Lady Bitter (who in fact is the exact opposite of "bitter") is a regular viewer of some excellent TV shows and one utterly, irredeemably awful series on ABC Family known as The Secret Life of the American Teenager. I've only caught a few episodes here and there, but the best I can tell, it's about a bunch of teenagers who repeatedly talk about sex in clunky, unrealistic dialogue, yet rarely have it. If you're thinking that sounds like Dawson's Creek, let me disabuse you of that right now. This makes Dawson's Creek look like The Sopranos.
After just a few minutes of watching this show, I realized there was something familiar about it. The crappy blocking, the uninteresting direction, the universally flat performances, the stilted conversations... and especially, the propensity for repeated expositional dialogue in each scene. And then came the final piece of the puzzle - multiple dialogue scenes staged as phone conversations.
Scene after scene featured one character talking on the phone to another. Each character remained stationary in their respective sets as they talked back-and-forth - usually about some plot-point that at already been reestablished at least once in the previous five minutes. It looked like the director had positioned the actor, told them to sit still, then just let the camera roll while the actor read their lines from an off-screen cue card. This also clearly was a director who didn't believe in rehearsals or second takes, judging from the The most work in this entire scene came from the editors, who had the hard task of cutting back and forth between both sides of the conversation. As I watched, I knew I'd seen this sort of hackery before... and I trembled.
Yes, friends. This had the unmistakable stench of 7th Heaven all over it. 7th Heaven, a show harder to kill than Jason Voorhees, though not nearly as redeemable. Occasionally sympathetic friends and readers inquire about the terrible quality of the scripts I read, and wonder if I ever see anything better than what's produced by Hollywood. I often answer, "So long as shows like Brenda Hampton's last two series are produced, there will be writing out there at least as bad as the slush pile.
I could devote a week of posts to using this show as a "how not to write compelling scenes" but frankly, I don't have the motivation to sit through that much drivel to unearth a few nuggets. And it's not just that the shows are badly written, it's that they have truly horrible ideas. The episode I saw revolved around how one teenage girl spurs on all the other girls in their school to start a masturbation club, called "Just Say Me." As I understand it, this club got started because a few girls were tired of having their boyfriends cheat on them. They considered cutting them off from sex, but decided that wouldn't work because, "Boys can't help that they want sex, and the problem is that there's always another girl willing to have it with them."
Yes, you heard that right... The problem with having a boyfriend who cheats on you is not that he's unfaithful - it's that some other Jezebel is out there ready to give it up if you won't! And this shit was written by a woman!
If I had a teenage daughter, I'd sooner let her watch something like, "A Working Girl's Guide to Giving Oral Sex" than The Secret Life of the American Teenager.
But I'm drifting. The point of this post was to discuss the right and the wrong way to handle a phone conversation between two characters. First off, I avoid writing scenes as phone conversations whenever possible. It's always hurts the performances when the actors aren't really playing against each other. Having said that, there are times when it may be unavoidable, so heed these warnings.
1) Try to give the two characters something interesting to do as they're on the phone.
2) If the film is a suspense/thriller, see if you can milk some tension from the location. Perhaps your hero is talking on the phone to a stalker and suddenly has reason to think that person is very close.
3) Avoid having dramatic conversations take place on the phone unless Rules 1 and 2 apply OR there is some deep emotion in the dialogue for the actor/character to call upon.
4) When dealing with exposition, as always, make sure we don't have to sit through one character telling us what we already know. Consider if it is important that we see the phone conversation, or if we have enough context for what's going on so we just need to see Bill dial and say, "Charlie, it's me. I need a favor..." Cut to - that favor being put into motion.
Good uses of phone calls:
The Scream movies: Often there's suspense drawn from the fact that the phone call means that the killer is in the immediate vicinity and could be ready to pounce on the character in question at any time. Tension comes from several facts here: since we only hear the voice, we don't know who the killer is - so he could be anyone, and we don't know where the killer is - so he could be anywhere.
In the Line of Fire - the same rules apply as for Scream. Director Wolfgang Peterson also does a great job in shooting these conversations so that they're not visually static.
Phone Booth and Cellular also make strong dramatic use of phone conversations, which are effective for many of the same reasons as the above examples. So, this proves that phone conversations need not always result in a dead duck of a scene - but it takes care to avoid falling into some easy traps.
If this makes sense to you, you'll already have a better understanding of how to craft an interesting scene than the team working on this show. Then you too can have a series that not only survives cancellation, but the cancellation of its entire network and the loss of half the principle cast - and get to create a new show after that!
Hmmm... perhaps I'm the crazy one.