If you enjoy Tony Zhou’s Every Frame a Painting series on YouTube, like I do, you already saw his episode on the way movies and TV shows depict texting and the Internet. There’s a wealth of visual possibilities, especially when it comes to teh interwebs, and we don’t seem to have a firm convention set.
Personally, I’m a fan of what Sherlock and House of Cards have done with texts- simply showing the contents of the message on screen, beside the character reading it. As Tony points out, it saves time and money when shooting- no cumbersome insert shots of tiny cell phones, it’s more efficient visually- we can see the character reacting to the text in the same frame we read it, and it’s a visually pleasing arrangement.
Even within this burgeoning convention, there’s room for variation. The Fault in Our Stars uses stylized bubbles around text messages. House of Cards has a more conservative, traditional cell phone interface that’s simple enough that it shouldn’t become outdated too quickly.
Let’s not think this is a new issue, either- even silent movies, with their longer shots and tableau staging, would supply an insert shot of a letter or important document that the audience needed to read. Texts seem different, though, because the back-and-forth conversation is much faster and individual messages carry less weight. A single emoji doesn’t have enough narrative importance to warrant its own shot the way the preamble to a last will and testament might.
Showing text messages on screen offers some interesting narrative possibilities, too. Characters A and B could be speaking to each other while at the same time texting C and D respectively. On screen texts could make this much clearer than a series of inserts.
Even as projects like Sherlock establish a visual convention for text messages, I have yet to see a good one at the script level. The Sherlock screenplays I’ve found online don’t have the texts written in (they could be old versions). The Fault In Our Stars doesn’t list them either.
In the Political Thriller I was recently working on, there’s a lot of texting back and forth. Without a guide from other screenplays, I tried a couple different formatting options while I was writing.
Just what are texts? They’re like speech. Should we treat them like dialogue? I don’t think so. People read faster than they speak, so the truncated dialogue columns won’t accurately depict the screen time needed.
I tried treating text messages as superimposed words, like you might see in a jet-set spy movie:
A plane SKIDS down a runway in the rain. SUPER: ‘East Berlin, 1971.’
This got cumbersome after a while, especially when the texts were more than a few words long. Instead, I tried putting the message in the scene description, but always set on its own line, like this:
Smiley reaches into his mackintosh and pulls out his iPhone 8S.
TXT: “To Guillem- Can you pick up some eggs and microfiche on your way home, darling?”
He opens his front door and notices the bit of paper he’d wedged into the latch already lying on the ground. He’s been made. His PHONE BUZZES.
TXT: “Right-o, guv’nor.”
This increased the legibility of the script and made the texting flow much faster. You could have a note up front that the messages are meant to appear on screen, but it doesn’t need to be repeated every time.
I don’t have a good system for depicting computer screens, though. I’d like to do something similar- if we see A sitting in front of a monitor, we’d superimpose an image of what’s on the screen in the negative space next to them.
I’ve tried listing this in a shot heading, like you would a POV shot. This isn’t always clear though- is it a shot of the computer screen, or something else? If you have a better idea, I’d love to hear it.
If your curious about how this looks with some more context, I’ve included a short excerpt of a text conversation from the Political Thriller on the Media page.
-  HoC, for some reason, isn’t consistent in its approach- sometimes they’ll show on-screen texts, sometimes they’ll do insert shots. ↩
-  I did just see a TV show that tried this, but didn’t show the whole screen, only the relevant window. Unfortunately, the script is in another language, so I can’t see what they did. More on that show soon… ↩