I have a confession to make: I don’t like speaking on the phone. I find phone calls disconcerting, especially since the advent of the mobile phone – how they can find you anywhere, anytime, in any mood. And, as a highly visual person, I find it hard to talk to someone without being able to see their faces, or indeed their bodies.
We know that most of our intentions are communicated through our body-language: the way we hold our shoulders, the way we tilt our head, how close we lean in, what we do with our arms, our eyes, our hands. It feels unnerving not to be party to any of this. So I prefer talking to people in person – or writing to them. Most of the minutes on my mobile go unused and my phone is filled with missed calls because my phone was on silent.
My ambivalence towards phone calls is exactly what makes using them in fiction so great. We want the lives of our characters to be interrupted, we want them to be caught off guard, we want them to have only a partial understanding of what the person they are speaking to is doing or thinking. That’s what creates tension and suspense. Mobile phones serve our fiction even better as our characters can have the most intimate and life-changing conversations just about anywhere: in a car, in a supermarket, on the loo.
I’m currently reading The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty: this, and all her novels, brim over with this kind of tension – tension rooted in how her character relate to each other: parents and children, husbands and wives, lovers, friends. I’ve used an extract from her novel to show you how brilliant and useful phone calls can be in fiction.
What makes this exercise effective?
Using phone calls in your fiction reveals character. It exposes the nature of the relationship between two people. It can give you a new angle on a relationship you thought you understood. It interrupts your character’s life and so the narrative – and disruption is fantastic for generating change, which advances the plot. And they’re fun to write too.
Read the extract from The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty. Study the techniques she uses to create tension and to reveal character.
In your notebook, plan a telephone conversation using the following prompts
- Who are the two (or more) people having the conversation?
- What is their relationship?
- Do they speak to each other often or seldom?
- When did they last talk?
- Is there anyone else present, on either end of the conversation, who can overhear the phone call or influence it in some way.
- Whose perspective are you going to focus on – the person whose thoughts, feelings and actions you are going to weave between the dialogue?
- Which person are you going to write from: 1st or 3rd? (or, if you’re feeling experimental, 2nd, ‘you’).
- Who calls whom?
- Where is each person when the phone call takes place? Think about how the setting could affect the conversation e.g. whether it’s in a car, a busy restaurant, the top of a mountain, on a train, on the loo!
- Mobile phones cut out and have varying levels of clarity. This can help to create tension, frustration and misunderstanding. Could you use this for effect at certain points in your phone call?
- How does the phone call serve to advance your plot? What changes as a result of this phonecall?
- What is the reason for the phone call?
- What emotions do you want to convey through the phone call? Anxiety, anger, jealousy, fear, longing, romance etc.
Now write the phone call.
- The fallout. Staying with your viewpoint character, think about what happens immediately after this phone call: how is he/ she feeling? What does he / she do? Who does he / she talk to – or maybe call next? Write this.
- The prequel: What happened immediately before this phone call? What triggered it? Is the phone call you wrote about above a ‘call back’? Write this.
- Is there another important phone call which needs to take place in your story or novel? Write this.
The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty p96-98
The extract below is a phone conversation between a father and daughter who haven’t spoken in a while. It’s told from the point of view of Tess, the daughter. Tess is sitting in a car with her mother (who is divorced from her father) and her son (Liam). A few days ago Tess found out that her husband was having an affair and her father is phoning to talk to her about it. Imagine how excruciating that conversation would be – especially with your son and your mother listening!
Read the extract and then work through the exercise to see how you can use phone calls in your fiction.
Tess had her keys in the ignition to drive them home from the school when her mobile rang. She lifted it from the console to check who was calling.
When she saw the name on the screen, she held up the phone for her mother to see.
Her mother squinted at the phone and sat back with a shrug. ‘Well I had to tell him. I promised him I’d always keep him up to date with what was going on in your life.’
‘You promised him that when I was ten!’ said Tess. She held the phone up, trying to decide whether to answer it or let it go to voicemail.
‘Is it Dad?’ asked Liam from the back seat.
‘It’s my Dad,’ said Tess. She’d have to talk to him sometime. It might as well be now. She took a breath and pressed the answer button. ‘Hi Dad.’
There was a pause. There was always a pause.
‘Hello love,’ said her father.
‘How are you?’ asked Tess in that hearty tone of voice she reserved for her father. When had they last spoken? It must have been Christmas Day.
‘I’m great,’ said her father dolefully.
‘I’m actually in the car with -‘ began Tess, at the same time as her father said, ‘Your mother told me -‘
They both stopped. It was always excruciating. No matter how hard she tried she could never seem to synchronise her conversations with her father. Even when they were face to face they never achieved a natural rhythm. Would their relationship have been less awkward if he and her mother had stayed together? She’d always wondered.
Her father cleared his throat. ‘Your mother mentioned you were having a spot of…trouble.’
‘Thanks Dad,’ said Tess at the same time as her father said. ‘I’m sorry to hear that.’
Tess could see her mother rolling her eyes and she turned away slightly towards the car window, as if to protect her poor hopeless father from her mother’s scorn.
‘If there’s anything I can do,’ said her father. ‘Just…you know, call.’
‘Absolutely,’ said Tess.
‘Well, I should go,’ said Tess at the same time as her father said. ‘I liked the fellow.’
‘Tell him I emailed him a link for that wine-appreciation course I was telling him about,’ said her mother.
‘Shhh,’ Tess waved her hand irritably at Lucy. ‘What’s that, Dad?’
‘Will,’ said her father. ‘I thought he was a good bloke. That’s no bloody help to you, though, is it love?’
‘He’ll never do it, of course,’ murmured her mother, examining her cuticles. ‘Don’t know why I bother. The man doesn’t want to be happy.’
‘Thanks for calling, Dad,’ said Tess, at the same time as her father said. ‘How’s the little man doing?’
‘Liam is great,’ said Tess. ‘He’s right here. Do you want -‘
‘I’ll let you go, love. You take care now.’
He was gone. He always finished the call in a sudden frantic rush, as if the phone call was bugged by the police and he had to get off before they tracked down his location. His location was a small, flat, treeless town on the opposite side of the country in Western Australia, where he had mysteriously chosen to live five years ago.
‘Had a whole heap of helpful advice, then, did he?’ said Lucy.
‘He did his best, Mum,’ said Tess.
‘Oh, I’m sure he did,’ said her mother with satisfaction.