A How-To Guide: Chat Fiction

Chat fiction is a relatively new genre of story-telling that operates via the medium of a text message inbox. Often displayed through online videos or through apps like Hooked or Yarn, we read through a text message conversation between two (sometimes more) individuals.

Where is She?

Where is She? is one of the most well-known chat fiction pieces circulating the web and features. The story starts with the sound of a mysterious crying baby and follows the text conversation between a teen girl, Tiffany, and her mother. It exhibits many features quite typical to most chat fiction pieces.

  1. It tells stories via text messages (sometimes employing other modes like pictures)
  2. The action is fast-paced and draws you in quickly
  3. Like a short story, you get very little context going into the story. You are often dropped right in the middle of the action and context is built along the way, revealed through the text messages
  4. High levels of suspense – one of the greatest draws of chat fiction is their ability to tell thrillers in short bites, and these short bites say enough to pique your interest but not enough to tell you everything. I think of each message as having a slight hook that leads to the next message, leaving readers with questions
  5. The spatial separation characters – unlike most stories in which character interactions have to occur in the same space, chat fiction pretty much demands that the characters be in different settings. Otherwise, why would you be texting? However, there is one setting (the scary one) that will dominate the narrative.
  6. Protagonists are often teens in a relatable setting (like at home). This is probably highly related to the target audience of chat fiction – young adults of today.

Chat fiction is a genre that rose to popularity around 2014 with the launch of the app Hooked, which is a platform that hosts these chat fiction pieces. Many chat fiction pieces are targeted at young adults and meant to be quick, easy reads. Chat fiction is highly popular among the youth because of how relatable the medium is! Think about it, most young people don’t like to call anymore and texting is such a dominant means of communication. The chat fiction genre also fascinatingly intimate and personal – it’s like overhearing a conversation between strangers, but you can follow them through the action. Chat fiction is predominantly focused on quick, thrill-inducing storytelling.

However, chat fiction is also genre which has a lot of restraints to take into consideration.

Life of the Party:

This is Life of the Party. It is a piece that actually features multiple conversations, making for an interesting intertextual-ish storytelling. We follow a conversation between a college girl and her boyfriend, and his conversation with a friend. Here is one of the longer-form pieces of chat fiction, spread over a few episodes (compiled in this video). (If you’re a fast reader, watch at 2x speed). At 22:09, we see the authenticity of the genre being compromised with narration! This is extremely unrealistic if we have been reading texts alone all the way till now. Moreover, in a later part of the chat fiction, there is a “scene-like” moment where the characters are basically face-to-face. The genre has been made irrelevant by its own setting, and to continue telling the story via text would make it so contrived.

Thus, here are two major limitations I found with chat fiction (not necessarily bad! Just challenges to consider which can shape content choices)

  1. No Narration
  2. The need for texting must never be compromised. Compromise could happen through a few ways, e.g. the characters meeting face to face, the protagonist in danger being in an unrealistic situation to text etc.

However, there is still quite a lot of variation from piece to piece. Some stories start with a relatively calm setting:

All in Your Head:

All in Your Head follows the conversation between a teenage girl who is alone at home and her boyfriend. She’s just watched a horror film and is afraid, and the conversation follows her panicked texts to her boyfriend about strange happenings in the house.

I thought this one would be interesting inspiration for my own piece, to see how I could put my chat fiction piece related to mental health in a more ordinary setting first.

Variation also exists in the way pieces end. Many end with cliffhangers, such as All in Your Head, while Where is She? ends with an interesting resolution. Some stories take on a more “action style” resolution like Life of the Party, but it is difficult to manage such resolutions without “breaking the medium” as I like to call it.

I am personally not fond of many pieces in this genre, as I feel some of the constraints of the genre lend the storytelling towards dependence on tropes and poorly structured storytelling. In fact, I struggled with this in my own experiment (which felt like a chem lab explosion). However, I do respect some writers’ abilities to say just enough to get you in, and leave you curious to find out more. It is a genre based in the art of brevity, and I want to emulate the short-but-provocative texts they use. I also aim to stick very much within the constraints of the genre, I don’t want to “break the medium” as I feel it has a jarring effect that undermines the authenticity and relatability of chat fiction.

Chat fiction is something new and challenging to me. It sits at the intersection of thriller, horror and microfiction, employing lots of multimodal communication as well. (How do they text? Are there repeat texts? How do you break up repeat texs?) There are lots of opportunities to make interesting choices and we’ll see how my chem lab explosion turns out.


2 thoughts to “A How-To Guide: Chat Fiction”

  1. Jamie,
    After reading your blog post, I realized that the chat fiction genre and the short story genre that I chose to write have much in common. You said you struggled with the brevity aspect, as did I. It is difficult wanting to write so much, but being confined to the configurations of the genre. Chat fiction and short stories both emphasize the importance of only using words that will move your plot forward. I think the spatial separation aspect of this genre is very interesting. Not many genres require this, making the story very contrived. It is hard to be very creative when you must design the characters to interact in a specific way.

  2. Jamie,

    I applaud you for such an extensive research/genre exploration on Chat Fiction. It is so amazing how quickly this genre has emerged (I believe in the last year) thanks to “Hooked,” and it’s becoming a popular one too! This works to your advantage, as you could appeal this piece to many youthful crowds, due to relate ability and captivating thrillers. I also understand how you may feel limited in your content, due to the nature of the efficient/simplicity of texting––all the more reason to have a definite, clear plot in your head! If you do decide to complete this experiment, naturally let the plot unfold in the conversation. Personally, I would say not to feel inclined to establish all details. Leave some room for the audiences’ imagination. However! Be sure to be clear in your mission: appealing to the proper ways of handling mental instability and anxieties. Great job!

Leave a Reply