I am rather a very amateur writer, who is trying to write a thriller/fiction novel for a class, and I find myself absolutely dumbfounded as to how to write into my story the action of a character reading a piece of text. Can anybody please help me? To provide context for a more specific answer the main character notices an email on his computer and begins to read it. This email is sort of a catalyst, and I already have it written down how it will be read. I just am kind of stumped as to how to write the action of him beginning to read it.

  • old nan... from Game of thrones did it VERY well.. most of the back stories of the old north came from old Nan... I think many writers just want to write.. but all artists "steal"... you have to read... a lot
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    Commented May 3, 2019 at 19:58
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    – Cyn
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4 Answers 4


I had a similar issue in a story of mine; a letter is the catalyst for the action that is basically the whole story.

The way I approach this (and many other writing problems) is to remember the person reading the letter is processing the letter, mentally responding to claims in the letter, realizing things and interrupting their reading to think about them. Also remember that this person reading has a body and is in an environment, they are not a disembodied mind reading the letter.

So while the "letter" itself would occupy two pages, reading the letter requires five pages. This is not that letter, it is a first draft of something similar; as an example.

It was foreboding, a hand-addressed letter from grandpa George, here between the utility bill and an ad from Smith Motors, like a ruby between two pieces of coal. She dropped the rest of the mail on the kitchen table, sat in the kitchen chair to open it. When was the last time GG sent her an actual letter? her tenth birthday? What would warrant a letter instead of an email?

She extracted two pages from the envelope, and read the first line.

My little mouse, it began.

A sentimental greeting, a terrible greeting, and Marnie choked up. Was he dying? It had been twenty years since he called her that; maybe when she was six. To use it now meant something dire.

The second line confirmed it. You always wanted it straight, mouse, so I won't delay. I'm not beating it this time.

Cancer. Again. Marnie teared up and held the pages to one side; she couldn't read. She squeezed her eyes shut and wiped at them with her free hand. Her throat ached. She had to get to GG. Her mind filled with what seemed to be trivial logistics, she couldn't go to the German conference, but Mark could take her place. She needed a flight to Boca Raton.

GG was dying. She did not even remember her parents; photographs on GG's mantle, a picture book of the strangers that made her. Second hand stories of their lives. She'd be an orphan for real now, zero family left. When was the last time she'd been to Boca? Christmas before last? It struck her, she had skipped the last Christmas they could have had together, substituting a five minute video call. What an asshole I am. She felt alone. She had to get to Boca. She returned to GG's letter.

And so on. I can't go much further without developing some motivation for GG writing her.

Now you don't need a reaction to every line, you can include one or two whole paragraphs without interrupting for reactions, but the general point is to make this an active reader experience for your character. Interrupt the letter with visualizable actions, even if it is just standing up, or in the example above stopping to cry.

Do NOT depend on your audience to fill in what your character is thinking, or feeling, or doing. Do not just present a long letter (or email or whatever) and hope the audience will figure it out; they may even skip it and jump to whatever follows.

Your job as a writer is to assist their imagination; they need to imagine your character's reactions (internal thoughts, internal feelings, external visible actions) to what she is reading. Don't let her process the letter like a robot, she can get angry, be sad, be excited, imagine great things, be happy for what she reads, or horrified by it. Don't make her neutral, which is what you are doing if you just present a long letter. Make her human, to do that, what she reads will have some kind of emotional impact on her. Especially if this is a main driver of the plot forward and she is receiving information that basically changes the course of her life.

You need to imagine this scene (reading the letter) more completely than you have. Don't worry about length or word count; I just wrote 300 words (over a page) to cover a greeting and the first line of the letter. The scene takes as many words as it takes; you can always go back and tighten it up later. For your first draft, no chains, include all the elements you can imagine for the scene, so you have something to work with on the second draft.


If you format the email as separate from the narration, that will take care of most of the transition between the narrator and the text of the email. Set it aside in its own paragraph and do one or more of the following: indent, italicize, change the font type, change the font size, or place in a box.

You might be thinking of the email as internal dialogue, which requires quotes and actions and so forth. But it's not. It's a separate piece of text. Make it obviously separate and your reader will completely understand what is going on, with only the briefest of lead in's.

Fred kicked off his shoes as he sat down and opened his email. He froze as he saw it. Mark's reply.

Yadda yadda yadda.

Fred grabbed the computer and his shoes and ran out to his car.


I think the best idea would be to simply tell the story within the story. Something like this:

He opened the email and began to read it aloud

A long time ago there was a man...(story here)...the end

After he finished reading the email (next part happens)

When telling the sub-story, the narrator should be that of the sub-story.


You would just italicize the piece of text. Separate it from the rest of the text, like this:

He stopped scrolling as he found an email with the header, Hey bud. He clicked on it, reading the contents.

Hey bud, hope all is well! Sorry I had to go on a trip, but I'll be back soon! Have fun until then.

Signed, dad

He sat back and sighed. His dad had been gone for a while. When was he coming back?

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