Telephone Conversations

One of the most common special situations in which screenplay writers need help in formatting is Telephone Conversations.

Telephone conversations shouldn't be used all that often. After all, many times a phone conversation is pretty boring on screen. It is just one or two people talking into a phone, with little action. Of course, in today's world where every character has a cell phone within reach, telephone scenes have become harder to discard.

Just please try to use them sparingly, and keep them short.

How a telephone conversation is formatted on screen depends on what the writer wants the audience to see.

One-Sided Conversation:

Perhaps the writer wants the audience to see a one-sided phone conversation. In this situation, the audience will see a character talking on the phone, but not hear or see who the character is talking to.

This sort of scene is accomplished easily enough with simple ellipses. Look at this example:

Everywhere the reader sees an ellipses is basically a pause during which the hypothetical person on the other end of the line speaks.

DO NOT use the Parenthetical (beat) to indicate where the other character speaks!!

Notice I DID NOT use the parenthetical (on phone) or (into phone), which many screenwriters believe must be used for every dialogue block where a person is talking on the phone.

Why?

Well, the fact Victor is on the phone is obvious based on the context of the scene. Using a parenthetical to say he is on the phone would be redundant. I opted to discard a useless parenthetical, as parentheticals need to be used sparingly anyway.

Now, had there been someone else in the room with Victor, and Victor was speaking both on the phone AND to someone in the room, I'd have used (on phone) to clarify to whom he was speaking through the scene. For an example of such a scene, see the Directional Dialogue page.

Two-sided Conversation - Other Character Not Seen:

If the writer wants the audience to HEAR the person on the other line, but DOES NOT want the audience to SEE him, the trick is accomplished with a (V.O.) Character Extension.

Here's the same scene above, but with another character being heard:

Nothing hard about that.

Wherever we want Carlos' voice to be heard, we include his Character Heading with the (V.O.) extension. (V.O.), of course, means Voice Over.

Again, I found there to be no need for the (on phone) parenthetical, but I also dispensed with another parenthetical common among screenwriters in situations such as the one above: (filtered). (filtered) means the voice should have a special effect added so that it sounds as if it is coming through some sort of electronic device. many writers would have placed it directly under Carlos' Character Header.

Why did I leave it off?

Again, it isn't necessary. Obviously, based on context, this is a phone conversation and the audience hears Carlos' voice on the other end.

I decided to leave how the conversation sounds up to the director.

But if you MUST you the parenthetical, use it only the first time Carlos speaks. You don't need it attached to every single one of his Dialogue blocks.

Two-sided Conversation - Both Characters Seen:

If the writer wants both parties of the phone conversation to be seen by the audience, then things get a complicated . . . but only slightly.

We DO NOT want to type a new Master Scene Heading each and every time the camera changes locations to focus on the current speaker.

Instead format the conversation with an Intercut.

Check this out:

Once I've established each location with a Master Scene Heading, I can indicate the jumping between the two scenes with the Subheader INTERCUT - TELEPHONE CONVERSATION.

Simple, huh?

Now everywhere you see a Character Header, the director can assume the camera should be focused on that particular speaker.

Notice, though, next to one of Carlos' Character Headers I typed (V.O.). This cues the director to stay with Victor as Carlos delivers his line. Carlos will be heard, but not seen... for this line only.

I could have called out the Intercut in a number of ways. Here are two more examples:

These are the sort of Intercut Subheaders I'd have used if the Intercut was not a phone conversation, but two separate scenes playing out simultaneously back and forth. Each mentions the specific locations of the Intercut.

Notice I underlined the word INTERCUT in one of the examples. Nothing wrong with doing so if the writer wants to be sure the reader notices the Subheader.

Technically the writer can end the Intercut with BACK TO SCENE or END INTERCUT. Subheader, but often Intercuts will end with a new Master Scene Heading. Again, if you feel the end of the Intercut needs to be clarified, then do so.

Two-sided - Both Characters Seen... AT THE SAME TIME:

Every once in a LONG while, a writer might want two characters to have a telephone conversation in which both characters appear on screen AT THE SAME TIME.

Such trickery is accomplished with a Split Screen.

A word of caution: Split Screens are confusing to the reader and the audience. Few writers can pull them off well. If you can avoid using a Split Screen, then do so.

Here is the same scene, but with a Split Screen:

In the above example, I used a Split Screen call out as I introduced Carlos' location. Basically, like this, Carlos will slide onto the screen and inhabit it with Victor when Victor answers the phone.

I also underlined the words SPLIT SCREEN. Writers really need to make sure Split Screens stand out on the page.

Writers also need to show where to END the Split Screen, as I did above. The director needs to know precisely when to return the screen to a single location and to which location to return it.

In this example, both characters are still on screen as Victor slams down the receiver and throws his fit, and the Split Screen ends there, leaving Carlos alone with his thoughts.

I could have ended it more abruptly the moment Victor slammed down his phone. I could have ended it later, showing Victor clearing his desk as Carlos rubs his forehead.

The end MUST BE CLARIFIED!

When trying to decide if a Split Screen effect is right for your scene, whether for a telephone conversation or anything else, you might consider the genre of your film.  Split screens are used effectively in Comedies, especially Romantic Comedies (think about the famous Split Screen telephone scenes in “When Harry Met Sally”).  Sometimes they work well in fast-paced Action films (Jason Statham films) or comedic Heist films (“Ocean’s Eleven”).  But there are some film types, often Dramas, in which they just won’t work well with the tone of the film.