Dialogue is a crucial part of fiction-writing, much because it is a crucial part of human existence. Even before we crawled out of the caves, we had communication and speech.
Over the last hundred or so years, technology has affected dialogue, but not so much to change how it is represented in books. Letter-writing (which has been around for much longer than 100 years anyway) has such a gap of time between exchanges that it is hardly a replacement for everyday dialogue. It could be used as an element in a novel (you find old letters, or get a letter from someone you haven’t heard from in a while). Or, the whole novel could be made up of letters, such as Bram Stoker’s Dracula. But that’s not much different than writing prose. Not much change there.
Next came the telephone, which created a drastic difference. For the first time you could hold a realtime conversation with someone who was physically nowhere near you. But the exchange was still spoken, and when you write scenes which incorporate phone conversations, the dialogue is written much the same, only nonverbal interactions and reactions are reduced. Still, in real life people rarely stay on the phone all day. Thus, they are used sparingly in a novel.
Email came, but that’s comparable to the written letter. The response time is faster, but the communication is still not in real time. And, like the letter, emails are easily depicted in prose.
But now, over the last ten years or so, instant messaging on the computer and text-messaging on phones have once again altered how people communicate, only this time the change is hard to translate to fiction writing. The language is different (‘lol ‘, ‘yt?’, ‘wtf, u srs??’) and people often used it in place of real conversation, so it seems like it should be unavoidable to eventually use in your prose if you’re trying to accurately portray the culture. Right?
I came upon this problem rather recently when writing stories involving young people. I think about how thirteen-year olds have phones and computers and facebook accounts and how it changes communication. When you meet someone and exchange numbers, you might do some texting back and forth to gauge how interested the other person is in you. I was in college not too long ago, and I remember well how social protocol had developed around Facebook, texting, and instant messaging, such to the degree that people would analyze how long someone responded to a text and who initiated the conversation to determine interest levels. Or, if you need to remind someone to do something, you might send them a quick text.
In one of my stories I had the main character text his date when he was outside of her house. Some of the people in my writing group said they thought it was weird he didn’t go up to the door, and I thought of how people in my generation would actually do what I had written. Is it worth including if it makes people scratch their head? Is it a disservice to omit if that type of interaction feels natural for my character?
Texting and instant messaging even have tones to them. I’ve started to suspect that when my fiance is annoyed with me, she only responds to my texts with one letter: ‘K.’ And then there is the inclusion of ‘haha’s or ‘lol’s to soften what may otherwise be read as offensive or combative. What do we do with these? A lot of times tones may be specific to the person, whereas sarcasm in the voice can be a universal thing to pick-up on. Again, is it worth exploring the boundaries of digital communication in our writing?
Then again…can you imagine reading a book where whole conversations had dialogue tags such as ‘he texted’ or ‘she texted angrily’? No thanks. An easy solution is to just leave it out, but at what point does the prose sound unrealistic? At what point will younger generations think…Wait, that doesn’t make sense. Why didn’t he just text her? This whole thing could have been solved by sending a quick text.
One of my writer buddies said that including texting dates the work. I argued that the use of phones or e-mail could also date the work, but he said that those are more long-term advances. Texting could just be a phase. But is it? I don’t think instant messaging or texting will go away. If anything it will be replaced by the next generation of mobile communication, but I think people see its initial function (instant communication without having to call someone and actually talk to them) as too valuable for it simply disappear. And if it ends up actually becoming more popular, at what point is it no longer okay to exclude it from our writing?
At the end of the day, writing is a form of entertainment. Including text to the degree that people use it in the real world could be as exciting as watching a movie where all the characters are staring at their phones 24/7.
What are your thoughts on the way we communicate and how we, as writers, are supposed to adapt?