I wanted to go back to one of the basics today because this topic seems to be one that every new writer struggles with. (And those of us who are veterans could always use a reminder.)
Overusing names, titles, and pet names in dialogue is one of the fastest ways to make our dialogue sound clunky.
Titles are things like doctor or mom. Pet names include sweetheart, dear, love, you get the idea. For the rest of this, I’m just going to say “names” but it includes all of these.
Let me give you a little example of what this sounds like…
“Hey, Maggie, you have to see this.”
“What is it, sweetheart?”
“I’m not going to tell you, Mags. You have to come look.”
Yes, I’ve exaggerated slightly for this example. Most writers wouldn’t use names in every line of dialogue, but I’ve seen some come close.
I have a few guesses for why writers fill their dialogue with names. Some are probably trying to avoid overusing dialogue tags. Some probably think it sounds more realistic. Some are probably trying to minimize confusion about who’s talking to whom in scenes with multiple characters.
Whatever the reason, it immediately makes our dialogue sound artificial and awkward. It doesn’t sound like the way a real person would talk.
You can test this out. Keep track of how many times in a day you call someone by name (and, if it ever happens, note the circumstances around it). Pick another day and track how many times someone else calls you by name (and when that happened).
You’ll find that if it happens at all, it happens extremely rarely and in specific types of circumstances.
It’s the beginning or end of a conversation, and we’re saying hello or goodbye.
We’re trying to get someone’s attention.
We’re angry or upset and using their name for emphasis, almost as a weapon.
We’re trying to establish premature intimacy – this last one is one you’ll often hear from conmen or salesmen.
If we’re going to use names in our dialogue, these are the only times we should use them, and those uses should be strategic. For most writers, a good guideline is to avoid using names in dialogue at all.
So my editing tip is to go through your current manuscript and hack out the names you’ve used in dialogue, rewriting what’s around those sentences as necessary to make sure the speaker stays clear. You’ll find your dialogue sounds better almost instantly.
How do you feel about direct address in dialogue? Is this something you’ve struggled with?
I’m teaching at a writer’s conference this week, so instead of one of my in-depth posts, I thought I’d create a quick checklist for you.
Here are 10 writing mistakes that kill your first chapter (in no particular order). Get them before they get you!
#1 – A Boring/Generic First Line
Don’t show me the character doing anything completely normal and forgettable. Waking up, getting out of their car, folding their laundry…
Your first line needs to raise questions in the reader’s mind and make them curious or hint at trouble/conflict. Preferably both.
#2 –Point-of-View Shifts
Head-hopping is always a problem, regardless of where it crops up in your manuscript, but that’s not what I’m talking about here. I mean a point-of-view shift carried out with a proper transition.
Confused? In your first chapter, one of the things you need to do is convince the reader to invest in your main character. They need to spend time with them to do that, and if you switch POV characters within the first chapter, the reader doesn’t have enough time to make that connection.
#3 – No Clear POV Character
This point is the doppelganger of (2). It’s extremely difficult to be interested in a story when you don’t know who matters, what they care about, and why they’re doing what they’re doing. Connect the reader to a character immediately and allow the reader to experience the story through that person.
How am I supposed to remember all these people, especially if they’re introduced without much to set them apart? Drip feed your characters, and make each important character memorable in some way.
#5 – Clumsy Formatting
This could be internal dialogue that fills the page with so many italics that my eyes start to bleed, dialogue where I’m not sure who’s speaking, or any number of other distracting, confusing formatting glitches. These pull the reader right out of the story and shift their focus onto something they shouldn’t even notice.
#6 –Allowing a Character to Speak or Think Uninterrupted for Paragraphs (or Pages!) at a Time
I could actually expand this to say “allowing your character to do anything uninterrupted for too long,” but giving a speech or musing to themselves are particularly problematic. Since this is a short list, I’ll give you just three reasons why this is an issue. The first is that the reader usually ends up feeling preached to. The second is that you lose all sense of setting. The third is that it stops the action dead.
#7 – Too Much Backstory
Backstory can be hinted at, but it’s normally something you should withhold until later when the reader really wants to know it and it’s pertinent to what’s happening in the present. Why? Backstory, by definition, is over. The reader wants to see your character getting themselves into trouble in the present.
Which leads me to…
#8 – No Trouble or Conflict
I suspect that we writers fall into Happy Person Syndrome because we want to make the reader like our character or because we’re trying to follow the advice to “establish their normal world before you disrupt it.”
A calm, happy opening isn’t the way to establish your character’s normal world or make the reader like your character. Show them trying to solve a problem in their normal world. It’s active, it creates reader sympathy, and it shows the normal world.
#9 –Telling Instead of Showing
If you’ve read my bookShowing and Telling in Fiction, then you know I’m an advocate for telling having a good and useful place in fiction. Your first chapter usually isn’t that place.
Showing is more entertaining and more interactive, and engages reader emotions—all good things if you want to hook a reader and keep them turning those pages.
#10 –Stilted Dialogue
Is your dialogue too formal? Do you have everyone using direct address? (E.g., “Did I see you at the movies today, Mary?”) Do you have too much filler dialogue? (E.g., hellos, goodbyes, how are yous.)
Dialogue doesn’t automatically make your book feel active. Good dialogue does.
Do you have any other common first chapter problems you’d like to add to the list? Which of these causes you the most headaches in your own writing?
Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Deep Point of Viewis now available in print and ebook forms.
What do we do about a character who speaks in a dialect? In historical fiction, how do we manage to keep our dialogue true to the time period without allowing it to sound stilted? Should we use contractions in science fiction, fantasy, and historical fiction?
Even if you’re normally confident when it comes to writing dialogue, these questions can give us hives as we struggle to find the answer. I hope to help chase the hives away.
What do we do about a character who speaks in a particular dialect?
If you’ve ever tried to read Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriett Beecher Stowe, you’ll know how frustrating it can be to slog through dialect written out phonetically. You don’t want your reader to have to work that hard. So how do we find the balance between authenticity and readability?
Just name it.
She had a heavy New York accent.
He sounded like he was from the Deep South.
Is this telling rather than showing? Yes, but it’s one of the situations where it’s actually okay to tell. In fact, if you don’t know how to replicate a dialect well enough to do it correctly, this is the wise option.
This technique works most successfully if you’re choosing to name an accent your reader will immediately be able to call to mind.
Filter it through the ears of another character who isn’t familiar with the dialect. I personally love when an author does this well, but it only works if your character isn’t familiar with the dialect.
Jim glared at her. “You spoiled him. And after all, that ain’t no real kindness.” It came out like You spiled ‘im. And arter all, t’aint no real kindness.
You don’t have to do this more than once for the reader to understand what your character sounds like when they’re speaking.
Point out a distinctive word here and there. This option works in the same situations as the one above.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t realize.” When she said sorry, it sounded like soar-y instead of sari. I couldn’t get past the mental image of her covered in seeping wounds.
Forget copying it exactly, and instead think in terms of rhythm, word choice, syntax, grammatical mistakes, and missing words. Abileen’s chapters in The Help by Kathryn Stockett could be a master’s class in this. Listen to part of The Help’s first paragraph.
Taking care a white babies, that’s what I do, along with all the cooking and the cleaning. I done raised seventeen kids in my lifetime. I know how to get them babies to sleep, stop crying, and go in the toilet bowl before they mamas even get out a bed in the morning.
She uses “a” instead of “of.” “I done” not “I have.” “Them” and “they” instead of “those” and “their.”
Small but important grammatical mistakes.
Stockett chooses the word “mamas” over “mothers.” She chooses “toilet bowl” rather than “potty” or “bathroom” or “crapper.”
Syntax is basically about the patterns that form sentences and phrases. Stockett could have written, “I take care of white babies.” But she didn’t. She wrote, “Taking care a white babies, that’s what I do.” She reversed the normal and expected order.
And when you write dialect this way, you’ll not only make the read easy and immersive for your audience. You’ll also avoid stereotypes and condescension.
You can read Jody’s full answer by clicking the link above, but in a nutshell, she said, “I don’t try to imitate the time period speech exactly. I usually pick out distinct words and assign them to particular characters to use throughout the book.”
When in doubt about whether a word is too modern, look it up. Jody suggestedPhrases.orgas her go-to. Dictionary.com will also often tell you when a word originated. You don’t have to stick solely to words from the era you’re writing about, but the closer you can come, the better.
A word might also sound too modern even if it isn’t. Occasionally, you’re going to run into a word that’s ancient but sounds modern. Technically you’re correct in using it, but I’d recommend changing it. Not all readers are historical scholars. They go by what sounds right.
Should we use contractions in science fiction, fantasy, and historical fiction?
In every critique group, fiction intensive, or mentorship class I’ve ever attended with other fantasy, science fiction, and historical fiction writers, this question has come up. And the class divided down the middle on the answer.
Those who felt contractions were acceptable argued that taking them out made the writing sound stilted and awkward. Those who felt contractions were unacceptable argued using them made the writing sound unauthentic and modern.
In a mentorship class I took from Randy Ingermanson, he pointed out that most languages, even ancient ones, had a way of shortening words or slang that made certain words and phrases easier and quicker to say.
Patricia T. O’Connor and Stewart Kellerman point out in their book Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language that Old English used contractions. For example, ne is (“is not”) contracted to nis (“isn’t”) and ne wolde (“would not”) contracted to nolde (“wouldn’t). Contractions went in and out of fashion over the years, more so in writing than in speech. Even among the upper classes, contractions would have been used and tolerated in speech when they were considered unacceptable in writing.
So where does that leave us? We need to always strive for dialogue that sounds smooth and natural. If an excessive removal of contractions leaves our work feeling stilted and awkward, we should look for other ways to give an authentic feel.
We can instead rearrange the syntax of our sentences. We can remove contractions at key moments for emphasis (and downplay them throughout). We can replace modern-feeling phrases with ones slightly less common.
Do you have any other tips for handling these problems? What authors do you think handle them well?