When writing phone conversations, does your one-sided dialogue give insight into the character of one or both participants or the relationship between them? Is the conversation moving the plot forward?
When I was first married, I used to listen to my husband’s phone conversations and add little editorial comments. You know, like “No, we can’t go over there on Sunday; we’re busy,” or “Why does your mother want to go to Poland?”
Besides being super-obnoxious, most of the time I had no clue what the subject of the phone call was, and my comments were completely out of place. All that ended up happening was that my husband got annoyed while missing half the conversation.
While in real life people do not need to understand a phone conversation that does not involve them, when writing phone conversations in a book, your readers do indeed need to know exactly what’s going on, both on the side they “hear” and on the other side of the line.
The importance of good dialogue
Dialogue is one of the foundations of skillful writing, and an excellent “show, don’t tell” tool. Skillfully and subtly written dialogue creates a feeling of trust that your book, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, is realistic and sophisticated.
A handy dialogue technique, which is found mostly in novels but sometimes appears in biographies and memoirs, is the telephone conversation. An effective one is not merely fluff; it’s a tool to serve your writing objectives. As with every other element in your book, it needs to move the plot or storyline along quickly and smoothly, while revealing a character’s personality or illustrating the relationship between two characters.
Extremely good & incredibly seamless
Here’s an example of a beautifully constructed phone conversation from Jonathan Safran Foer’s magnificent Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (Penguin, 2005). Nine-year-old Oskar fakes being sick and his widowed mother calls from work to see how he is.
“Schell residence… Hi, Mom… A little bit, I guess, but still pretty sick… No… Uh-huh… Uh-huh… I guess… I think I’ll order Indian… But still… OK. Uh-huh. I will… I know… I know… Bye.”
Foer has made it easy for us to figure out what Oskar’s mother is saying on the other end of the line. We know she asked how he’s feeling and what he’s going to have for lunch. We also notice that she probably told him Indian food isn’t so good for someone who doesn’t feel well (“But still”), and made him promise not to order it (“OK”).
Oskar gets impatient with his mother’s questions (“I know”) and doesn’t seem to be too interested in communicating with her. And what do you learn by the fact that such a young child is alone in the house and ordering lunch out?
In fewer than 40 words, Foer has communicated personality, relationship, information, and emotion.
Extremely amateurish & incredibly uninteresting
Read the conversation below and see if you can find both the obvious and the not-so-obvious areas in which this paragraph can be improved.
“Mmm… Hullo… You want to speak with Mr. Smith? He’s sleeping. Who is this?… The police? What’s the matter?… Our son has been arrested? For what?… Drunk driving? Is he okay?… My name is Mary Smith… Who am I? His mother, of course… He’s sixteen years old… You want us to come down to the police station now? What time is it?… It’s two o’clock in the morning?… And he’s locked up, you say?… And I should wake up my husband and get to the station… His birthday is July 11th, but wouldn’t you be able to find that on our son’s license?… He didn’t have it on him and was too drunk to tell you? Okay, we’re on the way.”
The most obvious problem with this conversation is that it’s made up of a series of questions that are merely repeating everything that was ostensibly said on the other side of the line. Don’t spoon-feed your reader like this. Instead, write the conversation in such a way that the audience will be able to figure out what both people on the line are saying.
Here are four ways to tighten up and refine the telephone conversations you write:
1. Get real
Make your phone conversations sound as close to real life as possible. Remember, for your readers, this is a one-sided dialogue. You, however, must know what the person on the other side of the line is saying so you can realistically write the side of the tapestry that is showing.
With very few exceptions – for instance, in some children’s books – normal people speaking on the phone don’t repeat what their interlocutor says.
2. Become a spy
Eavesdrop on the people you live with. Pay attention to strangers on cell phones in restaurants and elevators. Bring along a small notebook to the market and jot down fragments of the phone conversations you hear in the frozen food aisle (it’s all in the name of getting your book published).
3. Trust your reader
Your reader needs to be able to figure out what is happening on the other side of the line via the responses of your character. He or she doesn’t need to know everything the invisible person is saying, just the important things; with regard to the rest, a general understanding is enough.
Look again at the Extremely Loud example. Do we know exactly what Oskar’s mom is saying to him toward the end of the conversation? No, but Oskar’s responses and their length, as well as the repetition and emphasis of certain words, tell us loud and clear that she’s a worrier and that he’s getting impatient. Once Foer communicates the main points, all we need for the rest is the big picture.
4. Read it aloud
After you have written the first draft of your phone conversation, read it aloud and ask yourself the following questions:
- Is it subtle enough, or am I hitting readers over the head with information?
- Does it sound true to life?
- Am I communicating to the reader what he or she needs to know, and nothing extra that has no purpose?
- Is the conversation moving the plot forward?
- Does the conversation give insight into the character of one or both participants in the dialogue, or the relationship between them? Or does it enlighten the reader about another character not participating in the conversation?
- Are emotions and motivations being conveyed?
Now it’s your turn
Set a timer for fifteen minutes and write a conversation between a boss and his or her employee – who is being fired over the phone. Who will be featured in the dialogue, and who will be on the other side of the line? Through this one-sided conversation, will we be able to figure out the back story as well as each speaker’s basic personality? Can you draw a picture of the relationship between the employee and the employer? How would this scene move the plot along if it were part of a short story or a full-length novel?
Make sure the questions and the statements in this conversation give us new information as well as an idea of what is being said on the other side of the line. They shouldn’t merely repeat what the invisible person is saying.
When you finish, be sure to paste your conversation in the Comments section. I look forward to reading your work!
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