The Name Game

I was reading a manuscript the other week in which the characters relied on each other’s names too much in dialogue. That is, believe it or not, a common problem, as is this other, slightly related one: characters who know each other well giving us background information in dialogue… producing language that real, breathing humans would never say!

Here’s an example:

“My darling husband Danny, can you please pass the mashed potatoes?” the wife asked.
“Why, of course, my dear Laurie. How was your day as board member of the Greensboro Museum Society?”
“Just lovely. After I shuttled the kids, Jake and Emily, off to preschool and first grade, I went right over there.”
“Just what I like to hear, Laurie, darling.”
“Now, Danny, just what are you going to do about your problems down in the engineering department of the power company? Your boss has been making you livid for weeks!”

Okay. So, obviously an exaggeration. But here’s are two quick tips:

  1. Never use dialogue to introduce large swaths of character details that don’t belong in a scene between two people.
  2. Don’t over-rely on names, especially in a scene with only two characters. Real people don’t talk like that. Try and remember the last time you said your best friend’s or your significant others’ name to them in casual conversation.

I’ll be writing up some thoughts on dialogue tagging very soon. For me, endless name-dropping is a sign that the writer doesn’t trust their reader to follow the dialogue. That fear may be founded — if the author is doing crazy things like putting two indented lines of dialogue from the same character one right after the other — but in 95% of cases, your reader is following you. They know who’s talking.

I’ve said it once, twice, and I’m sure I’ll say it a zillion more times: trust your reader.

The only times I use more names than usual is when there are multiple characters in a scene and I get tired of dialogue tags. You can’t rely on dialogue tags alone. My current WIP has a section where five characters go on an adventure. To tell you the truth, orchestrating this many people in one scene makes me want to crawl back into bed. It’s the only time I’ll let the occasional name slip into dialogue.

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  1. Shaun Hutchinson’s avatar

    Another way to help readers without being obvious about it is to establish speaking patterns for your characters. You hear this with your friends or strangers. There are people (like me) who say “dude” far too much. Or people who speak in choppy sentences. Or people (like this girl I knew in high school) who spoken breathlessly, turning paragraphs into run-on sentences.

    It doesn’t have to be over the top, because a character who says “dude” every time he speaks will quickly annoy your reader (especially if he’s a main character), but it’s a good way to help cue your readers in to who’s speaking.

  2. Sarah Quigley’s avatar

    When I was looking over the galley for TMI, I noticed that I was guilty of this crime in several scenes. I crossed out a bunch of names and hoped that my publisher could still make the changes. I’m putting a note by my computer screen that says “Trust your readers” as a reminder while I work on my new book.

  3. Mary’s avatar

    Well that is just fantastic. I know I’ve done it, everyone has done it. One time, though, when I was in playwriting class and we were reading someone’s scene, I noticed that the two characters in the scene kept saying each other’s names. Our teacher, Brian Thorstenson (a great San Francisco playwright), stopped us and said: “Does anybody really talk like that?”

    As for trusting your reader… I feel a franchised slew of products coming on! “Trust your readers” mugs! T-shirts! Car-door magnets! I’m going to be rich, rich I tell you! =P

  4. Mya’s avatar

    This is such fantastic advice. I’m actually reading a book right now that relies so heavily on dialogue instead of actual written explanations… it hurts my head! Thanks, Mary!

  5. Jess Tudor’s avatar

    Can I just say… I address my husband by his name ALL THE TIME? So, um, yes, some people DO talk like that in real life.

    But it still doesn’t work in fiction. :D

  6. Claire Dawn’s avatar

    I don’t recall seeing this so I’d never thought about it. But now that I do, the only times I ever say someone’s name to them are in times of extreme emotion.

    Exasperation: “Come on Kai, get real!”
    Romance: “I love you so much, Kai. I don’t know what I’d do without you.”
    Anger: “Kai Namimoto, you make every bone in my body sick. What the heck is wrong with you?”

    ampersand et cetera. :)

  7. Michelle B’s avatar

    Great post! And Shaun, I have a character that says “dude” a lot . . . he won’t say it quite so much now :)

  8. Robyn Campbell’s avatar

    Excellent post. Endless name dropping is one of my pet peeves.

    I can’t wait for the dialogue tag post, though. :)

  9. Kate’s avatar

    But I love love love my 13 yr old who’s in his Dude stage!! He’s the one really bright spot in a story about a boy running from a kidnapper back to grab him again. I cut ‘em ruthlessly when I have to…but they make everyone laugh.

  10. Paula Hrbacek’s avatar

    People who deal with people who have ADD will use the person’s name as a means of getting their attention. “Mary,” Susan turned around and pointed, “hand me the salt.” Once you have their attention, there’s no need to say it any more. If used as an attention-getting device, the name should come at the beginning of the first sentence.

  11. Liz E.’s avatar

    I use my husband’s name all the time when talking to him, but he is ADD so I have to snatch his attention if I want something done, but when talking to others I don’t use their names so much unless their name is just fun to say :)
    I don’t think I have done this in my manuscript, but now I’m paranoid and want to go back and read it again to make sure I’m not over using names! AHH!
    I also have a character who uses the term “dude” all the time, but he’s not a main character so I don’t think he’s too over powering.

  12. Chihuahua0’s avatar

    -necro comment-

    Ah. A variation of this (when two characters does this in a row in order to introduce their names to the characters) is one of my reading pet peeves.

    Usually, the only time I use this is when a character is addressing another one with force (X, listen to me.) It’s a technique I learnt on Internet forums.

  13. Dee Keymel’s avatar

    Your advise never becomes dated. I’m learning from you.
    Thank you

  14. Joyce’s avatar

    I agree with Jess. I use people’s names all the time when I talk to them, including my husband, kids and best friend.

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