How (Not) to Handle Phone Conversations in Your Writing

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It’s a rare book set in modern times that doesn’t include a phone conversation somewhere, and there are so many ways to handle it that the dashing, intrepid writer might not automatically know which is best for them–for the scene, for the characters, for their own style.

Having just read several books recently that handle phone calls with varying degrees of success, I thought it was time to share my thoughts. These are my personal observations, of course, but mostly my guidelines fall into the simple logic of the other good-prose rules I already follow.

When to Omit the Conversation

  • When it is composed entirely of small talk. If the call needs to happen for plot reasons (ie, distracting a character so they can be surprised by something else) but the actual contents of the call are not plot-important, mention the call, but don’t play it out. Summarize the purpose of the call in narration, if you must: “Joe called his doctor’s office to set up his physical appointment, but before the receptionist had even pulled up his file, a gunshot sounded in the street.” (For some reason.)
  • When it would be composed of plot-important information that the reader already knows. Again, summarize briefly. “Hanna spent an hour on the phone with Beth, rehashing everything that had gone wrong on her date the night before.” The date that was the previous chapter, that the reader was present for–but if Beth needs to know, too, the reader should see her finding out, but not hear all about it again.

When to Include Only One Half of the Conversation

  • In third-person POV, it’s a common choice. The reader only “sees” the POV character, so leaving out the unheard half is reasonable, as long as its content can be (mostly) inferred from the half we do hear. THAT BEING SAID: Don’t make the half-conversation one long passage of only speaking, with no action to break up the call, leaving mental “space” for the unheard half to be said. Let the POV character move, fiddle with things, or even just have mental/emotional reactions when the person on the other end of the line is speaking, so that the reader can see when it’s happening–otherwise it plays more like a rant than a conversation.
  • In third-person POV, when the unheard half of the call is conveying information the character needs, but is being kept secret from the reader. (Hopefully for good reason.)
  • In any POV, again, when the unheard half of the conversation is plot-important, but information the reader already has. Summarize it, and allow the character learning this information to react, but don’t repeat it all for the reader.

When to Include the Both Halves of the Conversation

  • IN FIRST PERSON POV. I have yet to see any first-person story successfully ignore the person they’re talking to completely during a phone call. If the “I” character is hearing it, we should hear it to–and if the content falls under any reason to not to include it, rethink including the call, or rework the conversation until it doesn’t.
  • In third-person POV, when both speakers reveal new information, or when their dialogue gives us important insight into their character. (Which it should be doing anyway.) This is, in my experience, by far the most common approach and could be considered the default. As long as you don’t have flat characters making small talk, you should be fine.

If there’s anything I missed, feel free to throw it at me in the comments, but I think that covers everything that irks me when done wrong. Until next time!

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