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Screenplay Format 101: Phone Conversations

typewriter phone

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In a screenplay, a phone call can be an essential plot point. It can move the story along, provide crucial information, or create suspense. But how do you format a phone call in a screenplay? Here are some tips.

How to write a phone conversation in a screenplay

Writing phone calls in a screenplay can be tricky, especially when it comes to the technicality of screenplay formatting.

Start with the Action

Indicate the presence of a phone within your action paragraph. For example:

INT. KITCHEN – DAY

Sarah sits at the kitchen table, staring at an unopened envelope. BRRRIIIING! The telephone startles her out of her daze. She hesitates, then answers the phone.

SARAH

Hello?

In this instance, we have announced the phone’s presence with a sound effect and a visual description. Using a sound effect isn’t necessary in all cases, but you do need to inform the audience that a phone is present.

The Conversation

From here, you have several options for how to handle the actual conversation.

Method A – One-Sided Conversations

If you want to make the conversation one-sided, you can simply indicate the person talking without switching back and forth between sides.

INT. KITCHEN – DAY

Sarah holds the phone to her ear.

SARAH

Hello?

(a pause)

Yes, I’m Sarah.

(listens)

Okay, I understand. I’ll be right in.

She hangs up.

Method B – One Side Off Screen

You can also have half of the conversation take place off-screen, with one side of the conversation only heard and the other visible.

INT. KITCHEN – DAY

Sarah holds the phone to her ear.

SARAH

Hello?

TOM (V.O.)

Hello, I’m trying to reach Mrs. Sarah Anderson.

SARAH

Yes, I’m Sarah.

TOM (V.O.)

Hi Sarah, I’m calling from Dr. Wilson’s office. We’d like to meet with your right away.

SARAH

Okay, I understand. I’ll be right in.

Some writers prefer to write O.S. (for off-screen) for characters speaking through a phone, but we recommend using V.O. instead. We suggest reserving off-screen for cases when a character is in the same location but not seen on screen.

Method C – Intercut Conversations

If you want both sides of the conversation to be heard, you can use an INTERCUT. This method is extremely common as it simply shows two characters that are speaking from separate locations.

INT. KITCHEN – DAY

Sarah holds the phone to her ear.

SARAH

Hello?

INT. DOCTOR’S OFFICE – SAME

Tom sits at his reception desk, the phone pinched between his shoulder and his ear.

TOM

Hello, I’m trying to reach Mrs. Sarah Anderson.

INTERCUT – TELEPHONE CONVERSATION

SARAH

Yes, I’m Sarah.

TOM

Hi Sarah, I’m calling from Dr. Wilson’s office. We’d like to meet with your right away.

SARAH

Okay, I understand. I’ll be right in.

Alternatively, you could rewrite the scene heading each time you switch locations. Technically, this would be a valid option, but if the conversation is longer than a couple of lines, it will probably be fatiguing for the reader.

Method D – Split Screen Conversations

Similar to the intercut option above, but with multiple characters shown on screen at the same time.

INT. KITCHEN – DAY

Sarah holds the phone to her ear.

SARAH

Hello?

INT. DOCTOR’S OFFICE – SAME

Tom sits at his reception desk, the phone pinched between his shoulder and his ear.

TOM

Hello, I’m trying to reach Mrs. Sarah Anderson.

SPLIT SCREEN – TELEPHONE CONVERSATION

SARAH

Yes, I’m Sarah.

TOM

Hi Sarah, I’m calling from Dr. Wilson’s office. We’d like to meet with your right away.

SARAH

Okay, I understand. I’ll be right in.

This is a simple version of the split screen technique and doesn’t require anything more than simply indicating the presence of the effect.

Obviously, if the scene and the effect go on longer, this can become more complicated and require additional work to keep everything clear.

Wrapping Up

In conclusion, writing phone calls in a screenplay can seem like an intimidating feat. While formatting phone conversations correctly is key to the flow of the film, following the steps above should help make it a breeze.

From setting up the initial description to intercutting with different characters on the phone call, these simple steps can help your screen read clearly as intended.

Now that you’ve tackled phone conversations, you might be thinking about text messages and written communications. No problem, we’ve got that one covered as well.

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