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How to Format Phone Calls in a Script

By John Finnegan

How to Format a Phone Call in a Script

Formatting a phone call in a screenplay can be tricky, especially if you are cutting back and forth between different locations. On the one hand, it's important to emphasise location changes (a script is as much a production document as it is a performative one, after all), but on the other hand, you don't want to write a scene that's weighed down by countless scene headers - this can affect the pacing of the script but can also make the piece down right insufferable to read.


In this short tutorial, I'll explain two methods of writing a phone call, drawing on two case studies from high profile screenwriters, Frank Darabont and Aaron Sorkin.


METHOD 1: THE ONE-SIDED CALL


As the name suggests, this method involves a simple single perspective on a phone call. The character has made a call or is receiving one and they are talking or listening. Pretty straight forward. Let's look at Frank Darabont's script for the pilot episode of L.A. Noire (subsequently retitled as Mob City).


Figure 1.

The Mob City Screenplay

In the above example, Hecky makes a call and the writer uses the parenthetical element to emphasise the other side of the conversation using words like 'beat' or 'pause' to alternate between passive listening and contemplation.


While this might seem like a pretty obvious approach to script formatting, it's often the path least travelled for writers who feel obliged to show both sides of the phone call. It's natural to want to show both characters engaging in a dialogue over the phone but there's a real benefit to only showing one side of the conversation, as we see above.


Showing both sides of the conversation in a phone call can, depending on the nature of the conversation, undermine the potential drama or engagement of the audience. Showing both sides can lead to an over-explanation of everything. It can also lead to the audience becoming passive. Instead, showing a single side can make the audience work harder to try and understand what's happening - which is always a good thing - and it can lead to a sense of mystery or possible suspense; "I wonder what he said to him...".


METHOD 2: THE INTERCUT CALL


This method is the most common approach that people use when writing phone call conversations and it's also the one that confuses a lot of aspiring screenwriters who might lack confidence in how best to format the scene.


The example that I'm going to draw on for this method is Aaron Sorkin's The Social Network, specifically the scene when the Dean of the University gets awoken in the middle of the night to learn that the Zuckerberg's activities might crash the system. The scene is an intercutting of two locations - the University Communications Office and the Dean's bedroom. See below:


Figure 2.

The Social Network Screenplay

One thing you might notice from this excerpt is that while Sorkin presents both locations as individual scene headers, the bedroom and the office, he doesn't repeatedly cut back and forth between them every time the respective characters speak.


First, Sorkin establishes the Dean's bedroom as this is the first location we see in the sequence. The Dean, Cox, answers the phone and Sorkin employs the same technique that I demonstrated in Figure 1.


Sorkin then establishes a direction 'Intercut with:' so that we can assume both this and the subsequent scene in the communications office happen at the 'same time' (also noted in the scene header). Note how he's introducing the next location as and when it's needed in the scene and not a line earlier.


In this scene, the grad student (the caller) continues to explain the situation to Cox. We don't see the specific intercutting and can only assume that each line of dialogue is, by it's very presence, a sign to cut to the other character. By not specifying too heavily, it still leaves room for the director to decide this in the edit.


NOTE: In this article I've been using the word 'scene' to speak to each scene header in the script excerpts. Your software will likely recognise each change of scene header as it's own new scene. This is not incorrect but don't be surprised if a director or a producer refers to the overall conversation as a single scene, as an audience member would likely do too.


CONCLUSION:


Like most matters in screenwriting, there's no one way of formatting something. Whatever method you employ, the key to success is clarity and consistency. Make sure you continue to use that form of presentation throughout your script so that the reader doesn't have to reacquaint themselves with your style of writing.


That doesn't mean that you have to stick to one method. Perhaps one scene calls for the one-sided call and another demands a more complex intercut call. That's up to you.


For now, here are the key tips:


  1. In one-sided calls, use parentheticals to create pauses or beats depending on the nature of the character's reaction. This will help guide your pacing.

  2. In intercut calls, introduce locations as and when they're needed but don't feel you need to keep cutting back and forth between them.

  3. Use 'intercut with' when the edits are about to happen, not at the beginning of the overall sequence. This way the alternating between scene locations will feel more gradual and easier to follow.


Hopefully this was helpful. Don't forget we'll have lots more tutorial posts coming soon so watch this space.


Happy writing!


 

John Finnegan is an Executive Producer at The Script Department and a Senior Lecturer in screenwriting at Falmouth University. Follow John here.


DID YOU KNOW... our podcast, Short-Fi, has loads of original script readings accompanied by atmospheric sound and cinematic music. It's like Audible for screenwriters. Listen below or wherever you get your podcasts!



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