The Wrong Number

The Wrong Number by Simon Whaley

Writers’ News magazine:

Most fiction writers like to add realistic elements to the stories, but if you want to give your character a realistic telephone number, who are you going call? Simon Whaley gets hung up on the telephone numbers which are dialled in dramas.

When Lisa Edwards’ telephone number appeared on Ricky Butcher’s mobile phone in an episode of the BBC’s popular Eastenders soap opera last year, she soon discovered what happens when a real-life telephone number is used in a piece of drama. Some 2,800 people either called her or sent a text message.

And in a scene where several different characters from the BBC’s popular Dr Who television series tried desperately to get in contact with the Time Lord, viewers spotted that 07700 900461 was the telephone number the characters were dialling in an attempt to reach David Tennant. Nearly 2,500 viewers tried ringing the number, but thankfully this time, all they heard was the unobtainable tone.

Whether you are writing a short story, novel, radio or stage play, film or television script, there may be times when it is necessary for one character to call another. Having a character answer the telephone, “Bristol 496 0303,” may help convey characteristics, or even the era in which your fiction is set. Telephone numbers can add further realism to your storyline. The question is, if you want to use a number, do you make one up, ring it, and if no one answers go with that one? Lisa Edwards would be the first to say no. Ofcom, the UK’s communications regulator, would also shake their heads in dismay and even consider taking action for infringing privacy regulations. What you need is a dedicated fictitious telephone number.

Have you ever noticed how telephone numbers in American dramas always seem to begin with 555? This 555 area code has some telephone numbers set aside purely for fictional use in film and television dramas. Similar fictitious codes exist in other countries too. In the UK, Ofcom has even created geographical fictitious telephone numbers, meaning that authors can create a Bristol area telephone number for their Bristol-based character, and a Nottingham number for their Midlands-based archrival.

Telephone numbers tend to comprise two sections, the first being the geographical area code (0121 for Birmingham), the second being the unique code allocated to an individual or business. Being able to use the same UK geographical area codes as those used in everyday real life enables us to add more authenticity and realism to our fiction. It’s the second part of the telephone number, where the fictitious element of codes apply. As Liz de Winton from Ofcom explains, “They are allocated specifically for these purposes and won’t be allocated to telecoms companies.”

Telephone numbers are allocated in blocks of consecutive digits to the various telecommunications companies who ask for them. So, by allocating a block of numbers purely for fictional use, writers can use any number from within this fictional range, safe in the knowledge that in the future, the number they choose for their main character won’t suddenly be allocated to a butchers in Swindon.

You can choose any number from within the fictional range of numbers. For example, if you have a character based in Sheffield, then you can give them the telephone number 0114 (the real Sheffield geographical area code) 496 0123 (from the fictional range). The fictional range of numbers offers 1,000 variations for each area code. Check the numbers carefully, because the fictional range of numbers allocated differs for areas such as London, Tyneside, Cardiff and Northern Ireland.

If your character does not live in one of the UK geographical areas that has a dedicated numerical fictional range, Ofcom suggest that you use the ‘No Area’ geographical code of 01632, and use a number from within the fictional number range of 960000 to 960999.

You can’t register a fictional telephone number; they are merely a selection of numbers available for use in any form of fiction. It’s possible that you could choose a fictional number for a character, and another writer could select the same fictional number for one of their characters. Fictional numbers also exist for other common telephone dialling codes, such as mobile phones, freephone numbers and even premium rate numbers.

American Fictional Telephone Numbers

Wherever in the world your characters are based, you may be able to give them a fictional telephone number. Although American fictional numbers famously begin with the area code 555, the fictional range that follows this is quite small. Only 555-0100 to 555-0199 are specifically allocated for fictional use. Other 555 numbers are used in real life, such as 555-1212, which is used as one of the numbers for directory enquiries in North America. Be aware that this range (555-0100 to 555-0199) is only valid for North America. Other countries, such as Iceland and Australia, also have 555 area codes!

Australian Fictional Telephone Numbers

The Australian Communications and Media Authority have set aside numbers for fictional use too. Aliska Angyal-Kvalic, from the ACMA, says, “It is anticipated that these numbers will not be allocated to individuals in the future, in order to minimise the impact on the general public as a result of the general public dialling numbers mentioned by fictitious characters appearing in novels, in films and on television programmes.”

For information about fictional telephone numbers available in other countries, seek out the country’s telecommunications regulator, usually a government agency, via the Internet. From there, either the website itself, or the public relations team will be able to help.

Being able to give your characters a telephone number can add a touch more realism and authenticity to your fiction, but you should always ensure that the number you use has been set aside for fictional use. In the American film, Bruce Almighty, God tries to reach Jim Carey’s character using a pager, and the number shown was valid in many different areas of America. Thousands of people rang it, asking to speak to God.

It may be good for your characters to talk to one another by phone, but picking the wrong number could have serious consequences – for your characters, for you, and for the person at the other end of the telephone!

(c) Simon Whaley