How To Film Texting In A Way That Doesn’t Look Stupid

We email. We Facebook. We text. In other words, we’re constantly writing. So why can’t TV shows and movies show that in a way that isn’t silly?

The canon of movies and television scenes of people writing is not an impressive one, and usually limited to (1) reading a letter over someone else’s shoulder or (2) reading a computer screen or text over someone else’s shoulder. You’ve Got Mail, that harbinger of the digital age, featured numerous exciting scenes of, um, people typing.

Writing and acting are usually (and awkwardly) split on film. People do things — argue, have sex, kill each other — and then they stop to read a love letter, or read an important text. Writing is separate from the story itself. We could also talk about it this way: in most films and television show, writing is non-diegetic — not part of a character’s actions or thoughts (think of titles, or or voice-over narration). With BBC’s Sherlock, writing is diegetic; it’s part of the narrative experience of the show.

These days, writing is part of us. It’s not externalized. It is our action, our plot turns, it is embedded in our everyday lives. We text, we Facebook, we tweet, we email. That’s our narrative. To reflect our contemporary, text-filled experience, film and video has to stop switching to “reading mode” as something apart from the action itself.

So, how do we display that lived experience better? Sherlock has figured it out. It is brilliant not just because it is marvelously acted and updated or because it takes the germ of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s gestalt and updates it to the 21st century, thoroughly undergirded by technology. It’s brilliant because writing is part of the action in Sherlock. It is the story and on the screen, literally. White characters appear when Sherlocks gets a text from Moriarity, or when he remembers a fact or word from his memory.

In the first season, director Paul McGuian used words on the screen to make an analogy between Sherlock’s brain and a computer. When Sherlock finds a clue, he “sees” the answer to it in white letters on the screen. When we see Sherlock from the reverse angle, the words are reversed too, implying that Sherlock externally sees the words as he thinks. (In the second season, there is less of this; instead, there is a fascinating scene in which Sherlock uses the ancient art of the memory palace to remember incidents.)

But analogizing Sherlock’s mind as a computer is less interesting than devising a technique to bring text messaging and other forms of digital writing and reading into the flow, embedded into the action. That is what happens when, for instance, Sherlock calls Lestrade “wrong” at a press conference, and dozens of journalists are shown with “Wrong!” in front of them, white letters across their chests as their smartphones are held in front of our their eyes.

Sherlock puts reading and writing where it is for us today. Not closed captioned, not a crawl on the bottom, not something we do to “escape life.” Our writing is as integral to us as the clothes —or the deerstalker hat—we wear.

Anne Trubek is a writer, professor and rustbelter. She’ll be writing about things filled with lots of words and pages every week for FWD.

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