How to Use Modern Tech in Your Novel

In Jane Austen’s Persuasion, Captain Wentworth pens a love letter to Anne Elliot that begins:

I can listen no longer in silence. I must speak to you by such means as are within my reach. You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope.

In some people’s smartphones, the closest thing to a love letter is a text that reads:

U up?

Modern romantic downfalls aside, there’s been a seismic shift in the way we communicate over the last few decades. Today, our emails, texts, and social media posts far outnumber our letters and phone calls. For writers, this can present a bit of a challenge. How can you incorporate these elements into a novel set in the 21st century? Will doing so harm or help your narrative? Read this guide to using modern technology in your novel to figure out whether current forms of communication have a place in your story and, if so, how to artfully incorporate them into the text.

Putting Tech Talk on the Page

When we talk via text messages today it’s in quick, short bursts of back-and-forth banter. Compare that with the meandering conversations of phone calls and you can see just how much technology has changed the way we catch up with loved ones. The same goes for social media; with a status update or a comment on someone’s post, we often get our point across in just a few words or even a single emoji.

Emails are typically short and sweet, too. After all, there isn’t the added effort of addressing an envelope and tracking down a spare stamp, so it’s easy to shoot out an email just to relay a few sentences.

Today’s rapid-fire online communication is an integral part of our daily lives. So, if you have a novel set in the present day, it seems only natural that you’d incorporate it into your story, right?

Well, not necessarily. Some writers avoid getting too tech-savvy in their novels for fear of making their story appear dated later on. And there’s something to be said for this approach. I’d venture to guess that you’ve read at least a few contemporary novels that don’t reference social media, text messaging, or emails, yet it didn’t jump out to you as odd or unrealistic.

However, incorporating these elements can add dimension to your stories. Readers may find your characters more relatable, too. Picture an awkward teen texting his crush, an employee receiving a harshly worded email from her boss, or a detective using a social media post to track down a suspect’s whereabouts. Communications received on computers and smartphones can push your story forward and reveal things about your characters in unexpected ways.

It doesn’t have to date your story, either. Emails and texts are here to stay for the foreseeable future, so using these elements won’t place your story in a super-specific point in time. Social media is a bit trickier since there are specific platforms that people use along with designs and layouts that change every couple of years; if you’re really concerned about future readers being unable to relate, you may want to skip social media references or keep them on the vague side.

Think you’re ready to put some tech talk into your story? The next step is to figure out how you’ll format it on the page so it blends in with the rest of your text while still being easy for readers to understand.

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Check out this lovely book for Twitter exchanges done right

How to Format Emails in Novels

One of the best things about email is that the general format hasn’t changed too much since it was first introduced. If you want to add emails into your novels you can simply use that basic format to provide the necessary details, including who the email is to and from, when it was sent, and what the subject line says. Here’s an example:

 

To: Jack Pilsen

From: Anita Boyle

Date: Monday, January 7, 2019 09:15:33 EST

Subject: Newsletter

Just came across your writeup in the newsletter—great work. I was hoping I could pick your brain for a piece I’m working on. Free to chat soon?

Thanks,

Anita Boyle

 

Using italics and offsetting the type can be effective strategies for making your emails easy to recognize in a novel. In fact, you could even jump right into a new chapter with something similar to the text and formatting above and readers would recognize that it’s an email.

While you could just show the email message, elements like dates, subject lines, and email signatures can be used to add important details to your story. This can be an especially useful way to show the passage of time or how two people emailing back and forth become more comfortable with each other as they communicate more frequently.

For example, the above email shows the writer using her full name to sign off. Over time, her signature could evolve to include just her first name or even just a first initial, both of which would demonstrate more familiarity in her messages.

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U up?

How to Format Texting in Novels

Most writers are pretty comfortable writing spoken dialogue in their novels. But when it comes to text messaging, there’s no formatting guide to turn to. While this allows you plenty of freedom to come up with your own way to display texts in a book, it can be tricky to figure out how you want to format those messages in a way that’s easy for the reader to follow.

Ideally, the formatting of your text messages should help to serve your story. Think about what you want to accomplish by including these messages. Is it purely informational? Should it reveal something important about a relationship? Is the text conversation part of the action or simply something that’s being read by a character?

When the text messages you have in mind work best when read straight through, you should include the conversation without any breaks. The trick here is to figure out how you want to show which messages are being typed by which characters.

A classic format would look something like this:

 

Jack:       Should we meet up to talk about it?

Anita:    Sure, I guess so

Jack:       How about 7pm at my place?

                                    Sorry if that sounds weird, I promise it’s NOT a date

Anita:    K, sounds good. See you then

 

If you want your text formatting to look a little more modern, consider using left and right justification to show who’s typing. Remember that the person looking at their phone would see their messages displayed to the right, while incoming messages are on the left. Anita’s phone would show the conversation like this:

 

Should we meet up to talk about it?

Sure, I guess so

How about 7pm at my place?

Sorry if that sounds weird, I promise it’s NOT a date

K, sounds good. See you then

 

Let’s say you want the text messaging to actually be shown as part of the action in the book. There’s another formatting option that lets you include more details about the conversation as it’s happening in real time. Here’s an example:

A sudden ping from her phone startled Anita from her daydream. As she glanced at the screen, her heart started to beat a little faster; it was Jack.

Should we meet up to talk about it?

She resisted the urge to text back immediately, not wanting to sound too eager. Finally, she typed back: 

Sure, I guess so

Instant regret. Instead of cool and nonchalant, she just sounded irritated and uninterested. Minutes felt like hours while she waited for the response.

How about 7pm at my place?

Anita sat frozen, unsure what to think. Then her phone pinged again just seconds later.

Sorry if that sounds weird, I promise it’s NOT a date

Slumping down into her chair, Anita sighed heavily. Feeling a weird mixture of relief and rejection, she texted back.

K, sounds good. See you then

The use of italics, indents, or even bubbles around the text can be included with any of these formatting choices to help distinguish text messages in the story. If you stick to a certain format, readers will have an easier time following along each time text messages are used in the book.

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#word

How to Format Social Media in Novels

As mentioned above, social media is probably the most difficult technological communication to depict in a novel. It has a very specific layout that’s highly visual, and most social media platforms have changed so much that older versions now look obsolete.

However, you can still include social media in your novel. It’s best to reserve these mentions to instances where it’s vital to the character or the story; otherwise, your novel runs the risk of getting bogged down with dated references. One way to avoid this is to keep things rather vague. Here’s an example:

As Jack scrolled through his feed, he came across a photo of Anita standing near the edge of the lake, looking out over the water. Jack’s heart sank as he read the caption: my happy place. His finger hovered over the “like” button for a few seconds before he had the courage tap the screen.

Another way to show social media communication in your novel is through comments or responses. For example, you could list the comments that are left under a photo:

Jack read through the comments under the photo.

What a view!

So glad to see you smiling again.

Wish I was there with you, babe

He turned off his phone and headed outside. Looking at photos wasn’t going to make it any easier.

Rather than simply showing a Facebook or Instagram post, these examples give us insight into what’s going through a character’s mind in reaction to something posted online. It’s something that most readers can relate to, and the formatting makes it possible to include communication on social media without dated references.

Tune into Tech

Plenty of authors have dabbled in the use of technological communications in their narratives. If you want to see how they’ve approached it, take a look at these novels:

  • Skippy Dies by Nick Moran: A teen romance blossoms via text in this 2010 novel.

  • Woman No. 17 by Edan Lepucki: Twitter exchanges and text messages show that this 2017 novel clearly takes place in the smartphone era.

  • I’m Trying to Reach You by Barbara Browning: YouTube, Facebook, text messages, emoticons, and digital photos help to advance the plot in this 2012 novel.

  • Taipei by Tao Lin: The characters in this 2013 novel are frequently shown emailing, tweeting, G-chatting, and checking Facebook.

  • Tweet Heart by Elizabeth Rudick: This 2010 YA novel is written entirely in tweets, emails, blog posts, instant messages, and other technological communication.

  • theMystery.doc by Matthew McIntosh: This 2017 novel mixes web chats and text messages with search results, pop-up ads, and other digital and traditional forms of communication.

You can also see text messages play a role in TV shows like House of Cards, The Mindy Project, Insecure, Master of None, and Love. As the messages pop up on the screen, it interrupts the characters in a similar way that phone notifications can interrupt us in real life.

Including emails, texts, or social media posts in your novel can make your characters more relatable or provide details that are important to the plot. Communicating via technology could be something that sets your novel apart or makes it a more interesting read. That being said, it’s not a must for any novel set in today’s world. If there isn’t a natural way to incorporate these elements into your story, don’t feel the need to shoehorn them in.

If it’s just the formatting that’s holding you up, then don’t worry. A skilled editor can help you find the right way to mix these modern forms of communication into your story.


about the author

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Ashley Henshaw has been a contributing writer for a number of online publications, including The Huffington Post, USA Today, and AOL City's Best. She has a BA in English from Loyola University Chicago and previously worked for a publishing house. She is an avid fiction reader and loves to edit fiction and nonfiction alike. If she could, she'd spend every spare minute on the beaches of Lake Michigan, but Chicago's weather has proven uncooperative.

Check out Ashley’s other blog posts: “Why Word Count Matters When You Submit Your Book” and “Should You Self-Publish?”