PORTRAYING CONVERSATION ON THE TELEPHONE

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As a writer, you’re supposed to write scenes like they’re straight out of a movie. Think about the movies you’ve seen. Telephone scenes can be depicted in two ways, but one of those ways only works in the movies. I’m referring to seeing both characters on the screen either in split-screen effect or by cutting back and forth between them. Split screen is an effect I haven’t seen since the 60s.

The above method is not acceptable for novel scenes. Each scene should be in the viewpoint of one character. If the protagonist is talking to the antagonist, the protagonist cannot see the body movement, facial expression, or body language of their adversary. POV (point of view) is all about seeing the action from one character’s perspective.

One Way of Portraying Telephone Conversations

A second movie method can be depicted in novels. During the phone conversation, the movie-going audience can’t see the off-screen character, but can hear their responses coming over the phone. In novel writing, that translates into allowing the reader to read the responses of the unseen character but without any body movements, facial expressions, or body language (stagnant). That would look like this:

Dolores picked up the receiver. “Hello?”

“Dolores?”

“Hi, Lois. I was thinking about you today. And I was also thinking—”

“Please. Let me tell you what I just found out.”

“Sure.”

“Do you remember Carol?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, she just broke up with Harlan.”

“You’re not serious.”

“I’m going over there this afternoon and tell her exactly what I think.”

“No, Lois, I wouldn’t do that if I were you. Carol’s a real loner when she gets depressed.”

Example of another Way

Another method for the novel is to print only one side of the conversation. However, if you took the above dialogue and removed Lois’s part, something would be missing. Here’s how it would look:

Dolores picked up the receiver. “Hello? … Hi, Lois. I was thinking about you today. And I was also thinking— …  Sure. … Yeah. … You’re not serious. … No, Lois, I wouldn’t do that if I were you. Carol’s a real loner when she gets depressed.”

The reader won’t have a clue what Lois is telling Dolores. A little context needs to be thrown into Dolores’s dialogue. Here is the acceptable method:

Dolores picked up the receiver. “Hello? … Hi, Lois. I was thinking about you today. And I was also thinking—” She stretched out one arm. “Sure. What’s so important? … Yeah, I remember Carol. ….” Her eyes bulged. “You’re not serious. Did she really break up with Harlan? ….” Dolores gasped and drew a hand to her chest. “No, I wouldn’t go over there if I were you. Carol’s a real loner when she gets depressed.”

Do you get the picture? We can see Dolores’s gestures and expressions, so that gives the conversation some life. She’s at least animated. Dolores’s replies to Lois act as context helping the reader determine what Lois said.

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