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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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Deena Nataf

About Deena Nataf

Deena Nataf has written 2 posts in this blog.

Deena Nataf is a freelance editor and author mentor with thirty years of experience. She runs Bulletproof Writing, a blog and website for writers which delivers writing techniques, “comedy grammar,” and tips for the writing life. BookBaby readers are invited to click here to get her free eBook, The Quick and Dirty Guide to Frequently Misspelled Words.

15 thoughts on “Writing Phone Conversations to Forward Your Plot and Draw Your Characters

  1. Mimi Weisbond says:

    Mimi Weisbond.
    Oh. Hello, sir.
    Not at all. This is a great time.
    Bad news, sir?
    Oh. ]
    I see.
    Is there a reason, sir? I mean, have I done anything that…
    But that wasn’t me, sir. I was on vaca…
    Oh. I see.
    Severance sir?
    How much did you say?
    Really. Well, that does make it…
    By tomorrow? Of course. No problem. And a very good day to you, too, sir.

    1. Deena says:

      Bravo, Mimi! You did a nice job, and your sense of humor showed through as well. I like your use of interruption, as it is authentic and gives us information in a creative way. Moreover, it gives us a hint about the boss’s personality.
      All the best,

  2. Saille says:

    Okay – I admit to being confused. Why does a phone conversation have to be one sided? If your point of view character is having the conversation – then the reader should hear everything he/she hears. The conversation isn’t one sided. It is like any other scene that contains dialogue.

    1. Emma says:

      Saille, I was just thinking the same thing, especially if its written in the 1st person.

    2. Deena says:

      Hi, Saille and Emma, and thank you for putting your POV out there! You have both brought up an excellent point.

      You can absolutely create a two-sided phone conversation, and you’re right, it is just like a regular dialogue. My post was about another, different way to craft dialogue. Both one-sided and two-sided conversations can and should move the plot along as well as show us the character(s) of those who populate our books. Dialogues are a great “show, don’t tell” opportunity.

      A one-sided phone conversation is one of many creative devices in your arsenal of writing tools. I think it can have a bigger impact than two-sided phone conversations, as it is more subtle and therefore will work on your unconscious mind, as it were, more powerfully than a two-sided phone conversation might.

      I’m glad you both wrote in.

      All the best,

  3. Amyna says:

    Thank you for this informative article. I had never thought of dialogue before in terms of telephone conversations.

    1. Deena says:

      Hi, Amyna. I’m glad my post was helpful.

      Good luck with your writing,

  4. Or this from a novel I am just finishing. Comment please.

    ‘Before he drove off he made another call. He’d better report what he had learned. The phone rang a few times before it was answered.
    “Is Scott there, please?” Then, he recognized the voice.
    “Melissa, it’s you. I didn’t recognize your voice at first. Charlie Easton. Hudgin’s Mills. Remember that bear you told us to watch for about ten days ago, and that we posted a warning about?”
    He nodded in response to her suddenly pointed questions. Why anyone would nod into a telephone seemed a strange thought to entertain at just that moment.
    “It might be here. Hudgin’s Mills. At least, close to it. I just took two people into hospital. One of them had been attacked by a bear. I’m fairly sure of that.” He listened for a while and responded as far as he could. “Yes I can show you.” He listened further. “I don’t have a clue who he is, but I know the young woman. Susan Whitcomb. She’s….” Melissa seemed to know her. He continued to nod.
    “The Rollins road, ten miles out of town. The young man was pretty torn up and bleeding like a stuck pig, but….”
    Melissa cut into what he was saying and asked those questions important to her, getting the responses she needed to hear.
    “Recently. Ten, maybe twenty minutes before I picked them up. He’d lost a lot of blood. He didn’t say much, but he was conscious all of the drive in. I couldn’t see any injuries on her, but she was covered with his blood. She’s a diabetic. I already knew that, and she had an insulin problem from what she said.
    “It could be your bear. I thought I’d better tell you. They should both in the hospital for a day or two at least, so you have time.” He listened further, and looked out at the weather.
    “Rollins Road” he repeated. Where the river comes closest to the road and before it joins the main channel. Ten miles out, where it’s fordable. There’s only one place it does that. And both of their legs were wet up to the knees, so they had waded across that river.”
    He saw a flash of light and a rumble of thunder about five seconds after (his subconscious told him it was about a mile away after he’d counted off the seconds), and then responded again.
    “I don’t know. You’d have to talk to him to find out where, exactly. You could probably follow his blood trail back on the other side and find out, except for this rain. There’s only that one shallow place where they could have crossed, but it might not be passable by morning if we get the amount of rain they were forecasting.
    He nodded.
    “If you call the Hospital in a couple of hours, they might be able to tell you something by then. Ask for doctor Lewis. That young man I brought in might even be able to talk to you, if they let him. I’ll be home about midnight. You can call me there in the morning if you need my help to show you.”
    From what Melissa said, Scott was already fairly close to Hudgin’s Mills already, on other business, so he’d be on his way as soon as she talked to him.
    “In the morning then.”

    He rang off, and decided that he should make one more call before he headed out.’

    1. Deena says:

      Hi, John. I liked your dialogue. The answers Charlie gave Melissa made it easy to understand what Melissa was asking. I got a bit confused sometimes trying to figure out the continuity of the conversation, but I think that was an issue of punctuation.
      Best of luck with your novel.

  5. Megan says:

    Would this be a thing to do with text messages as well. I’ve been looking up different ways to have conversations in a book that more modern.

  6. Jianu says:

    A half dressed Laura Dalmond, grabs the ringing phone outside the bathroom door.

    “Mom, I can’t talk–”

    “Oh, sorry, yes this is Laura.”

    “No, no, I’m…the sitter’s late.”

    “Excuse me? Hardly ever, and I can be there in fifteen.”

    “It most certainly has not. I always make my deadlines. ”

    “But no, it’s not…how about we sit down face to face and–”

    “What’s that supposed to mean?”

    “I assure you, there isn’t a single person in my department who’d have trouble with that.”

    “I find that ironic considering she always volunteers.”

    “Well that’s very different, I’ve never asked.”

    “I cannot believe what you’re implying.”

    “Wait, what? Without so much as a warning? It’s a week before Christmas…”

    “Oh how generous, my kids might not starve through January. This is just so crazy. Thanks for nothing.”

  7. Hello, Deena. You have some valid points, so thanks for writing this article.

    Technology is advancing faster than the speed of writing and I’ve had to update all my stories to keep pace with the new way we communicate. Because of facetime on some of the smart phones, my characters are looking at each other while talking. While one sided conversations may have worked in the past, for me as an author, the new technology makes it much easier to write a two sided phone dialogue.

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