How to do a phone conversation?

by Marissa
(Ohio)

Question: In my book there are a couple time when a character is talking on a phone or through an ear piece to someone. How would I do the conversation? Would I just have my character speak and not put the other person's dialogue? or would I have both dialogue because it's from that character's point of view and they're the ones talking to the other person? Would I make it like a normal conversation between two people or would it be written differently? How would I write it?

Would it be like this?

"where are you?" "On my way"

or?

Person 1: "Where are you?"
Person 2: "On my way"

or?

Person 1: Where are you?
Person 2: On my way

Which version would I do if any of them? If it's not any of those then what would it look like? And again this is for when it's in that characters point of view I know that if it's in another character's point of view you'd only hear the one side of the conversation but I don't know how to do the conversation when it's in the person that's talking on the phones point of view. People tell me read more it will improve your writing and you'd know how to do it but the thing is I think I read a lot more than most people do my age because I'm 17 and most people I know don't just read for fun they only read for school. In any of the books I've read it's either been that it's not from that characters POV that's why I know how to do that but I've never read a book where the character that's telling the story is the one talking on the phone or I just don't remember it in a lot of the books I read they don't use cell phones a lot or at all because they're mostly dystopian or fantasy type ones. So Can you help?

Answer: Assuming you are writing from your main character's point of view (and not an omniscient POV) then you will narrate what the main character perceives. Since the main character hears what the person on the other end of the phone is saying, you would include both characters' dialogue.

The only time you would not include what the person on the other end of the phone says is if the main character is overhearing someone else making a phone call. In
that case, the main character would not hear what the person on the other end says, so you could not include it.

The guidelines for telephone dialogue are much the same as for normal dialogue. Start a new paragraph each time a new person speaks. Include speech tags ("I said," "John said" etc.) where necessary to identify who is speaking.

Once you have established the speaking order, you can leave out any additional tags. Perhaps use an occasional tag if it's a long passage of dialogue. Obviously, if there are more than two speakers, more tags will be needed.

You can also use action beats in place of tags, or use a combination. With beats, we assume the speaker is whichever character is mentioned in the same paragraph as doing an action For example...

With tags:

"Where are you?" I said.
"On my way," said Mary.
"You know I can't wait for you."
"Stay put. Or else."

With beats:

I looked up and down the footpath. "Where are you?"
"On my way." Mary was breathing heavily. I could hear her rapid footsteps in the background.
"You know I can't wait for you.
"Stay put. Or else."
I stayed.

You will sometimes see dialogue with no quotation marks, but usually only in literary fiction. (Some authors believe having no quotation marks distracts less from the dialogue, but the trade off is that the reader must work harder to figure out what is dialogue and what is narration.) Whichever choice you make, you must be consistent throughout the book.


Hope that helps.

P.S. Reading a lot and writing a lot are two methods writers have used throughout history to train themselves. So are memorizing great poems and speeches, copying out great stories by hand, and doing your own analyses of great plots.

However, these methods involve a lot of "trial and error" learning.

Just as you can master spelling, grammar, and punctuation much faster by learning the rules, you can speed up your ability to write stories by learning story theory.

It's just that not many people who aren't writers learn story theory. It certainly isn't taught in most English classes.

In fact, some writers don't learn story theory either, and instead rely on their years of trial and error self-teaching.

The aim of this site is to shorten the learning curve by making story theory more easily accessible. For simpler matters, such as punctuation, you might also acquire a style guide.

But I digress.

Comments for How to do a phone conversation?

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Jun 09, 2020
one-sided phone dialogue format
by: Rosa

I got a more complicated dialogue question. This is what I write:

"Hi cousin! I am glad that you call!" Mary says and waits for John's respond.
"Yes, my appointment went well and I am sure I am going to get this business up and running soon," she feels confident. She listens to her cousin's answer on the other end.
"I do not worry that they want all money upfront," she tells him.

Is this a correct format? It is one-sided conversation on the phone by Mary, we cannot hear what her cousin says but I feel like it looks better to have her dialogue separated like in two people conversation because I use some action in between where she waits for his respond on the phone. Or does the entire dialog have to go as a same one block of text, if one person is talking? No starting a new sentence on the new line, no brakes?

Jun 14, 2020
To Rosa
by: Glen

It's a little confusing when you start a new paragraph but don't change speakers. Readers expect a new paragraph means a new speaker. Also, you may not need so much narration. If you write the dialoge well, the reader can infer from what Mary says that she is responding to something the cousin says. In other words, the pauses are understood.

I don't usually do this, but consider this version of the same dialogue...

Mary picked up the phone. "Hi cousin! I'm glad you called. The meeting went well. I'm confident I'll have the business up and running soon. Yeah, they asked for the full amount upfront, but I think they'll settle for half. Trust me."

I'm assuming the subtext here is that the cousin knows Mary doesn't have all the money and is worried this will be a problem. Also, Mary may be overly optimistic. The people she is dealing with may cause trouble if they don't get the full amount right away.

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