I am writing a short fiction piece that has rapid fire texts, emails, phone messages and dialogue. How do I format the piece so with one symbol I can use to cue the reader as to which it is? Is there a standard?

  • And emails! Michelle
    – michelle
    Sep 15 '16 at 20:01
  • 1
    Hi, welcome to Writers SE. You can rewrite questions as many times as you want. Also, no need to sign, your username always appear next to questions, answers or comments. Sep 16 '16 at 13:22
  • You tagged your question as "screenwriting"—is your story supposed to be read by readers or played out by actors?
    – Lew
    Sep 17 '16 at 23:50

Telephone dialog is usually formatted like normal dialog, with some description in text explaining which speaker is speaking over the phone:

"Then I went to—" Sarah was interrupted by the phone ringing. "Sorry, that's my mom. Yes?"
"Hey, honey."
"Hey, mom. Look, I can't talk now. Can I call you back later?"
"Sure, honey."
"Just talk to her, Sarah," Heather interrupted, "I have to go anyway."
"Thanks, Heather. I'll see you later, then."
"Bye, Sarah. Give your mom my regards."
"Okay, mom, I'm back. We can talk now."
"Wonderful, honey. Who was that with you?"

You have to realize that a person speaking to another person and a person speaking into a telephone are speaking in the same way and will sound the same to someone listening, so there is no reason to mark up their speech differently. The voice heard over the phone on the other hand has a different quality, or is not heard at all (because it is too quiet to an observer), so sometimes it is not reported at all (think of the above conversation with the mom's parts missing) or marked up in italics, similar to voices from a tv or radio. See my answer here for more details.

Chat is often printed in a different font.

John turned on the computer and went into chat.

John: Hey everyone.
Peter: Hey John.
  Bob: Glad you're back, John.

John sipped his coffee and settled into his chair, looking forward to spending time with his friends.

The difference is not really very visible here, and there is a different color background under preformatted text here, but I hope you get the idea.

Email and letters are often set off as a block quote:

John opened the email and began to read.

Dear John,

I'm glad to hear that you are well.

Sometimes there is no indent to the left and right and the email is only set off from the surrounding text by an empty space above and below. But you can also use a different font like for chat protocols:

John opened the email and began to read.

Dear John,

I'm glad to hear that you are well.

You could use one font (or color) for chat/IM/SMS and another for email, if you needed to differentiate them more clearly.

Symbols such as those often found on websites and in application icons, are another option, perhaps:

enter image description here

These are common symbols for email, text messages, and telephone, respectively. But you can also use the envelope to signify actual letters and use the "@" for email and speech baloons for spoken words:

enter image description here

An example of these symbols in text could look like this:

Sarah was just about to turn off her computer, when a new email came in.
enter image description here Sarah, can you come over?
Joan! Now what did she want that couldn't wait till tomorrow?
enter image description here What's the hurry?
Sarah was just hitting "send" when her phone rang.
enter image description here What?
enter image description here Sarah! Can you come over to Joan's now?
Huh? What was Barbara doing at Joan's?
enter image description here Hey Sarah, can you please come over to Joan? It's really urgent. xo Mom
Now this was getting really weird. What was her mom doing with Barbara and Joan?
enter image description here Sarah? Are you there?
enter image description here Please just come over quickly.
Sarah felt dizzy.

As you can see, this quickly becomes confusing not only to Sarah but to the reader, too. You might have to add some identifiers (such as "enter image description here [From: Joan] Hey!"), just as senders and recipients are identified in software.

There is no standard for the usage of these symbols in fiction, and while it makes sense to use them with the meaning they commonly have on the internet and in applications, how exactly you employ them – and how you will keep your readers from becoming befuddled – will be up to your creativity and that of your book designer.

No markup is the final option. Let's revisit our last example and tell it in the way novels have told of communication for hundreds of years:

Sarah was just about to turn off her computer, when a new email came in.
Sarah, can you come over? it read.
Joan! Now what did she want that couldn't wait till tomorrow?
What's the hurry?, Sarah typed back. She was just hitting Send when her phone rang.
"Sarah!" Barbara's voice said. "Can you come over to Joan's now?"
Huh? What was Barbara doing at Joan's?
Then her mobile phone beeped, telling her a new SMS had arrived. She picked it up with the other hand, still listening to Barbara's impatient breathing on the phone in her right. Hey Sarah, the SMS read, can you please come over to Joan? It's really urgent. xo Mom
Now this was getting really weird. What was her mom doing with Barbara and Joan?
"Sarah? Are you there?" Joan impored.
Another email arrived: Please just come over quickly.
Sarah felt dizzy.

I'm sure you can write this much better than I did, but you get the idea. With some ordinary description you can quite easily convey the complexity of communicating on multiple channels, without confusing the reader at all. Italicizing chat messages (and maybe email) will make it even clearer. More isn't needed.

  • 4
    I agree with your formatting response, but good gravy, don't use symbols. Sep 16 '16 at 9:36
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    @LaurenIpsum I added the symbols because michelle asked for symbols in her question. Personally I wouldn't want my text to look like that. But then I wouldn't write something with heavy multi-channel communication anyway. But that is the reality today, and some writers will certainly have to tackle it some day. And why not? Some novels with uncommon text formatting have been successful, and if its done in a non-confusing, pleasing-to-the-eye way, I'm sure it can be fun to read. As I said, it would probably take a professional designer to do it well, and more styling than Stack Exchange allows.
    – user5645
    Sep 16 '16 at 10:24
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    I tried a last example without markup. I think it works rather well for a quickly hacked together example, and a good writer taking some care to compose such a scene could certainly refine it to the point of being a joy to read.
    – user5645
    Sep 16 '16 at 14:57
  • 2
    I think the right method is no markup. In my mind an email should be done the same way a letter was done a hundred years ago. Chat messages are just dialogue and should be handled the same as a voice coming from a speaker. Note it as the conversation begins and then proceed. You'll have extra nuance in how long responses take in place of facial expressions from a in person conversation. I had one person suggest single quotes around text messages, which I'm iffy on, but doesn't offend me.
    – nephlm
    Sep 16 '16 at 15:58
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    If you use small, black and white symbols (and perhaps different fonts) I don't think it looks tacky. One problem with the example above is that the symbols are too big. Sep 16 '16 at 19:37

I am not aware of any "standard" way of representing different communications modes.

Note this is not a totally new problem brought on by 21st century technology. There have been multiple modes of communication since the beginning of recorded history, including speech, sign language, and writing. You probably need to distinguish a written letter from a sign or something engraved on a building. Etc.

In the 1800s people added telegraph. In the 1900s they added telephone, radio, teletype, and toward the end of the century fax and email. Etc.

Traditionally, writers have made the distinction by simply introducing a communication with brief text describing it's nature. Like, "Bob opened the letter from Sally. 'Hello, Bob', it read. 'I heard that you are now ..." etc. Or, "Jared picked up the telephone. 'Is that you, Jared?' the caller asked ..." And so on.

You COULD use symbols. But because pretty much no one else does it, if you do it, it would look strange. Maybe readers would figure it out if the symbols were intuitive enough, but more likely you'd have to explain. You MIGHT succeed in starting a new convention. But probably not.

I think you'd still end up needing text to introduce each new communication or your story would sound very choppy and abrupt. Like: (let me just use parenthesized words to represent the symbols, I don't want to bother digging up icons.)

Juan arrived back at his office. He didn't realize how long he had been gone.

(email) Todd: Did you finish the Paradigm report?

(email) Juan: No. I'll have it for you today.

Juan walked to the window.

(text message) Jane: Don't forget the party tonight.

Etc. That seems really choppy to me. I think you'd need to say things like, "He sat down at his desk and opened his email" and "His phone beeped, indicating he'd received a text message. He pulled the phone out of his pocket. "Jane", the caller ID said." Etc. And once you do that, the text makes it clear what the communications medium is and you don't need to introduce additional symbols.

Yes, sometimes there are scenes where you want to convey that something is happening rapidly, and writing, "he looked at his cell phone on the desk and saw that a message had arrived ..." could break the flow; it might make it seem like there's more delay than you want your reader to perceive. Still, surely you could find conventional ways to express the idea. "Then he got a text from Jane: Don't forget ..." If you want to convey a truly rapid-fire set of messages in multiple media, like someone at the disaster crisis headquarters in a whirlwind of texts, phone calls, emails, whatever, you could just put a word or to to identify the medium:

George was caught in a whirlwind of panicked messages.

Text: There's a fire on Cromwell Street!

Email: Reporters of riotors downtown!

Another text: Wild animals rampaging through the streets!


In general, I'd avoid creating a new notation or format or whatever unless you really, really need it. A new notation that the reader is not familiar with is going to distract from the story. The reader has to figure out the notation instead of just reading the story. And even when they figure it out, it's going to be jumping out of the page at them, because it's unfamiliar.

If there's some reason why the communications medium is vitally important and you WANT it to jump out at the reader, if the story is about different communications mediums and how they affect our perception of the communication, maybe so. Otherwise, I'd stick with more conventional means.

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