The Struggles of Presenting Electronic Communications

Last week, I was watching sessions from Geek Speaks’ Cyberpunk: Past and Future event back in May while working on my Saturday Scenes project and suffered a total collision of work and rant. In the closing remarks, Bruce Sterling covered the struggles of sharing what characters see on their personal devices with the audience watching. A couple of nights later, I watched the opening minutes of CSI: Cyber (until I learned what I was watching), where transparent street maps kept appearing next to where a character was holding a phone. On our television screen, it was difficult to make out what the maps were showing.

I’m a fan of both Pretty Little Liars (PLL) and BBC’s Sherlock, where characters’ messages are shown to the audience so they don’t have to be read. (Admit it, PLL would have been annoying if every single text message had been read out loud.) PLL often had the camera zoom in on the screen so we could read the message for ourselves…which became awkward and taxing after a bit because longer messages often weren’t in camera long enough to be read while shorter messages hung around too long. Sherlock gets it a bit better, showing the message as a caption in relation to the character reading or sending the message.

I’ve watched all of this with great interest because I’m currently working on a serial story where the main character has just started hanging out in an area where text chats are common. I know I’ve written stories in the past where characters text or email each other, but for some reason figuring out how to separate the text chats from the main character’s thoughts has been this huge deal. In the end, there is no distinction between the chat and her thoughts beyond tags and beats, simply because I couldn’t decide what would be clear without becoming really annoying.

What’s sad is that we as a culture have been texting for nearly a decade (not counting early adopters). Representing characters’ electronic messages should be as second nature to writers in various media as writing dialogue and thoughts. But there’s no real consensus on how to share this information. So, we’re all left to experiment with this mode of communication in our storytelling.

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