Writing a phone conversation into a script can be challenging to screenwriters. The mastermind behind the script needs the phone conversation to fit the context of the situation without being lame or dragging out the scene (AKA the moment of the feature where people decide to take their bathroom break). Once you have decided to include a phone conversation in your script, it is time to start planning the details.
Common Phone Situations
There are three common phone situations that are found in screenwriting. They are:
- Focusing on one character where the audience can only see and hear this character.
- Visually the audience only sees one character but can hear that character and also the character he/she is speaking with on the phone.
- The audience can see and hear both characters.
Determine a Phone Situation
There are different reasons why a screenwriter chooses one phone scenario over another. One of the reasons why you would choose focusing on one character that the audience sees and hears is because the character on the other end is irrelevant. Another reason may be that from the dialogue, the audience has a clear picture of what is happening and it is unnecessary to cut back and forth between characters. The second format, seeing one character and being able to listen to both, is commonly used when you want the audience to see and hear the characters’ reaction to what the other character has to say or when you don’t want to reveal who or where the other character is, leaving him/her off screen. The third phone situation is used when the screenwriter wants to move from a master scene heading to another scene or intercutting the scenes.
Writing the Scene into the Screenplay
Once you have determined which type of phone scene you are going to use, it is important to indicate it properly. In the first telephone conversation, where only one character is seen and heard, write the dialogue with pauses, beats, or actions so that the character’s dialogue pauses periodically (which indicates that the other character is speaking).
This example is from Erin Brochovich:
INT. MASRY and VITITOE’S NEW OFFICE – DAY
The front doors open and Erin enters.
Hey, Ros. Nice view, huh?
Yeah, I’m gonna start sleeping here.
Masry and Vititoe, can I — damn it.
Does anyone know anything about these
In the second telephone scenario, where one person is seen and heard, while the other is only heard, you would indicate the unseen character’s dialogue as voice-over in the script, abbreviated as V.O. Here is an example from the movie Taken:
I don’t know who you are. I don’t know
what you want. If you are looking for
ransom, I can tell you I don’t have
money. But what I do have are a very
particular set of skills; skills I have
acquired over a very long career. Skills
that make me a nightmare for people like
you. If you let my daughter go now,
that’ll be the end of it. I will not
look for you, I will not pursue you. But
if you don’t, I will look for you, I will
find you, and I will kill you.
(after a long pause)
The final phone scenario, where both characters are seen and heard, you would write INTERCUT – [LOCATION 1] / [LOCATION 2]. For example, look at this piece from the Bourne Legacy movie:
INT. BEHIND THRESHERS / WATERLOO CONCOURSE– DAY
INTERCUTTING BETWEEN ROSS AND BOURNE:
Bourne spots the agents pulling back per Wills’ orders.
ROSS (INTO PHONE)
If I run now I can make it–
BOURNE (INTO PHONE)
No. Something’s not right.
Now that you know your options and how to incorporate them into your screenplay, craft your telephone conversation into your screenplay. It may take a few drafts and even switching between options to find which option works best with the message that you are trying to portray.