The dreaded telephone conversation

Why do I fall victim to this most horrific of plot devices every time I write a script?

Most screenwriting gurus say the same thing. For the sake of all that’s holy, DON’T include telephone conversations in your screenplay. Not only is the formatting a bitch, but it’s inherently undramatic to show two people talking in different places. For some reason, there’s something jarring about seeing onscreen what we all do on a daily basis.

But then, there are other things we do on a daily basis that I also wouldn’t want to see onscreen…

However if you’re like me and unable to write a single Act without that most unwelcome of characters making an appearance,  here are some formatting tips:

Voice-Over (V.O.) or Off-Screen (O.S.)?

I would say, if you must, V.O.

O.S. implies a character is in the same place but talking out of shot of the camera.

V.O. is when we hear the words spoken over the action.

Intercutting Scenes

The easiest way to avoid the above dilemma is to use “INTERCUT” in your sluglines.

For example:

INT. BOB’S HOUSE – DAY

Bob picks up the phone.

BOB

Hello?

INT. DAVE’S HOUSE – DAY

Dave on the other end of the phone.

DAVE

Hi, Bob. I hear you’re wrting a scene with a phone call.

INTERCUT. BOB’S HOUSE/DAVE’S HOUSE

Bob sighs.

BOB

Yeah, those things are a sonofa bitch.

DAVE

I hear ya.

Get the idea?

Remember to set your two locations up with a brief scene before you use “INTERCUT” as I have in the above example.

Another way of writing the last slugline would be:

“INTERCUT BETWEN BOB’S HOUSE AND DAVE’S HOUSE AS REQUIRED”

Don’t get hung up on this. Remember, correct format serves to convey meaning. Not the other way around.

However you should always include an action line immediately after EVERY slugline. The slugline is not a replacement for action but serves to inform us what location we are in.

AND

I’ll let you into a little secret. I find that if you have one character doing something that’s important, but which is hidden from the other character, this distracts the reader from the fact that you’ve ever used a phone call. For instance:

 INT. BOB’S HOUSE – DAY

Bob picks up the phone.

BOB

Dave? I hear you’re going to that High School reunion later.

INT. DAVE’S HOUSE – DAY

Dave on the other end of the phone.

DAVE

That’s right.

INTERCUT. BOB’S HOUSE/DAVE’S HOUSE

Bob laughs at a memory.

BOB

You remember that kid Brian who bullied you all year?

Dave loads a magazine into a gleaming 9mm Glock handgun.

DAVE

Oh, yeah.

Not Shakespeare. But you get the general idea.

So there you have it. You need never have nightmares about writing telephone conversations in a screenplay again.  Unless, like me, you can’t avoid writing them in the first place.

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One thought on “The dreaded telephone conversation

  1. irscriptwriter

    Yeah, I definitely think if you feel like you must use a phone conversation, then you must also have at least one of the characters doing something else relevant to the story.

    Reply

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