By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)
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?
Interested in learning more about writing great dialogue? You might be interested in Dialogue: A Busy Writer’s Guide.
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