The Little Dialogue Ditty That Always Makes You Look Bad

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.

 

 

 

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About Larry Brooks

Larry Brooks writes about story craft, with three bestselling titles from Writers Digest Books. His book "Story Engineering" was recently named by Signaturereads.com to their list of the "#27 Best Books on Writing," in the #3 position. He also has released six thrillers from Penguin-Putnam and Turner Publishing. He blogs at www.storyfix.com and teaches at conferences and workshops nationally and internationally.

24 thoughts on “The Little Dialogue Ditty That Always Makes You Look Bad

  1. This is such a great point, and one that, for some reason, is difficult for some new writers to break. A book I recently edited had excellent dialogue, except for the use of names. Over and over. Talk about pulling you out of a character’s POV in a hurry. This’ll do it.

    Thanks for the post, Larry. I’ll be saving this one to share.

    • Agree. When we see that it sort of imparts a dark context to the rest of the work, like someone walking into a party wearing a sock instead of pants. Hard to look them in the eye as you chat over cocktails.

      Thanks for contributing this, Tom, much appreciated.

  2. Excellent advice as usual, Larry. One of my favorite things to do while out shopping is to eavesdrop on conversations. It used to drive my husband nuts, following strangers, pretending to read labels on products I have no interest in, in order to hear the rest of their private discussions. But now, he’ll give me head jab if he overhears something interesting. We’re like two super sleuths in the store. Too funny.

    • Dialogue, especially, is an “ear” thing. Hard to teach it, but you have to hear it in your head before you render it to the page. I’ve read your stuff… your “ear” is always amazing. Thanks for your comment! Keep up the sleuthing!

  3. This post is heartening. I’ve got lots of areas where I need to improve my craft, including some dialogue problems. But I can honestly say not even in the beginning did I overuse proper names in dialogue so there is hope for me yet! WOOHOO!!!!!!

  4. There’s a dog-eared copy of Neil Simon’s plays on my bedside table. Not only are the plays entertaining, their dialogue is energized, purposeful, and realistic.

    • Playwrights are nothing if not masters of dialogue. Screenwriters, too, because when this little dialogue ditty happens in a movie it’s even more heinous than on a page. Aaron Sorkin, maybe the best dialogue writer (or best writer, period) of our time, does these amazing monologues, and you never hear this. What you do hear is pure genius. Especially since monologues are one of those “don’t try this at home” things that when they work, are amazing, but are really hard to do at that level. Thanks for your input this morning, Mike.

  5. Reading your dialogue, I kept hearing Hal the computer in “2001” ….

    “Look Dave, I can see you’re really upset about this. I honestly think you ought to sit down calmly, take a stress pill, and think things over, Dave.”

    But in that case, I think the over-repetition of “Dave” worked for some strange reason, as if the computer was trying to infantilize the human? Ditto how Dave kept repeating Hal’s name over and over. Maybe to try to humanize him?

    • I totally agree, that worked. It works when the distance, physical and contextual, between the two people talking is immense. “Listen to me, Max,” says the angry father to the child… that works. It’s the use in casual banter that immediate resonates as odd and contrived.

      Thanks for chiming in this morning!

  6. I think my husband and I go weeks without using our names (unless it’s a “where the hell are you?” type usage). The only time it works is when you have a large cast of characters in the scene–such as around the dinner table, and it would be natural for one to use another character’s name.

    I recall in my earliest learning to write endeavors, I went out of my way to NEVER have more than 2 people on the page — sent them to the kitchen, to the bathroom, anywhere to avoid dealing with how to keep them straight.

    I would have to check, but I think Robert B. Parker used character names in dialogue, and (unlike his use of ‘said’) it did grate. The only place I recall hearing it in real life was on the old This Old House shows, where half the contractors kept using Bob’s name when they explained things to him.

    • Oh goodness, Terry! I remember those shows. Drove me crazy. Another one is Wheel of Fortune where the contestant keeps saying Pat’s name. “I have two beautiful children, Pat and they love to watch you here, Pat…”

      I think those shows kept me from using names in my dialogue.

      • This is one of those things that when you notice it as a writing element, it’s almost impossible not to notice it “out there” in the real world. And almost without fail it sounds clunky when that happens. Which reinforces the caution about using it in our stories. Thanks for your thoughts this morning, Terry and Patricia.

  7. Have you seen the movie called GERRY? It stars Casey Affleck and Matt Damon. They call each other Gerry throughout the film and they use the word ‘gerry’ to mean other things. I don’t think I’ll forget that movie.

  8. Thank you for this post, Larry. I try to take in all of the newbie errors to avoid. I imagine this would be easy to slip into for the inexperienced author. I will try to be more aware in my dialogue.

  9. This drives me nuts! I think we do it when we’re thinking about each line individually, rather than writing the whole conversation. If every line is a one-liner, they sound great. But as a conversation, it falls apart.

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  11. Ouch.

    Wanna know how many times I’ve used my wife’s name in a dozen years of marriage? Three. Maybe.

    Wanna know how many times I have characters use each other’s names in my dialogue?

    Well, I’m not going to tell you.

    Excellent stuff, and what I needed to hear today.

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