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tuesday, july 12, 2011

Dialogue and The Telephone

Two questions came to the comments on my recent blog covering the topic of dialogue. I thought the

questions were meaningful for other writers and will repeat them so others can benefit. The questions

involved dialogue during telephone conversations.

A reader asked these questions:

I've been told when writing telephone conversations not to include the other end of the conversation since it

looks awkward. Maybe you disagree. But that being so, how does one break up the main character's words

to allow space for the other person's unheard reply? The author of web-site http://creative-writing- suggests breaking up the conversation using ellipses, when the other person

speaks. What do you think?

Another reader asked this question on the same topic:

I often wonder the same thing. I even wonder how to keep the conversation going sometimes.

My response to the last question first:

Since telephone conversations are basically passive scenes, they are used to impart new information that is

needed for the story line or to create conflict. Chitchat is not part of the conversation. Begin the

conversation at the meat of the discussion. For example, if the phone rings and the main character answers,

use a transaction, such as: His mind wandered until she ask him the question. Is our marriage over? Once

the information or conflict set-up ends, don't drag on the call just end it with a line such as: When the

conversation ended, he caved into a chair trying to decide what to do.

Now to the two earlier questions:

If the conversation is with a main character who has a POV, I use both parts of the conversation. This

example is from my suspense novel, Finding Christmas. Benjamin is a friend of Joanne and her deceased

husband. Joannes child died in the same accident with her husband and the body was never found. At the

third anniversary of their deaths, she has a premonition that her three-year old daughter is still alive.


The telephones ring pierced the silence, and Joannes heart rose to her throat. She darted across the room

and grasped the receiver, and when she said hello, her voice sounded breathless and strained to her.

Her pulse skipped, hearing her name. Like echoes across a canyon, the familiar voice reverberated through

the line. Benjamin?

Its me. What in the world is wrong?

She crumpled into a chair, clutched her chest to calm the thudding that felt as if it would break her ribs. Its

a long story. I cant talk about it now. Tears filled her eyes-tears of relief and anxiety.

Its okay, he said, his voice as reassuring as a morning cup of coffee.

Where are you? She tried to get her thoughts together.

Here in Detroit. Im back.

Gail says:

In this case the conversation works with both parties. Its clear who is speaking since each new paragraph is

the next speaker, and the POV character, Joanne shares her actions and introspection with the reader. The

other voicein this case Benejaminwould not.

If the call is incidental but important to the main character, I usually use a one-sided conversation, and let

the reader in on what's being said through the main characters' thoughts and actions. In this example,

Benjamin answers Joannes phone for her, and his dialogue helps explain who is on the phone. The

importance of this scene is Joanne has been getting strange telephone calls.

Want me to get it? Benjamin asked, glancing at the phone but seeming to be more interested in her burn.

Please. She studied her throbbing red skin as the cool water washed over it and listened to Benjamins

voice on the telephone.

Its a woman from your office, he said, holding the receiver toward her. Do you want to call her back?
No. Ill take it. She grasped the phone, guessing what the caller wanted. Ill remember, Nita. Thanks for

calling. As she listened to her coworker, Joanne glanced Benjamins way and felt an embarrassed grin grow

on her face. No, you didnt interrupt anything. An old friend is visiting. Ill see you tomorrow.

Gail says:

Though you don't hear Nita's words, you understand the purpose of her call and you catch the innuendo of

the conversation by Joanne's embarrassment.

This example shows a one sided call:

Joanne pressed the telephone to her ear and listened through the background sound to silence on the other

end of the wire.

Hello, she said again.

Nothing. She lowered her gaze to the caller ID. Blocked. She hated crank calls, especially now that shed

become so edgy.

Can I help you? Her irritation rasped in her voice. She listened a second more until a faint sound like a

moan wavered across the wire, sending a chill prickling down her spine. She closed her eyes, then dropped

the phone onto the cradle and sank into the kitchen chair.

Two-sided - one character identified

This telephone scene is two-sided although the person calling Joanne is unidentified, but how the person

speaks is significant to the story so I used both sides of the conversation.

As she wielded the knife, making the final slice, the telephone rang, and when she jumped, the knife slipped

against her index finger, slashing the skin. The sting startled her, and she jerked her hand away from the

cutting board. Blood oozed from the wound, and she held her hand over the sink while she grabbed paper


After wrapping her finger, she picked up the receiver and said hello. The familiar silence ran through the

wire. Bitterness, yet victory filled her as she eyed the blood seeping through the toweling. She needed this
third call for the police.

Hello, she said again. It was the same pattern. She talked. The caller didnt.

I-I shouldnt have called, a woman whispered.

Joannes legs jerked with tremors. Who are you? Her mind spun.

The woman didnt answer, and Joanne waited for the hangup. She heard an intake of breath and then a


Was your daughters body found after the accident?

Her daughters body. Joanne heard a moan, but this time it came from her. She grasped the wall for support.

No, she whispered. Please leave me alone. She slammed down the phone without waiting for a response,

then gasped, realizing shed made a profound mistake. She snatched the receiver from the cradle only to

hear a dial tone.

This scene introduces an important character to Joannes search for her daughter and builds emotion for the


I hope these examples gives you some ideas on handling telephone conversations in your fiction. I have

never heard of using ellipses to depict the other persons conversation, and I believe it would be distracting

to the reader. It would be to me. It also shows weak writing since it takes more skill to bring the

conversation to life without hearing the other voice. I would suggest you avoid such a technique. I assume

the author of the website on creative writing is not a novelist.

posted by gail gaymer martin at 9:22 am

labels: dialogue in fiction, telephone techniques

Telephoning in English is an important part of doing business in

English. Telephone conversations, especially business telephone
conversations, follow certain patterns:

Someone answers the phone and asks if he / she can help.

The caller makes a request - either to be connected to someone or for

The caller is connected, given information or told that he /she is not in the
office at the moment.

If the person who is requested is not in the office, the caller is asked
to leave a message.

The caller leaves a message or asks other questions.

The phone call finishes.

Of course, all business telephone conversations do not follow this rigid scheme.
However, this is the basic outline for most business telephone conversations,
especially those made to businesses to request information or ask for


The following example business telephone conversation can be used as a role

play in class to introduce a number of standard phrases to practice telephoning in

Ms Anderson (sales representative Jewels and Things): ring ring ... ring ring ...
ring ring ...
Secretary (Mr. Smith): Hello, Diamonds Galore, this is Peter speaking. How may
I be of help to you today?

Ms Anderson: Yes, this is Ms Janice Anderson calling. May I speak to Mr. Franks,

Mr. Smith: I'm afraid Mr. Franks is out of the office at the moment. Would you
like me to take a message?
Ms Anderson: Uhm... actually, this call is rather urgent. We spoke yesterday
about a delivery problem that Mr. Franks mentioned. Did he leave any
information with you?
Henry Smith: As a matter of fact, he did.

He said that a representative from your company might be calling. He also asked
me to ask you a few questions..

Ms Anderson: Great, I'd love to see this problem resolved as quickly as possible.
Henry Smith: Well, we still haven't received the shipment of earrings that was
supposed to arrive last Tuesday.

Ms Anderson: Yes, I'm terribly sorry about that. In the meantime, I've spoken
with our delivery department and they assured me that the earrings will be
delivered by tomorrow morning.
Mr. Smith Excellent, I'm sure Mr. Franks will be pleased to hear that.

Ms Anderson: Yes, the shipment was delayed from France. We weren't able to
send along your shipment until this morning.
Mr. Smith I see. Mr. Franks also wanted to schedule a meeting with you later this

Ms Anderson: Certainly, what is he doing on Thursday afternoon?

Mr. Smith I'm afraid he's meeting with some clients out of town. How about
Thursday morning?

Ms Anderson: Unfortunately, I'm seeing someone else on Thursday morning. Is

he doing anything on Friday morning?
Mr. Smith No, it looks like he's free then.

Ms Anderson: Great, should I come by at 9?

Mr. SmithWell, he usually holds a staff meeting at nine. It only lasts a half an
hour or so.

How about 10?

Ms Anderson: Yes, 10 would be great.
Mr. Smith OK, I'll schedule that. Ms Anderson at 10, Friday Morning... Is there
anything else I can help you with?

Ms Anderson: No, I think that's everything. Thank you for your help... Goodbye.
Mr. Smith Goodbye.


How may I be of help - This is a formal phrase used to show politeness. It means
'Can I help you?'
calling - telephoning
out of the office - not in the office
take a message - to write down a message from the caller
urgent - very important
delivery - the bringing of goods to a client
mentioned - said
resolved - taken care of
as quickly as possible - in the fastest manner, ASAP
shipment - delivery, the bringing of goods to a client
assured - certainty that something is true or will happen
pleased - happy
delayed -not be able to do something on time
looks like - seems
staff meeting - a meeting of employees
lasts - to take time
schedule - future appointments
How may I be of help - This is a formal phrase used to show politeness. It means
'Can I help you?'.

take a message - to write down a message from the caller

rather - very, quite
urgent - very important
delivery - the bringing of goods to a client
mentioned - said
resolved - taken care of
still - a form of emphasis to show that something has not been done up to the
moment in time
shipment - delivery, the bringing of goods to a client
assured - certainty that something is true or will happen
pleased - happy
delayed -not be able to do something on time
send along - deliver
How about - phrase for making suggestions
else - another added person or thing
looks like - seems
schedule - future appointments


Fill in the gaps with the words and phrases below to complete the summary of the

Ms Anderson telephones Diamonds Galore to _____ with Mr. Franks. Mr.

Franks is not in the office, but Henry Smith, the secretary, speaks to Ms
Anderson about a _____ problem with some earrings. The earrings have not yet
_____ at Diamonds Galore. Ms Anderson tells Peter that there was a problem
with the _____ from France, but that the earrings should arrive tomorrow

Next, they _____ a meeting between Ms Anderson and Mr. Franks. Mr. Franks
is not able to _____ with Ms Anderson on Thursday because he is _____. They
finally decide on Friday morning at 10 o'clock after a _____ that Mr Owen
usually holds on Friday mornings.

speak, delivery / shipment, arrived, shipment / delivery, schedule, meet, busy,
staff meeting


Use these cues to create practice role plays on your own to further your
telephoning skills to help with workplace communication.

Role Play Cue 1


You'd like to speak to Kevin at FunStuff Brothers, a toy making company. You're
returning his sales call because you're interested in the company's products.


You're the receptionist at FunStuff Brothers, try to transfer the call to Kevin, but
take a message when you find out Kevin can't take the call.

Role Play Cue 2


You're calling to schedule a meeting with the head of the personnel department.

You'd like to meet on Tuesday morning, but can come in on Thursday and Friday
as well.


You're able to schedule a meeting at the end of next week, but you will be out of
the office until Thursday morning.

Practice speaking on the telephone with these short telephone dialogues. Notice
that certain phrases such as "I am..." are replaced with "This is..." introducing
yourself in English.

Kenneth: Hello. This is Kenneth Beare. May I speak to Ms. Sunshine, please?

Receptionist: Hold the line a moment, I'll check if she is in her office.

Kenneth: Thank you.

Receptionist: (after a moment) Yes, Ms.

Sunshine is in. I'll put you through.

Ms. Sunshine: Hello, this is Ms. Sunshine. How can I help you?

Kenneth: Hello, my name is Kenneth Beare and I'm calling to enquire about the
position advertised in Sunday's Times.

Ms. Sunshine: Yes, the position is still open. Could I have your name and
number, please?

Receptionist: Certainly, My name is Kenneth Beare...


Fred: Hello. Could I speak to Jack Parkins, please?

Who's calling, please?

Fred: This is Fred Blinkingham. I'm a friend of Jack's.

Receptionist: Hold the line, please. I'll put your call through. (after a moment) -
I'm afraid he's out at the moment. Can I take a message?

Fred: Yes. Can you ask him to give me a call? My number is 345-8965

Receptionist: Could you repeat that, please?

Fred: Certainly. That's 345-8965

Receptionist: OK. I'll make sure Mr. Parkins gets your message.

Fred: Thank you. Goodbye.

Receptionist: Goodbye.


This is ...

May (Can, Could) I speak to...?

I'm calling ...

Hold the line a moment...

put someone through...

Who's calling...?

take a message

call, ring, phone

Note: On the telephone, use 'this is...' instead of 'I am'.


Speaking on the telephone can be a challenge to all students. There are many
reasons for this:

There is no body language.

Students are often nervous when speaking on the phone.

People might speak quickly and be difficult to understand.

Ask the speaker to repeat names and numbers to make sure you get the right
information. Repeating names and numbers will help slow speakers down.


1. Practice with Friends: Practice each dialogue with a friend or classmate

a few times. Next, write your own telephone dialogues. Go into another
room and use your smartphone to call your partner. Practice speaking on
the phone ON THE PHONE, it will make future conversations with native
speakers much easier!

2. Call Local Businesses: The best way to get better is by practicing calling
various stores or businesses. Write down a few notes on the information
you would like to find out. Once you have your notes, you can call stores
and feel more confident when you speak.

3. Call Yourself: To practice leaving messages, call yourself and leave a

message. Listen to the message to see if you can understand the words
clearly. Play the recording for a native speaking friend to see if they
understand the message you have left.


Making Suggestions

Seeing a Doctor

Getting Fit

Describing a Friend - Uses of 'Like'