8-9 Minute Read
If you’re lucky, you have at least one text exchange on your phone that you absolutely cherish. And why shouldn’t you? If nineteenth-century poets can revel in their letters, pressing them tightly to their wine-stained hearts, there’s no reason why we can’t adore a few green (or blue) speech bubbles that we’ve shared with close friends. And how luck for us, too, that we get to carry them with us wherever we go.
We may not always think of them this way, but text exchanges reveal a great deal about ourselves. Go ahead and pick one from a few weeks ago and scroll through it. Chances are, you’ll find a detail from your recent past that you’ve already forgotten about. Add all those details together, and each of us has something like running record of our lives.
Granted, there’s lots of forgettable stuff stored there, too. But let’s not dismiss the smallest of these details right away. Asking someone to pick up some milk on the way home from work may not seem remotely important to us, but the future may feel differently.
Whatever alien species comes across our planet one thousand years from now–I picture tall, orange beings in khaki shorts and tank tops–may well be shocked to learn that many humans consumed a form of liquified sustenance that was artificially fortified with vitamins and mechanically sucked from an ozone-corroding bovine.
Let’s hope our future visitors, whoever they are, have a good sense of humour. And especially strong stomachs, too.
Before we get underway in earnest, it’s a great idea to read through at least a few text exchanges on your phone. I suggest doing so because aspiring writers sometimes struggle with dialogue. The problem isn’t that they can’t come up with dynamic characters, complex relationships, or intriguing scenes. More often than not, it’s simply that they’ve forgotten how much they already know about how people talk, what we actually say to each other, and, just as importantly, what we don’t.
It doesn’t matter if you’re writing fantasy or historical fiction; people still have to sound like people, by which I mean they need certain things: like milk, or water, or understanding. They also need to vent, to get aggravated, to be sad, or happy, or bored. In other words, dialogue should be about articulating, or responding to, wants and needs.
And because humans are profoundly imperfect, sometimes characters also need to ignore what other people are telling them and say what’s on their minds instead, which is one of the reasons text messages are such a valuable model: how many times have you started to type something, only to have someone fire a text back before you can send yours?
If you’re stubborn as I am, you just keep finishing your thought, because you feel like you owe it to yourself to do so. The way we communicate doesn’t always make a lot of sense. Dialogue shouldn’t be any different.
Getting Started (For Serious This Time)
Look through your list of contacts to see if you can find a friend who’s up for playing along.
Before you begin texting each other, establish the nature of your relationship: are you perfect strangers? Close friends? Former friends? Are you texting customer support? Did you get a bad haircut, and instead of calling, decide to text your hairdresser or barber instead?
Alternatively, you could opt for something less expected. I know that I’m on a bit of an extraterrestrial kick in this exercise, but maybe your text pal is an alien whose ship has crashed. Or maybe it’s one of those wrong number texts that you decide to turn into a conversation. It’s entirely up to you.
If you’re stuck for a way to begin, here are some first messages that might help:
Did you get the package?
RED WIRE OR BLUE?!?!?!?!?
What exactly does a mushroom cloud look like again?
Hypothetically, if I were, say, your favourite literary character from a nineteenth-century novel, and I had, despite every indication that it’s impossible, managed to get my hands on a smartphone from the future–a capital device, I may add–and should now be texting you from a place of perilous confinement, which I could very much use your help escaping from, just what might you need to know in order to secure my release and see me on my way?
Similar to our previous exercises, it’s helpful to have some sense of the following:
- The dramatic premise, which establishes where both characters are, and the nature of the relationship
- An inciting incident (a breakup, a bad haircut, an error on your tax return, and so on)
- Each character’s motivation
It’s a bit of a creative writing workshop cliche at this point, but keep in mind that motive typically consists of three things: what characters say they want, what they actually want, and finally, a need that motivates them without their knowing it. As the story unfolds, this third type of motivation often become apparent to characters as they evolve.
Your conversation can start any way that you like, but keep this in mind: you’re texting as your character. You might want to spend some time thinking about how this person would text (perfect grammar? horrible spelling? Loads of acronyms? These are all good things to think about).
One Last Thing
One of the great things about these types of exchanges is that they’re motivated by need, which is an essential ingredient in generating conflict. One character’s desires come up against another, and the resulting tension lends intrigue to the exchange. And either that tension is eventually resolved, or it’s not. Sometimes, it’s that very lack of resolution that makes characters feel so real to us.
If you were to trade phones with another of your classmates, I suspect that it wouldn’t take long for that person to determine what your exchange was about, and what the characters’ motivations are, even if they’re never explicitly stated.
I also suspect that the exchange would represent some especially pretty engaging writing. I’ve noticed that students tend to write great stuff when they’re not trying so hard to do so. The writing feels that much more natural, and it’s often entirely free of the pretence that sometimes follows new writers–okay, all writers–to the page.
There doesn’t need to a great takeaway from this exercise; simply experimenting with different types of exchange is a great way to spend your time as a writer.
But if ever your dialogue does feel forced, it’s worth experimenting with a different medium. Get away from your computer, and have two characters text back and forth. Imagine what they would say to each other over a phone call.
Or you could even go so far as to have them write letters to each other, if doing so helps you to understand their relationship. I know a few novelists who take this approach, and even though the letters themselves often don’t end up in the final draft, the story is ultimately made stronger, entirely because each relationship feels textured by layers of exchange.