The Story in the Text: Using Text Messages in Fiction

If you have been watching the BBC series, Sherlock, you know that texting now plays an important role in television drama. We see the texts Sherlock sends and receives and understand the clues these messages provide as we struggle to solve the mystery unfolding on screen. Text messages can be a compact way of revealing character and moving a plot forward.

So why not mine your hundreds (or thousands) of text messages for a story idea?

Take a few minutes to look through the text messages on your phone. Try to find a series of messages that reward a second look. Maybe the texts are funny, or hostile, or touching. Rather than thinking of a story first, allow your text messages to suggest a story that they might be a part of. (Remember, you are a writer. You can make stuff up.)

For example, my mother recently had her hip replaced, and her text messages around the time of her operation were strange and amusing. I could always tell when her pain medication had clicked in: “I’ve pruned my wreathes. What remains is a street beggar. Faceless in anonymity what I….oops. Sleeping again.”

When I looked back at her messages, I realized that I might be able to use them in a touching story about an elderly woman coming to terms with the end of her life, and her daughter, struggling to deal with an impending loss. (Don’t worry; my own mother is fine. I expect her to be running circles around the rest of us within a few weeks.)

Once you find a series of text messages with which you think you can work, imagine the scene where they might have occurred. This scene could be at the beginning, middle, or end of a longer story.

First copy your text messages into a document. Feel free to add, delete, or change any parts you’d like. Next, fill in the story around the messages. Where is your character when she receives these messages? Show her in a concrete setting. Let your reader see her physical response to the messages she receives. Allow the messages to motivate your character in some way.

Use the rest of the class period today to experiment with your old text messages. By the end of class tomorrow, show me two pages.

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Originally published at on September 17, 2014.

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