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Telephone Conversations

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The Situation: I am writing a short story. My POV character is listening to another person having a telephone conversation. The POV character only hears the one person speaking and not the responses.

My Question: How should the one-sided phone conversation be formatted for a short story?

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This post was sourced from https://writers.stackexchange.com/q/48006. It is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

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3 answers

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Whatever the person is hearing is not included at all (unless it is on speakerphone), and whatever the person on the phone says is put down just like any other utterance, in quotes, not italicized, separate paragraphs, etc.

If the POV character CAN hear the other side of the conversation, say on a speaker phone or just because it is loud enough, you have a choice, you can also do that in quotes, or you can do it in italics to indicate it is on a device.

This text you sent. I don't believe that, Jonathan heard. It was tinny, he did not recognize the voice.

Mark said, "Whatever, dude. That's what I heard."

Jonathan wondered what the text was.

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Be sure to keep the time that the other characters keeps listening short or use the time for your character to think or analyze other things in the environment. In reality sometimes phone calls can very well have a few minutes of what I've heard being called "social grunting" here in Germany - sounds like "hmm" or "yea" that you would use at the end of a sentence of someone else to signal that you are still there and listening to the conversation. Nobody wants to read five minutes of one-sided "hmm" grunting.

Make sure that the side that the character can hear is hinting at something interesting that has happened or is about to happen in the story. Or use the time to take a look around and anylze the surroundings of your character while simply skipping over the uninteresting conversation that the other character is having by stating that "she is talking with her friend about their plans for the weekend while I am taking a closer look at the figurines in the vitrine".

The formatting would simply be the same kind of formatting you would use for talking as it is simply one person talking. It's just that you are missing the response by either making sure that the one-sided exchange is interesting and intermitted by thoughts of the main character or actions that describe the important part of what's happening in the current scene. Formatting phone calls differently from normal conversations would feel weird for most readers if the other character is simply talking normally, just via telephone.

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"Have my money, donkey?" said man on the other side of phone with hostility in his rough voice

"I promise I will get the dosh by the midnight," said John into the phone nervously, drop of sweat running from his forehead "just leave her be."

In this example I chose to describe one man on the other side of phone by only input I can get - his voice. Second one I used additional sense - eyesight which observer can use. It should be enough to indicate that MC is listening to phone call in presence of one of the participants, close enough to hear second participant of the phone call.

With this you can format it in quotes because all voices are present in the scene forming a dialogue which MC can hear


Italics:

Mark leaned over seat, spying on John's phone.

Have my money donkey??? was first incoming message

I will have it by the midnight John nervously tapped the reply, drop of sweat hanging from his eyebrow

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