Writing Dialog, Part II

My darling Anastasia

My darling Anastasia

“Eric, are you giving more advice about dialog writing?”

“Yes I am, Anastasia. Don’t judge me!”

“No, Eric, please. I’m not judging you, Eric! I just wonder… ”

“What do you wonder, Anastasia?”

“Well, Eric. I wonder what you love more, me or giving writing advice. My love for you is so deep, Eric, yet I feel like you are shutting me out.”

“Don’t, Anastasia. Don’t say it.”

“But Eric!”



You’re probably thinking, now that’s a fine example of dialog. I’m so glad I clicked in here today. The sad truth is, you’re wrong. That is not good dialog at all.

Seriously, I can’t believe how of often I see name swapping in books. I read a novel last year written by a professor of writing at a posh private college in New York, and I only got 10 pages in before I started banging my head against the metaphorical wall of irritation and frustration. Every stinkin’ line of dialog included the recipient character’s name.

“Seth, don’t you think it’s time you came home?”

“I’ll come home when you quit drinking, Brad.”

“Seth, don’t you dare bring up my drinking when it was you who killed Mary in that accident.”

“Don’t, Brad. How dare you!”

How could a professor of writing think it’s acceptable to name swap? How did he get that job when he does not recognize such a basic flaw?

Knight? Or...

Knight? Or…

Think about the conversations you have with family, friends, co-workers, medieval knights, male strippers, and other people you run into every day. Better yet, listen to your conversations as you conduct them. How often do you say your counterpart’s name? Not very.

Here are the times we say the name of the person with whom are interacting: When we pass them in the hall at work, sometimes when we greet them for the first time that day, and when they are our children and they piss us off. That’s about it.

Here’s a much more realistic version of the exchange at the top. Let’s assume I set up the narrative so that we know it is Anastasia talking to Eric:

“Are you doing another post about dialog?”

“Yeah. Is that a problem?”

“What the hell? I was just wondering.”

“You were wondering what?”

“Well, since you’re being such a bitch about it, I was wondering if you even give a shit about me anymore. You pay way more attention to your stupid blog than you do to me.”

“Oh, I’m sure that’s what’s happening.”

“It is! I’m a blog widow.”

“Knock it off. I’ll be done in five minutes. What’s with the drama-queen act?”

I wouldn’t leave eight consecutive lines of dialog untagged in an actual story, but I did here to emphasize the point of today’s post. Read the first version aloud, and I dare you not to imagine it’s from a soap opera. Then read the bottom version aloud, and you’ll start inflecting and adding emotion, because the pretense is stripped away and you can focus on the meat of the exchange.

If your manuscript doesn’t feel quite like a pro wrote it (or like a certain professor of writing in NY wrote it), strip out all the name swaps between characters. You’ll notice an instant, marked improvement in the realism of your dialog.


Please pardon me as I shamelessly plug my eBay auctions for the week.

Fans of ‘80s horror unite in bidding for the 11 horror-related collectibles I’ve made available, including the rare Fangoria postcard magazine, issues of Gore Shriek, a Japanese Godzilla book, out-of-print books about Tom Savini and Lucio Fulci, and a special Fangoria issue autographed by Alice Cooper. The auctions end between Sunday and Thursday. Hope to see you there!


30 responses to “Writing Dialog, Part II

  • Jodi

    I’ll admit I have never heard of name swapping as a problem with dialogue, maybe I’m just lucky. But now that you point it out it’s a pretty obvious problem and should be avoided, Perhaps I should add that on my “things to check during line editing” list.

    • ericjbaker

      It’s one of these things that may not be obvious (relative to the silly example I led with) at first, but you just know something feels phony about the drama. Because it is. We don’t call each other by name in real life very often.

  • nrhatch

    You are spot on with your writing advice, Eric . . . but, Eric, your ebay auction doesn’t interest me in the least.

    I assume you’re selling your collection to feed your cupcake habit. :mrgreen:

    • ericjbaker

      Well, I already robbed every cupcake store in the area, and they know what I look like now, so I need a new approach.

      Actually, I’ve been getting a lot more Taoist recently. Other than music to listen to, I don’t really need to clutter my life with stuff. So I’m selling. Normally I don’t post my auctions here, but eBay traffic is slow in July and I am all about inventory turnover. I must admit I’m shocked that you don’t want to read books about Italian zombie movie directors. I thought i knew you!


  • Kevin Brennan

    Right on. Nothing screams either “amateur” or “phoned it in” like name swapping. I have to admit, that Alice Cooper ‘graph is calling my name…

  • wantonwordflirt

    That example of name swapping dialogue gave me a horrible 50 Shades of Grey flashback. I HAD to read it to see what all the hype was about. There are certain phrases the author uses repeatedly to the point of annoyance. I kept asking myself “how did her editor allow this?” Apparently the first book had no editor, or so I as told. It needed one.

  • Arkenaten

    My heart did a couple of mini flutters when I saw the topic of this blog in my reader. I thought , what now?
    But I breathed a sigh of relief once I began to read.
    I’ll be honest, I have never encountered this type of name swapping in any of the material I have on my book shelves. Not even in Enid Blyton, although maybe I am wrong in her case? I should check.
    Certainly don’t employ it in my novels…not that I am aware of. And you always
    give me pause for thought with your damn tutorials. 🙂
    I shall have to do a quick, random perusal
    The issue I initially had concerns about regarding dialogue was the old ”he said” ,”she said.”
    I solved this by reading a variety of authors; analyzing style and flow.
    Most seemed to adopt the said Simon rather than Simon said.
    So if it was good enough for Pratchett and Sharpe etc.

    That said, I am surprised you say this name-swapping was vouchsafed by a professor?

    It would be interesting to know the books/authors the professor used as examples for this form of dialogue.

    Good post, as always.

    Thank you,

    • ericjbaker

      I guess it’s the same thing as a public speaking coach who is a boring speaker or a film professor who makes bad movies. Some people are better at teaching than doing. Hell, that could be me.

      My example up top was an exaggeration (though not by much in the case of the writing professor), but name swapping occurs more often than it should. You can even see it in TV show scripts. Sometimes I swear an actor shows a flash of discomfort when he has to name swap, because it’s unnatural.

  • Richard Leonard

    I hear you. A soap opera it certainly is. But I have a colleague who does this. Especially when his superior opinion differs to mine. It’s quite annoying.
    Surprised a professor thinks it’s good. Does he specialise in heart wrenching tear jerking, over dramatic romance by any chance?

    • ericjbaker

      That was the only book I read by him. It was a plotless literary drama about a dysfunctional family full of quirky characters. So quirky, in fact, that they always announce each others’ names when engaged in conversation.

  • Jill Weatherholt

    Yes, your first example is so wrong, Eric. I also see this while reading and I wonder what the editor was thinking. It distances me from the story and makes me feel I just wasted my money…I hate to waste money! Listening to everyday conversations between people is the best way to learn. Great post!

  • 1WriteWay

    I enjoyed this post very much, Eric. Name swapping is annoying but I don’t think it’s thought about as much as other necessary edits. To stop and think about how often we actually do or don’t do name swapping in real life is a good indicator. Good luck with your auction! I’m afraid Kevin will probably outbid me on the Alice Cooper autographed Fangoria, although that would be good for you 😉

  • Janna G. Noelle

    This idea of name-swapping (or, in general, the idea that writers often use names too much in dialogue) is something I only just learned about a couple months ago. Once discovered, I was curious to see if I suffered from this particular problem.

    The prognosis: I don’t think so. There is one character (the main character) who consistently refers to another by name, but this comes from a place of frustration on the speaker’s part (the listener never seems to understand what the speaker is trying to say, which makes the speaker irritable over to have to constantly explain everything twice). This, I believe, it an acceptable use, and is unique to that one character’s dialogue with the other. I modeled this after childhood conversations with my older sister in which she was always double-explaining things to me.

    • ericjbaker

      I confess that my first manuscript had some name swapping, at least in a couple of emotionally heated scenes. Very soapy. i think any of the “rules” can be broken if you break them well. No one will notice. It’s only bad when it becomes clunky or obvious.

  • D. Thomas Minton

    Eric, great advice on dialogue in your recent posts. The two things I do when revising my first drafts of dialogue: (1) cut out the name swaps, and (2) cut out the first sentence because for me it’s usually extraneous fluff and thus gives my dialogue more pop. Keep the great posts coming.

    • ericjbaker

      That’s an interesting point on the first line. I should go through and take a look at that in my work. Imagine being the perfect writer with no bad habits?

      Thanks for the comment!

  • lectorconstans

    Now that I think of it, almost nobody uses names is a dialog. Once n a while, a writer will go too far in the other direction, with 10 or 12 exchanges without a “he said”.

    A good rule of thumb is, don’t worry about it – just write “he said” and “she said”, or if it helps, “Witherspoon said”. (To me, it’s more natural than “said Witherspoon” Unless you’re writing a historical drama.)) Once is a while, if it’s really necessary, “he said, gruffly”. But don’t go all Tom Swift on your readers.

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