still needs the right tone or style, and should match the speaker and their emotion.
- How does the sender feel?
- How will the recipient react?
- How does the sender spell?
- Does the sender make mistakes, or use autocorrect?
Writers will notice that online grammar is not always perfect. For stories, this can be allowed, but only if this can be justified by your character.
Grammar in an SMS (text) can be seen as an accent or dialogue. While there is a right way to spell it, there is also a likely way that your character might choose to say it.
Proper Spelling: ‘@Rox: Show me the way to the old whiskey bar.’
Varied Spelling: ‘show me the way 2 the old whis-k bar’
Essentially, there are a hundred ways to spell it. Choose the one likely for your characters.
8. Mentions Of Other Technology
An IM isn’t the only type of dialogue you can use. Fiction can use anything, like status updates, code snippets, or original sheet music.
Jeffery Deaver’s novel The Blue Nowhere (2001) uses parts of accurate code. The Lord Of The Rings contains several detailed maps.
Added resources can be roughly drawn by the author in first drafts. Indicate their place in your draft with placeholders. Add the rough resource as an insert.
If you can’t draw, describe.
- They came to a large, strange symbol. [Symbol #1]
- They came to a large, strange symbol. [Drawn Circle With Dot]
The Last Word
I hope this post with its tips for using instant messages in storytelling helps you with your fiction.
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