Digital Dialogue

Digital Dialogue

In this post we explore digital dialogue and find out what we can do with it in our storytelling.

Been on your smartphone lately? Sent a message? Or an emoji? That’s digital dialogue. We’re all doing it, all the time. We need to find ways to include digital dialogue in our stories. This blog will give you suggestions.

What Is Digital Dialogue?

Smart devices help us to stay in touch. That doesn’t mean we speak the whole time. No, phones, smartwatches, tablets, and laptops make it possible to connect in a variety of ways on various platforms: instant messages, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and Discord – just to name a few.

All of this is digital dialogue. Let’s find out what makes it special, and how to include it in our writing.

What Exactly Is It? 

Digital Dialogue means we communicate through technological devices. Indirect communication isn’t new. Just think about letters, telephones, and telegrams. What’s new is that one device lets us send a whole variety of messages, such as:

  1. text-only messages
  2. picture-only messages
  3. video-only messages
  4. voice messages
  5. a mix of all the above

Let’s look at the characteristics of digital dialogue.

How Digital Dialogue Is Different

Communicating through smart devices is extremely fast. It doesn’t matter if your friend lives over 3000 kilometres from you. The moment you press ‘send,’ that message is on its way. This might involve different time zones, though. Messages could come in at most unfortunate times.

Instant messaging has also become very cheap. A click on your device costs a fraction of the postage of a letter. This has made it widely accessible, and a growing number of people are using it.

The quantity of communication has increased, and this has changed the quality. People use abbreviations, they no longer write complete sentences. This makes the exchange of information fast, but cryptic.

These messages are more private. It’s much harder to intrude on the privacy of a smartphone (you’d have to crack the code) than on the privacy of a letter, for example. This makes the intrusion an even greater transgression.

Now let’s find out how writers can use digital dialogue.

What Digital Dialogue Can Do For Storytelling

 Digital Dialogue is a great tool to add to your toolbox as a writer. Being a special form of dialogue, it fulfils many of the same functions. But it has a few tricks up its sleeve, too. And a few pitfalls. 

  1. Digital Dialogue Isn’t Conversation

A conversation is face-to-face, containing all the layers of communication to convey meaning: what is being said, the tone of voice, eye contact, and body language. It also conveys psychological things like empathy, love, and a sense of community.

Digital dialogue can’t transport all of that. It misses out on certain layers of meaning. So, the recipient of the message gets less meaning than the sender wants to convey. In this form of dialogue, what comes across is just as important as what doesn’t. That makes it exciting.

  1. Digital Dialogue As A Source of Conflict

Smart devices grant a certain personal distance and even anonymity. The sender of a message can say things no one would ever say to someone else’s face (just think of cyber mobbing). That can make the content more emotional, and more immediate. It’s a great source of conflict.

Digital dialogue is prone to misunderstandings. Take irony, for example. It just doesn’t work in digital dialogue because we can’t see or hear the other person. That’s why ironic instant messages need to include a warning in the text (something like ‘catch my irony?’).

Meaning is also lost because of the specific language used in digital dialogue. Since the messages are brief, people use abbreviations that not all users might know, and the language is informal. It’s easy to use a register that’s considered inappropriate.

To be successful, digital dialogue requires the sender to be very precise. But most people aren’t. In personal communication, this doesn’t matter as much as we have the other layers of meaning to grasp the truth. But because digital dialogue only has a limited amount of these layers, its content is open to interpretation.

Just think about all the emojis for faces. Do you always know which face means exactly what? What if your fictional character misunderstands an emoji, and is offended? What if your characters use abbreviations and get lost in them?

Then there’s the fact that digital dialogue relies so heavily on technology. What if that doesn’t work? What if someone manipulates it? What if people exchange phones?

  1. Digital Dialogue As A Device For Showing

Regular dialogue has always been a go-to method for showing. It makes a story lively, and it creates white space. Digital dialogue can enhance this effect. Manifold devices with their different apps can really energize your story! Just think about the BBC series Sherlock where spoken dialogue is combined with written instant messages.

  1. Digital Dialogue To Show Character

Let’s start with the devices. What technology your characters use says a lot about their age, culture, and personality. Characters age with their devices. Older people no longer spend the money to have the latest models.

There’s a cultural component. Flip phones, for example, were very popular in the USA during the 1990s. They were never popular in Germany. So, if you write about a German using a flip phone today, you’re telling your reader that this person is deeply nostalgic, with a cultural connection to the USA. In the USA, the same person might just be an older person, a regular guy, who never bothered to get a new model. See the difference?

Age also influences the style of the message. Older people tend to send messages that rely more on text. The phrasing will remind your readers of the letter format with a formal greeting (‘Hi John,’) and an ending (‘Take care, Grandma’). Younger people will be short and snappy.

Next, we look at the apps. Older people will prefer Facebook or Twitter, younger people might use Snapchat or TikTok. People interested in carefully designed pictures might use Instagram. Be aware that not all apps are equally popular in all countries. For example, Europeans tend not to like TikTok for concerns about data security.

Last, think about why your characters even use smart devices to communicate. Are they scared of personal interaction? Or are your characters control freaks that meticulously plan each post to show a picture-perfect version of themselves?

  1. Body Language

Smart devices are extensions of our bodies and that means writers can use them for body language. When do your characters put down their phones? Are they glued to the screen, even on romantic dates? Do the devices interrupt their thoughts, their actions, and their speech? Do your characters use the devices to fidget?

  1. Pictures, Videos, Emojis

Pictures or videos are especially tricky to include in storytelling because most books are still published in a traditional, text-only format. Young adult books are breaking this up a bit because they include comic-like elements, so their publishers might be more open to unusual typography.

Of course, we could describe a TikTok or Instagram post. But maybe the character’s reaction to the post is more important. What provides greater potential for action or conflict for your story? 

What About Formatting?

If you include a conversation in storytelling, you need to make clear who says what. Normally, we use dialogue tags. For instant messages, we need other ways of making things clear: new paragraphs, indenting, or aligning texts to the left or the right. For some ideas on formatting, please check out the examples provided in this article, How To Use Instant Messages In Fiction.  

The Last Word

Smart devices are here to stay. As writers, we can’t ignore digital dialogue. It provides communication but it does come with its own rules. I hope this post has helped you to understand this a little better, so you can include more digital dialogue in your stories.

Susanne Bennett

By Susanne Bennett. Susanne  is a German-American writer who is a journalist by trade and a writer by heart. After years of working at German public radio and an online news portal, she has decided to accept challenges by Deadlines for Writers. Currently she is writing her first novel with them. She is known for overweight purses and carrying a novel everywhere. Follow her on Facebook.

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Posted on: 18th July 2023