How to Write Text Messages in a Book: The Complete Guide

What are the Rules for Writing Text Messages in a Book?

The rules for writing dialogue have been long established. And that makes sense, as people have been talking to each other for really long time.

But what about texting on cell phones?

2007 was the first year more there were more text messages sent than phone calls made. So texting has only been a thing 20 years or so.

But it’s still surprising that there isn’t a standardized way of writing text messages in fiction.

In this article I’m going to show you the best way to do this.

With these tips your character’s text messages will be easy to read. But more importantly, they’ll also be easy to write.

Chicago Manual of Style on Writing Text Messages in Books

The Chicago Manual of Style is one of the most widely used and highly respected style guides in the United States.

Here’s what they had to say about writing text messages in a book:

Unless a designer wants to create a special typography for text messages (as is sometimes done in books for children and young adults), 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.

Mehhhhhh what do you think about that? To me it’s kind of lame.

As authors, not editors, we can come up with something better.

Don’t you think?

Here’s how you should write text messages in a book:

  • Use italics and beats
  • Be consistent with your formatting
  • Don’t use quotation marks
  • Don’t use colons
  • Don’t use offset lines or special alignment
  • Don’t use emojis or lots of abbreviations

Read on below to find out why.

Why You Should Use Italics and Beats to Write Text Messages in a Book

The best way to write text messages in a book is to use italics and beats to portray the conversation.

Italics are often used to display letters, emails and book passages in fiction. That makes them perfect for text messages too.

Beats will help break up the text conversation. They also help to show the the action and thoughts of the point of view character.

He’s an example below:

Writing Text Messages in a Book Example

I was just getting ready to leave when my phone vibrated. It was Jon.

I’m running late so I’ll be there at 3:20.

Great. Another delay. I’m gonna get stuck in rush hour traffic at this point. Ok, see you soon.

Thirty minutes later I’m scrambling for a parking spot outside of Target. Hopefully he’s got the forms ready for me. Parking. You in the pharmacy area?

Yep.

K be right there. I was walking so fast the squeak of my shoes could be heard a mile away. I’m over by the drop off.

I stood around waiting for a bit. I got a few random glances from the pharmacist at the desk. She could tell I wasn’t there to pick up a prescription.

“Just waiting for Jon.” She nodded her head and went on helping the next customer in line. My phone vibrated.

Be right out.

Good. Hopefully he filled them out correctly. I’m not making a long trip like this again.

Notice how the conversation flows back and forth. It goes between the interior dialogue and the texts in a smooth fashion.

When writing texts from the point of view character, you’ll want to set it up with a beat beforehand. That makes it clear who’s sending the text.

Write the beat first, and then add the text message on at the end.

For received text messages, start a new line. It helps separate the beat of the point of view character from the text message.

Why You Shouldn't Use Quotation Marks

You shouldn’t use quotation marks to write text messages in a book. They’re already used to write spoken dialogue.

This creates the need for extra speech tags to make it clear who is texting. Your writing will be much cleaner if you use italics instead.

The biggest problem with using quotation marks is when dialogue is spoken between text messages.

The only thing that would distinguish a text from spoke dialogue is the speech tag. And if your reader misses it they’ll get confused.

Read the same passage again using quotation marks instead of italics. Notice how it’s confusing when the character says something to the pharmacist.

Example with Quotation Marks

I was just getting ready to leave when my phone vibrated. It was Jon.

“I’m running late so I’ll be there at 3:20.”

Great. Another delay. I’m gonna get stuck in rush hour traffic at this point. “Ok, see you soon.”

Thirty minutes later I’m scrambling for a parking spot outside of Target. Hopefully he’s got the forms ready for me. “Parking. You in the pharmacy area?”

“Yep.”

“K be right there.” I was walking so fast the squeak of my shoes could be heard a mile away. “I’m over by the drop off.”

I stood around waiting for a bit. I got a few random glances from the pharmacist at the desk. She could tell I wasn’t there to pick up a prescription.

“Just waiting for Jon.” She nodded her head and went on helping the next customer in line. My phone vibrated.

“Be right out.”

Good. Hopefully he filled them out correctly. I’m not making a long trip like this again.

You’re used to seeing spoken dialogue in quotation marks start a new line. so when you do it was text messages too it can get a little confusing.

That’s why you should use italics for text messages, and only use quotation marks for spoke dialogue.

That’s what everyone is used to, so don’t confuse them by using it for text messages too. They won’t know what’s a text and what’s dialogue.

Why You Shouldn't Use Colons

Some people suggest using colons to help show which character is sending each text.

But this makes your story read too much like a screenplay. That will pull the reader out of the story and back into reality. Not good.

The thing to remember about a screenplay is that it’s a set of instructions for the director and actors.

Not only does it have the dialogue and action like a novel, but it also have camera directions too. That’ll never be in a book.

Take a look at the same conversation as before below. But this time it uses colons instead of italics or quotation marks.

Example with Colons

I was just getting ready to leave when my phone vibrated. It was Jon.

Jon: I’m running late so I’ll be there at 3:20.

Great. Another delay. I’m gonna get stuck in rush hour traffic at this point.

Me: Ok, see you soon.

Thirty minutes later I’m scrambling for a parking spot outside of Target. Hopefully he’s got the forms ready for me.

Me: Parking. You in the pharmacy area?

Jon: Yep.

Me: K be right there.

I was walking so fast the squeak of my shoes could be heard a mile away.

I’m over by the drop off.

I stood around waiting for a bit. I got a few random glances from the pharmacist at the desk. She could tell I wasn’t there to pick up a prescription.

“Just waiting for Jon.” She nodded her head and went on helping the next customer in line. My phone vibrated.

Jon: Be right out.

Good. Hopefully he filled them out correctly. I’m not making a long trip like this again.

See how that pulls you out of the story? It has the same effect as too many speech tags.

Although, it does make it clear who is texting. And it also is distinguishes the text from spoke dialogue by using colons. So it does have it’s advantages.

But the problem with it is that the reader is going to say “Me” or “Jon” each time a text is sent.

Say every word of this out loud:

Me: Parking. You in the pharmacy area?

Jon: Yep.

Me: K be right there.

Clunky right? Takes you right out of the story. That’s why I prefer to use italics instead. And you should too.

Why You Shouldn't Use Offset Lines or Special Alignment

Some people suggest alternating between left and right justification for writing text messages. Or changing the alignment back and forth and using offset lines.

But let’s be honest… do you really want to create another formatting problem for yourself?

Nobody wants to break out the ruler or indent tool when writing a manuscript if they don’t have to. So let’s not.

Plus, it would also create the question of how much to indent for each person texting.

Two tabs for the point of view character and one for the person they’re texting? Why not three tabs and two?

This style would make the text conversation look more like an actual text. But the last thing we need is another formatting issue.

So don’t create one for yourself by using special alignment for text messages. Use italics and beats instead.

How to Write Text Messages in a Script or a Screenplay

Because of the way screenplays are formatted, it makes writing a text message much easier than in a novel.

In a script you are outside the characters by default. The colon-type formatting above doesn’t take you out of the story like in a novel. You’re already getting stage instructions and camera directions.

To write text messages in a script, state that text messages are in italics. Then include “(TEXT)” next to the character’s name doing the texting.

See this example below:

Screenplay Text

Much easier than in a novel, don’t you think?

It’s up to the director how they want to portray this on screen. Your job is only to write what they say.

A director might use speech bubbles, but an over-the-shoulder view of the phone works too. Leave that up to them. You write the text.

Why You Shouldn't Use Emojis or Abbreviations

When it comes to common texting practices, you should leave them out of your book.

Things like using emojis, all caps, abbreviations, etc.

You don’t want the text messages to call attention to themselves and take your reader out of the story. You want the text messages flow with the rest of the conversation and narration.

Placing an emoji in your book is a surefire way to take the reader out of the story. So don’t do it. It’s not necessary. You can communicate perfectly fine only using words.

For abbreviations like “R u here?” keep in mind who is texting. Not everyone texts like that. Especially adults.

With teens and young adults it’s more acceptable. But you should try being more brief with the text and see if that works better.

Once again, you don’t want to call attention to the text message.

For a text, instead of writing “Are you here?” you could try “You here?” or “Here?”

That’s realistic for a text but doesn’t distract the reader. Don’t make it harder for readers to interpret what your characters are saying.

Be Consistent with Your Formatting for Text Messages

Whatever format you decide on, be consistent. Don’t change back and forth several times in a story. You’ll only confuse readers.

Hopefully you will adopt the italics and beat style of writing text messages I shared here.

Eventually readers will catch on too. It’ll soon become the new standardized format for writing text messages in a story.

1 thought on “How to Write Text Messages in a Book: The Complete Guide”

  1. Hi this was actually really helpful. I tried out the italics in my own story and I think it both reads and looks better in the story. My only suggestion to your article is about abbreviations. In my experience it’s kind of the opposite than what you suggest. Usually teenagers/kids don’t use abbreviations with a few exceptions. It’s more often adults who would say things like “r u there?” or something of the sort, where as teenagers use very specific acronyms from a set list of recognizable terms rather than the trope of removing vowels etc from words. This way of texting is really difficult to replicate unless you are a teenager yourself, and as an 18 year old I find it incredibly distracting when texting in fiction is done wrong. So I would say it’s more important to avoid abbreviations with teenagers than adults, unless the story takes place in the early 2000’s or late 90’s, when people would text things like “r” and “u” because it took so much longer to type out “you” on a flip phone. But on normal keyboards in the present day it doesn’t save much time, so no one really bothers.

    Hopefully any of that makes sense.

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