More on Dialogue

Thinking about my post from yesterday, I remembered another thing about some dialogue that irks the crap out of me. I can’t stand it when writers overuse names in dialogue. For example, consider the following scenario:

Two men are sitting at a table. They are the only people in the room.

“Bob, I’ve been really depressed lately,” said Bill. “I’m thinking of killing myself.”

“Well, Bill, why don’t you do it?”

“I don’t know, Bob. Guess I’m scared.”

“I know why you mean, Bill. Death’s a damn scary thing.”

You get the idea. If two people are having a conversation and no other people are involved, they simply don’t use each others name as much as some authors want to convince us they do. I believe the cause of this atrocity is the same that leads to most timid writing–fear of not being understood. The author does not trust the reader to follow the conversation between the characters close enough to keep track of who is speaking, and so injects the names in at regular intervals to show us who is speaking.

I try not to do this. If I am doing my job by creating an interesting, believable story, I think the reader will be able to follow who is speaking, not only by the speech patterns and word choice of the speaker, but also by how the dialogue sounds in the reader’s mind. A successful dialogue writer makes you hear what is being said, rather than just making you read it. It’s that point, when the words jump of the page and become sound, that you know you have done good work.

On of my favorite authors that sometimes tends to stray too much into name calling is Jim Butcher. Let me first say that I am a huge fan of Butcher’s work, but I have noticed in some of his work that he throws a lot of names into the dialogue where they don’t really need to be. If Harry Dresden is talking alone to Karrin Murphy, Harry does not need to keep calling her “Murph” regardless of how cute it is. They both know who they are, why must the keep reminding each other of it? All the names, particularly at the beginning of his novels, give me the impression that he is a slow starter, that when he is not diving into the story as much as testing the water and wading in. They speak of hesitation, more to remind the author of who is speaking than the reader.

Again, I love Jim Butcher’s work and only hope that I can find a tenth of his success with my own writing. I can forgive him his love of names because he writes an imaginative, pulse-pounding, damn good story. Other writers suffering from the same malady, however, may find their overuse of names the final nail in their rejection letter coffin.

So, to summarize: If you hear the dialogue in your head as you write it and it doesn’t sound natural, rewrite it until it does.

That said, I am foregoing work on Untitled in anticipation of having Monday and Tuesday off. I wasted an hour walking around Wal-Mart, so I’ll have to make it up then.

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About Lee Smiley

I write things. Maybe you'll read them.
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