Being a new writer is a good thing. We all wore that name tag when we began our writing journey.
The goal, however, is to hide that fact as we write stories we intend to submit and publish. Anything that exposes inexperience is a bad thing, sometimes leading to rejection, or if not that, to harsh judgment from readers and reviewers. If your story is on the bubble, this can be the thing that pushes it over the edge… in the wrong direction.
There are lots of ways to screw up a novel, not all of them unique to rookies and well-intentioned sophomore authors. But perhaps the most fertile ground to find evidence of one’s newbie status is within how we write and present dialogue.
Let’s be clear, dialogue is easy to write. But it’s extremely hard to write it really well.
When that happens, careers can explode. Dialogue is a place to shine, to stylize narrative in a way that would put non-dialogue sentences over the top into a universe shaded with hues of purple and riddled with bleeding adjectives and screaming adverbs.
Okay, that sentence came close to just that. Not an accident. I wanted you to notice before you winced.
On the other hand, bad dialogue, the kind that sounds like it came from a bad elementary school play, the kind punctuated by someone who never met a comma, can tank your story altogether.
Within the vast minefield of dialogue there are a handful of common mistakes that scream “rookie writer… run!” Over the past few years there have been more than a few terrific Kill Zone posts on the subject, my favorite being coverage of the tricky task of attribution. I won’t rehash all the ways this can make you look bad – use the Search function for some good stuff on this topic – but there is another pesky tendency that is most commonly evidenced by newer writers especially.
Which is why this is a case of principle trumping evidence to the contrary, in the form of this mistake occasionally appearing within traditionally-published novels, which employ professionals editors who are paid to – but not always successful at catching – eradicated before warming up the printing presses.
This, too, involves the use of character names.
Not as attribution, but rather, within dialogue itself in the form on one character addressing and acknowledging the other. It is best defined with an example. See if this is like any conversation you’ve ever heard in real life, and then ask yourself if you’ve ever written something just like it.
“Hey Dave, good to see you, man!”
“Steve, you old dog, you look terrific.”
“You know Dave, I’m feeling okay. Especially after… well, you know how it goes, right Dave?”
“I sure do, Steve. Been there, survived that.”
“Just shoot me if you ever hear about me having to do that again, okay Dave?”
“Will do, Steve. Count on it.”
“Thanks Dave. You’re a prince.”
“No problems, Steve. You’d do the same for me.”
Okay, I know, that was painful to read. And not just because of this demonstration of how all those names within the exchange create a totally false, less-than-authentic cadence while lending a corny, fifties-television vibe to it all.
But this happens all the time in manuscripts written by newer writers. And occasionally in novels written by authors and edited by editors who should know better.
In every workshop there is one guy who throws up a hand right about here in this discussion, so allow me to address that one next.
Certainly, there are instances in real life when the use of the name of the recipient of your words is called for. Like passing someone on the street who doesn’t see you, so you call out their name to get their attention. Or if you’re a supervisor chewing out a rascal employee (even then, only once is enough).
That said, listen closely to the real world in which you live. Chances are you can go months without hearing this. Which should reinforce the fact that you should go decades without having one your characters talk this way to another one of your characters.