“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.”
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?
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!