Formatting a phone call in your screenplay can be tricky. Before you dive in, make sure you have a good grasp on the type of phone call you want to have in your scene and the correct way to format it in traditional screenwriting.
There are 3 main scenarios for screenplay phone calls:
- Scenario 1: Only one character is seen and heard.
- Scenario 2: Both characters are heard, but only one is seen.
- Scenario 3: Both characters are seen and heard.
Scenario 1: Only One Character Is Seen and Heard
In traditional screenwriting, a scene with a phone call where only one of the characters is seen and heard is commonly referred to as a one-sided phone conversation. It is best to use this scenario for short phone calls.
There are a few different accepted techniques for formatting these types of phone calls within your screenplay, but they are largely formatted the same as normal character dialogue. Unlike normal dialogue, however, you will want to include beats, pauses, or specific character actions to signify the times where the unseen and unheard character on the other end of the phone is talking.
- Option 1 (Top Left Infographic Example): Ellipses. This is the best option for one-sided phone call dialogue that does not involve any action or other on-screen character dialogue as it keeps your writing short and clean. Simply place an ellipse (...) at the end of each statement signifying the times when the other person speaks.
- Option 2 (Top Right Infographic Example): Parentheticals. Pauses in dialogue can also be represented through the use of parentheticals such as (beat), (listens), or (pause). While still an acceptable option, this tends to take up valuable page real estate within your screenplay.
Parentheticals are best used for scenarios where the character the audience sees speaking on the phone is also interacting with another on-screen character who is not part of the phone call. They are used here to signify what is said into the phone and what is said to the other on-screen character. Here's an example of a scene that takes place in Johnathon's apartment. He is seen talking on the phone and then to his younger sister, Janet, who is also at the apartment.Option 3 (Bottom Infographic Example): Action Descriptions. Another solution for representing pauses in dialogue is the use of action descriptions if the character is doing something else while on the phone during the time that the unseen/unheard character is speaking. Action descriptions, where appropriate, are nice for breaking up longer blocks of conversation dialogue. Be sure not to use an action description just for the sake of breaking up dialogue. Only include action if it adds to the scene.