Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Tips For Tuesday - Can You Hear Me Now?

I usually don’t spend a lot of time talking about form-related screenwriting topics.  There are a number of good books on the subject.  You can also learn almost all you need to know from reading recent, professionally written scripts, which are readily available these days on the internet.

That said, I do occasionally get questions regarding how to write a particular type of event or action in script form.  One of the most common of those involves phone calls.  Given the world we live in these days, phones play a huge part of our lives, so it’s hardly surprising that they would be the subject of a scene in a screenplay.  The question then is: how to write it?

To my way of thinking, there are three distinct choices.  It’s up to the writer to choose which to employ and, to a large extent, that choice depends on how much information you want to give the reader/audience in that particular scene.

The first option is that the reader/audience will only see and hear one side of the conversation.  In that case, the writer writes the scene showing one character on the phone and we only see that person and hear only their side of the conversation.  This is a scenario that gets played out in real life all the time: you watch someone talk to someone on the phone and, unless they’re on speakerphone, it’s one-sided from your perspective, both visually and audibly.  This type of scenario is good for creating mystery regarding the person on the other end of the call.

The second choice is something akin to that “speakerphone” suggestion (only without actually using a speakerphone).  In this option, we only see one of the two people on the phone, but we hear both sides.  In writing this, the non-visible person’s dialogue will have to be designated as (O.S.) which means off-screen.  Some people use (V.O.) which is the shorthand for voice-over.  However, I think voice-over should only be used when the person speaking over the scene isn’t in the scene in any way.  They're simply a narrator, talking over a scene that doesn’t include them.  On the other hand, off-screen means that they’re in the scene, just not shown.  This scenario is often employed when the writer doesn’t want the audience to see the other person, either because they want their appearance to be mysterious, or because they simply aren’t important enough to be filmed.

The final option is one that is often referred to as the “intercut”.  Here, both sides of the phone call are seen and heard.  To write this, the writer first must write a short scene (slug and description) showing one side of the conversation, and after the first thing said by that person, they write a scene (slug and description) showing the person on the other end of the call.  Rather than keep writing alternating scenes, once that second person responds, the writer simply puts the words INTERCUT AS NEEDED where the next slug would go. This alerts the director to make the choice as to how much they should cut back and forth.  After inserting the INTERCUT, the writer simply writes the dialogue as if both parties were in the same location.  This scenario is chosen when the writer wants the audience to take in both dialogue and visuals.

It is absolutely imperative for you to let the reader/audience know what they will see and hear when a telephone call is taking place, so a choice must be made.  Remember, you want the reader to visualize your story as if watching the film.  Each of those three possibilities brings different story implications, which should influence your choice.

One final thought: you should go light on the phone calls. One or two in a script is about the most, assuming it’s not a story involving telemarketers or customer support reps. Even when you show both sides, a phone call is a static scene, meaning there is little action. Of course, with cell phones, the possibility of adding action to a two-sided conversation has become a real option.  But that doesn’t mean you should write more telephone scenes.

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